THR Blog   /   June 9, 2016

Lessons from the Ring—Then and Now

Guest Blogger

Photograph by Mike Powell, Allsport Concepts; Getty Images.

Years ago, I had the honor of interviewing David Mamet, who, in addition to being a fine playwright, is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts. After our conversation, I asked him to give me one piece of advice I might pass along to my students. He said, “Tell them to pick some physical art—ballet, boxing, judo, yoga, whatever—and to stick with it. It will make them feel grounded and better able to deal with adversity and rejection in this world.” By moving your body in a certain way, he was saying, you will shape the way you feel and who you are.

Philosophy professors (including me) assume that we learn to negotiate these things only by reflecting on them. It is as though we have become oblivious to the lessons we can learn on the path leading from the body to the brain. Once, I confided about an emotional problem to a yoga teacher. She replied, “The answer to the problem is just to breathe.” At the time, I was deeply and rather unreflectively committed to the belief that it is only by thinking that we can solve problems. The yoga teacher’s words awakened me to something I should have known already.

After all, I had been training boxers for decades, learning and imparting some of the lessons Carlo Rotella writes about so eloquently in Cut Time: An Education at the Fights:

The deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such lessons…about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy…boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.

In the sweat-and-blood parlor of the boxing ring, young people deal with feelings they seldom get controlled practice with, such as anxiety and anger. And make no mistake—the kind of people we become is largely determined by the way we negotiate those dreadnought emotions.

Many of us come into this world with a surplus of anger. I used to work in a therapeutic capacity with emotionally troubled children. One young fellow was seething with a rage he seldom directly expressed. I got the idea of putting on the gloves with him and letting him knock me around. In our sessions, he discovered that his bottled-up anger was not necessarily lethal. He could vent his destructive urges, and no one was going to die or get seriously hurt.

Coming to terms with our most basic instincts is another thing we learn through boxing. One of the hardest lessons, for instance, is learning how to counter an incoming right hand. When a fist is flying at your face, there is a powerful, natural impulse to pull away. However, when you retreat, your chin often ends up meeting your opponent’s punch at the point where it’s most powerful, and you are no longer in any position to deliver a counterpunch.

To help them overcome this reflex, I have my boxers stand with their lead foot about eighteen inches away from their sparring partner. The boxer on offense fires a one-two (a straight right jab), and the one on defense has to block or elude the fusillade, but is forbidden to go back. This drill forces boxers to concentrate on standing their ground. When I catch a boxer obeying instinct and pulling away, I bellow, “You’re in the ring with fear now—beat it down!”

Whether or not learning to stand your place in the path of pain can help one hold one’s ground in fighting injustice, I can’t be sure. But it is hard to lead a righteous life when we quiver before the possibility of taking a hit. Nelson Mandela understood this, and rigorously trained as a boxer with the conscious purpose of strengthening his mind and will.

Forgive me for what might sound like stereotyping, but at least at this time, some of the lessons learned through boxing are quite different for women. When they begin training, many women won’t extend their fist to land a punch. They pull back before the fist reaches its target. That is how deeply the inhibitions against violence and hurting are embedded.

On the other hand, there was a woman I once worked with who, when slipping on the gloves for the first time, could not help exclaiming, “This feels cool!” “What?” I asked. “Making a gloved fist!” she said.

The mere feeling of being ready to punch was exhilarating to her.

But most of boxing’s lessons apply equally to women and men. Søren Kierkegaard once described anxiety as a “sympathetic antipathy or antipathetic sympathy”—a simultaneous attraction and repulsion. And so it goes with many who take up the sport. They come for a few weeks, train, get a punch in the nose, and disappear. A few months later, one of them will call and say, “I want to start training again.” They crave that grounded, at-home-in-oneself feeling toward which Mamet was gesturing.

Women’s presence in the ring is obviously a relatively recent development. But I would say that it is only one of the things that have changed in the world of boxing since I began working and training in gyms in the early 1970s. As with everything in life, some of those changes are for the better, some for the worse, and some are simply mixed. Taken as a whole, they reflect what I think are changing attitudes toward the body and the ends to which it may be put, whether for wisdom, self-understanding, or, more recently, a kind of self-reinvention.

Woman and punching bag by Alfonse Pagano; Photolibrary/Getty Images.

It used to be that there were boxing gyms in almost every neighborhood of our major cities, as well as selected centers of rural life. They were dusky caves where men got together. The elders, often former fighters, traded stories, and the younger guys traded blows.

When I was in my early twenties, I trained in Gramercy Park Gym, at 116 East Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. A few years before my time, world champions Floyd Patterson and José Torres had practiced their craft there, under the tutelage of Constantine “Cus” D’Amato, the legendary trainer who would become the mentor and, ultimately, stepfather to Mike Tyson.

The clientele at the Gramercy was a mix of working-class guys, some cops, and a few fellows the cops might find themselves chasing down an alley on any given night. It was intimidating to tromp up the three flights of stairs and into this dark and stinking den filled with experienced pugilists, many with faces reshaped by the torrent of blows that had landed on them. But if you showed up on a regular basis and were able to give and take a punch, you discovered a level of mutual respect, friendship, and affection that was hard to find elsewhere.

