There is no doubt that boxing is a very violent activity which polarises opinions, with prominent members of the medical profession strongly condemning the sport while boxing fans are equally passionate in supporting it. I find myself in the ironic situation of sympathising with those who say it should be banned, yet wishing the sport to continue because I believe it has genuine benefits. Furthermore, I find myself enjoying watching it whenever I have the opportunity.
I am certainly aware of all the powerful arguments against boxing. It is the brutality and infliction of physical damage that is the principal reason which has led to calls for the sport to be banned. By definition, boxing is a gruesome athletic contest between two persons, each of whom uses fists to try to knock the other unconscious or to inflict enough punishment to cause the opponent either to quit or to be judged beaten. Boxing matches are conducted under established rules and procedures and have a referee, judges and timekeeper. The primary aim of each participant is to strike a blow to the front of the head and body of the opponent that will knock down and render the boxer incapable of rising to a standing position and defending himself within ten seconds.
As a result, the sport has witnessed many unsavoury incidents throughout its history. Gerald McClellan, former American middleweight champion, suffered extensive brain damage and lost the ability to walk, in addition to losing his sight and most of his hearing. Muhammad Ali ‘s boxing-related Parkinson’s disease is well-known and there are even extreme cases where a boxer has nearly died in the ring as happened in September 1991 when Michael Watson fought Chris Eubank. Is it any wonder that the British Medical Association has campaigned against the sport? One medical figure, Dr Jeff Cundy, has described the devastating effects in graphic terms that everyone can understand:
Blows to the head cause the brain to move in the skull like jelly in a bowl.
However, boxing is not only a health issue but a sociological one, as many argue that it promotes violence. In the Seoul Olympics some years ago an element of hooliganism caused chaos during and after the fights, leading to the President of the Olympic Games forecasting the boxing would eventually be forced out of the Games. To many, it seems inconsistent to condemn violence in society and at the same time allow a sport which glorifies it. If a man were to go out into the street and punch someone in the face he would be arrested and most likely be charged with assault. Why, then, are sportsmen able to beat each other up in the boxing ring and get away with it?
Valid though these points are, I nevertheless feel that there is another side to the issue. It is simply not true to portray boxing as nothing more than a form of uncivilised behaviour. Famous boxers follow highly disciplined regimes and lifestyles and in many cases have strong religious beliefs. Mike Tyson is a Muslim; Frank Bruno a Christian. Some boxers even claim some kind of divine inspiration. These men are certainly not controlled by their basic instincts but are civilised individuals who are perfectly capable of controlling their potentially violent natures.
The point could be put even more strongly: many boxers consider that boxing is not just a sport but an art. The famous American boxer Sugar Ray Leonard once said that
Boxing is the ultimate challenge. There's nothing that can compare to testing yourself the way you do every time you step in the ring.
Furthermore, whether we like it or not, aggression is part of human nature and boxing provides a means of channelling aggression in a controlled and supervised way. There are many examples of boys from underprivileged backgrounds who, instead of becoming involved in street fights and gang warfare, have found a more worthwhile outlet for their instincts through boxing.
This point has been convincingly argued by journalist Charlotte Leslie in The Guardian.
Boxing, she claims,
engages with young people on their own terms and recognises that frustration and aggression that is so often the hallmark of teenage years. It reaches into the underground, anarchical world which engulfs so many school drop-outs, which many other forms of social engagement cannot penetrate.
Above all, boxing provides hope for many young people who lack self-esteem. They may have failed in other areas and have come to see themselves as dropouts from society. As Leslie puts it,
They no longer feel that they have to pick fights, but can walk away. Boxing gives them the confidence to give school a go and to make job applications. I have seen young boxers turn from outcasts to role models.
It seems to me that humans have a natural instinct to fight; we have used it to evolve to where we are today, and no doubt it contributed to the
survival of the fittest. If boxing channels that instinct into something positive rather than something destructive, and provides hope for youngsters whose lives lack direction, then I believe we should fully support it.