There was a time when boxing was considered uncouth; most respectable people would have told you that pugilism is beneath a civil society. It wasn’t until about 1892, when Gentleman Jim Corbett defeated John L Sullivan for the heavyweight championship, that boxing began to be viewed as a respectable sporting activity to spectate or participate in. The matchup between Corbett and Sullivan was the first heavyweight championship to be conducted under Marquis of Queensbury Rules and with gloves, and Corbett was a snappy dresser with a college degree. Presto, instant credibility for the sport! From that time to this, boxing has enjoyed the status of a major spectator sport in the United States.
There are very few experiences in life that bring more pleasure than taking a punch to the jaw and then hitting your assailant back harder than he hit you. And I would venture to say that most American men over the age of 30 have learned this truth firsthand – on the playground, in the street, in school – because few experiences in life have been more universal (until recently anyway) than youthful brawling. You may disagree with me, but I think it’s a shame that we’ve forbidden our children to settle their differences with a fistfight. How many youthful disputes end with shootings or stabbings because there’s no practical way to escalate matters short of deadly force? How many children suffer through endless teasing and end up with no self-respect and an unhealthy contempt for their peers because they’ve been taught that they should never stand up for themselves?
But however much one may be in favor of youthful fisticuffs, there are several good reasons why we can’t continue brawling as adults. One reason is that we don’t want to go to jail. Another is that it would be awkward to explain a shiner to your wife if she wasn’t there to see you earn it. Also, a bar fight is practically guaranteed to end a birthday party or a retirement party. But most importantly, when grown men hit each other, they hurt each other. So instead of risking the consequences ourselves, we watch other men fight on a legal, sanctioned basis. We’re reasonably assured that no one will get hurt too badly, and if they’re pros, at least they’re being paid for their pain.
Despite the fact that boxing is largely a safe and civilized game today, there’s still the perception that it’s a dangerous sport. And there’s still the spectre of ring death hanging over the sport – there are more champions than deaths in boxing, but not a lot more. If you doubt that there’s some risk of death or disability in boxing, look up the names Johnny Montantes, Benny Paret, Deuk-Koo Kim, Davey Moore, or Leavander Johnson on Wikipedia. The point is that a man who gets into the ring is seen as something of a daredevil, even if he’s absolutely comfortable and confident of his own well-being.
Let me pause at this point to say that there is a great deal of care given to boxers, from state boxing license requirements to pre-fight physicals to ring doctors to padded gloves to three-knockdown-rules, etc etc ad nauseum. But the simple fact is that there’s a chance that if you let another man hit you in the head with his fists, you may suffer an injury.
Boxing is certainly an unpleasant sport for most participants: the number of men who have compiled professional records of 0-1 is virtually incalculable. Perhaps more illustrative is the fact that there are nearly as many men on the books with records of 1-0; men who retired undefeated rather than subject themselves to such unpleasantness more than once. It all gives the ones who gut it out and make a career in boxing (however brief or unsuccessful) more cause for bravado. We like to know such men, and we like to have such men know us.
Two individuals face each other on equal terms, under controlled circumstances, without weapons or props. Their contest is a subjective one, but it has an objective goal: if you don’t want three judges to decide who won (like in figure skating), you must beat your opponent into either submission or unconsciousness. This is a recipe for excitement! Even if no one is beaten to the point of submission or unconsciousness (and usually no one is), the two fighters will put forth the effort and aggression to do so, and the result is drama.
This paragraph could well be titled “Tradition.” The ability to trace championships backward or forward in a linear fashion is one of the intellectual draws of boxing. Anyone can visit www.boxrec.com and type in the name of a champion, then follow that fighter’s history backward or forward to see who he won his championship from and who he lost it to. It’s a fun and instructive activity. In fact, an argument could be made that in American sports, only baseball is more focused on record-keeping – and only in baseball is it equally rewarding to peruse the records and statistics of the sport.
When I began writing this article I didn’t expect to finish with five reasons why we love boxing – I would have guessed that two or three would suffice. But as I compose my conclusion I realize that five isn’t nearly enough, because what we really love about boxing is the personalities. And there are thousands upon thousands of interesting personalities in the boxing game, thousands more to learn about in its past, and still thousands more wait to be discovered. The men (and sometimes women) who get in the ring and risk pain and disappointment (or worse) are the real draw. Each person has unique circumstances, hopes, dreams, and amibitions. Each one fights for his own reasons, and each is at a different stage in his career. Whether they’re successful or not, whether they’re brawlers or infighters or jabbers or boxer-punchers, it’s the practitioners of the sweet science who make boxing interesting and fun for the rest of us.