Fourteenth Street was one of the mean streets, and the Gramercy was an institution, mainly for those who had aspirations to fighting under the klieg lights. But there are places where boxing can serve an even more vital role. In depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods, these halls of limited warfare are often the closest thing to a safe haven. In his landmark study of the culture of the boxing gym in late-twentieth-century South Side Chicago, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, French sociologist Loïc Wacquant wrote:

Above all, the gym protects one from the street, and acts as a buffer against the insecurity of the neighborhood and the pressures of everyday life. In the manner of a sanctuary, it offers a cosseted space, closed and reserved, where one can, among like-minded others, shelter oneself from the ordinary miseries of an all-too-ordinary life and from the spells that the culture and economy of the street hold in store for young men trapped into this place scorned and abandoned by all that is the dark ghetto.

But these sanctuaries came upon hard times. In the 1980s, when rents and insurance premiums in New York and other cities began to soar, many of the local gyms were forced to turn out the lights. The seven or so dollars a month such places typically charged as dues was not enough to cover the rent, and most students of the “sweet science” could not afford to pay the kind of membership fees that would keep gyms solvent. Fortunately, though, not all of them went under, thanks to the creativity of certain gym owners. As rents and other expenses rose, these owners, starting in New York City, began catering to a well-to-do crowd of corporate executives willing to pay for private and semi-private lessons. This new twist was called “white-collar boxing.” In her superb book Come Out Swinging: The Changing World of Boxing in Gleason’s Gym, Lucia Trimbur has described the changes that took place:

This phenomenon…began in the mid-1980s in New York City when a number of white male businessmen, lawyers, and doctors expressed eagerness to pay substantial sums of money to be trained in the city’s most famous gyms…. Gyms quickly instituted white-collar classes, programs, and leagues, and, at a time when the number of amateur and professional boxers in New York City dwindled, the number of white-collar clients expanded dramatically, keeping urban gyms afloat with their dependable membership dues.

This white-collar movement swept both the United States and Britain, and although boxing gyms lost much of their old mystique, they were at least able to stay open. In addition, professional and amateur boxers who had often been without work now found gainful employment training the uptown aspirants.

When boxing was in its heyday, there was competitive collegiate boxing, but no business executive would have thought of training at a place like the Gramercy. It was widely believed that serious boxers—that is, those who aimed to improve the lives of their families with their fists—needed to be hungry, and the hungrier the better. So why did the hedge-fund managers end up at Gleason’s Gym? The desire for an enhanced sense of masculinity was at least one factor. (As Trimbur observes, “Clients can be obsessed with the perception that their wealth has made them weak.”)But there was also a race-related fantasy at work in the white-collar turn to boxing.

To be sure, race, ethnicity, and nationality have always played a role in the world of boxing. In the early and mid-twentieth century, bouts were promoted on the basis of barely sublimated ethnic rivalries: Italians versus Jews, Irishmen versus Italians. Fighters changed their names in order to appeal to the right ethnicities. Even today, some of the most lucrative matchups are between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. But race is perhaps the most complicated dimension of gym life. Commenting on its role in the white-collar movement, Trimbur puts it bluntly:

When upper-middle-class and upper-class white professionals pay for the expertise of “authentic” black trainers, they are imagining and consuming a notion of blackness defined by the body, narratives of suffering, histories of criminality, and experiences of racial inequality. Clients presume an authentic black identity, and, in turn, produce a form of black masculinity.

The boxing gym, however, is also a space where repeated physical confrontation breaks down stereotypes, fears, and physical boundaries. I can recall an amateur bout between two thirteen-year-old kids, one white and one black. They had never met before and were from different worlds. For three rounds, they tried to decapitate each other. After the decision was announced, they were hanging all over each other like old friends. Later in the evening, I saw them in the parking lot exchanging phone numbers. However much it is exploited to promote boxers and the big fights, racism is rare among boxers themselves.

Today, men and women with money not only can travel to exotic lands; they can purchase experiences that lead to new versions of themselves. Yes, people have long wanted to know how much they can take or how well they will react to a physical challenge. As the narrator says in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, “If you’ve never been in a fight, you wonder. About getting hurt, about what you’re capable of doing against another man.” But now, for people for whom money is no obstacle, it’s possible to purchase experiences of controlled violence that lead not simply to self-knowledge but to the remaking of the self.

A recent issue of Men’s Health—“The Reinvention Issue”—shows a photograph of a highly chiseled and tattooed Justin Bieber. Next to the teen idol is the boldface headline “CAN HE REINVENT HIMSELF?” Mind you, it is the self, not the body, that is at issue. Of course, the implied answer to the question is yes—he can reinvent himself, and you can too, by changing your body.

Boxing has become one way to that end. Once a school of hard knocks, the boxing gym has become an arena of self-reinvention. The place may endure, imparting some of the same old lessons, but what many people now make of those lessons is indeed something new and different.

Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and director of the Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota. The author of Kierkegaard in the Present Age and the editor, most recently, of The Quotable Kierkegaard, Marino covers boxing for the Wall Street Journal and Ring Magazine. He has trained professional and amateur boxers for thirty years. This article was originally published in our summer 2015 issue, The Body in Question.