Winston Churchill was a man of many admirable attributes. He was a military officer of heroic deeds, the adminstrative and inspirational leader of a nation at war, and an artist (primarily an expressionist painter in oils). He was also a writer, and a brilliant one at that – Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. In fact, it seems that Churchill excelled in every field of endeavor that he ever pursued. If he had never been the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Churchill would still be a character worth remembering.
Apart from his wartime speeches, the most often-cited saying of Churchill was a pronouncement on the emotional effect of surviving a furious battle. As a young officer with a taste for the lavish lifestyle, Churchill had taken the initiative to supplement his meager salary as a cavalry officer by writing war correspondences for the London tabloids. This necessitated his being in or near combat, which resulted in his often requesting the most dangerous (hence interesting) assignments available.
It was in 1899, during the Second Boer War, that Churchill had his most harrowing combat experience. Churchill had been captured by the enemy, and while being transported as a prisoner of war in a rail car, came under bombardment. For 70 minutes the bullets and shells struck the car and everything around it while Churchill was chained inside, an experience that the young officer later described as “thrilling.” It may have this adventure that Churchill had in mind when he wrote:
There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.
So old Winston would have understood the elation of a prizefighter who has withstood his opponent’s best shot. Not every fighter finds it exhilarating to absorb a punch – Evander Holyfield once explained his attitude about getting hit as “You just have to decide not to be bothered by it” – but for many fighters there’s a definite correllation between Churchill’s exhilaration at surviving a military assault and the much smaller (but no less modest) accomplishment of absorbing a punch and keeping your wits about you and your feet underneath you.
Viewpoints: Referee and Fighter
Big-time slugger Randall Bailey describes what goes through his mind when he’s withstood his opponent’s best shot. “It feels good and it makes you stronger in your mind. It pushes you to do more now; you tell yourself ‘let’s see if he can take my best shot.'” It’s this combination of bravado and hubris that can make a fighter drop his hands and hang his chin out to be hit (Ricardo Mayorga), drop all pretense of defense and go windmill on his opponent (Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward), cross his arms on his chest and dare his opponent to come closer (Miguel “Mickey” Roman), or fight past his prime and risk serious injury (most successful boxers in the modern era).
In his capacity as a referee, it’s Mark Nelson’s responsibility to make sure that a fighter’s pride doesn’t get him hurt or injured. With that object in mind, Nelson sometimes has to overrule a fighter whose pride and discipline tell him that he should continue to fight when he really shouldn’t. So, I wondered, does a fighter’s pride matter to Nelson? “Yes,” answers Nelson, “but we are there for the welfare of the fighter. Fighters are trained to absorb punches, [some fighters are] too tough for their own good. Then it is our job, after seeing enough, to step in. That is why we are there.”
This ethos has led Nelson to stop some fights against the wishes of the losing fighter or the crowd. Knowing that this is the case, I asked Nelson a question that I thought I could guess his answer to: Have you ever made an unpopular decision to stop a fight in order to protect a fighter? “Perhaps to the fans, but not unpopular to a commission or sanctioning body.” After a reflective moment Nelson added, “At times in my career I have stopped fights where the fans perhaps didn’t like, but later I had the trainer and even the fighter or fighter’s family thank me afterwards.” Bailey, meanwhile, depends on his trainer to make that call: “Fighters can’t look out for themselves when in battle. Real warriors will die in that ring, so if my trainer feels he’s seen enough, I can’t argue.” Nelson, however, is skeptical. “I don’t know how many times I’ve gone into the corner and asked the fighter ‘How do you feel,’ and I know they’re almost finished, but before they can answer, the trainer answers ‘He’s fine!’ and I say ‘Hey, I wasn’t asking you!”
The Bottom Line
Of course, therein lies the distinction between boxing and war: real warriors don’t have referees to protect them. The men who were shooting at Churchill were actually trying to kill him – naturally, because they couldn’t win without killing their opponents. In boxing, though the competitors are attempting to incapacitate one another with their fists, the formulation and application of the rules is intended to protect the fighters, to keep them safe and healthy. The fighters depend on the their trainers, the referee, and the ring doctor to protect them from harm. That’s why we can have this conversation: though prizefighting is a sport that resides in the margin between safety and danger, its safety precautions are intended to make sure that to some extent, all fighters can enjoy the exhilation of being shot at without effect.