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From the Editor’s Desk

Punch lines

“In hell,” the Washington Post’s sports columnist Thomas Boswell once wrote, “boxing would be the national pastime.” This theological judgement seems to be shared by the Catholic Church. Recently, the influential Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica – whose articles are reviewed before publication by the Vatican Secretariat of State - published an editorial in which it condemned professional boxing as “a form of legalized attempted murder”. The editorial appeared three weeks after the death of American boxer Levander Johnson following brain injuries he suffered in a lightweight title fight. Noting that more than 500 boxers worldwide had died as a result of the sport over the past 100 years, La Civilta Cattolica concluded: “The dead don’t count for anything in boxing. Instead, what counts are the enormous interests that lie behind boxing matches.”

As a former (amateur) boxer, I beg to disagree. There can be no dispute that boxing is dangerous but it is hardly unique as a sport in which the central aim involves physically disabling an opponent and in which, on occasion, the end result is death or serious injury. The intention to disable through violence, however ritualised, invites a moral judgement of the sport. Yet boxing seems to be a target of easy and singular judgement in ways that other sports in which participants risk serious injury, and even death, as an integral part of the attraction of what they do does not. Could perhaps it be because in these other sports the contest between opponents is less immediate, less dramatic and so less confronting?Five hundred deaths in boxing worldwide in the past 100 years at first glance would seem to set boxing apart as a peculiarly vicious sport. But in February last year, The Orlando Sentinel of Florida listed 28 racing related deaths at the Daytona International Speedway alone since the track was opened in 1959.

Boxing has not always had the negative image it now has. Throughout the 19th century, boxing had its critics who regarded it – on aesthetic grounds which should never be confused with moral ones - as "vulgar". But boxing had its supporters and they, in their majority, gave it gentlemanly affectations which stuck – such as the "noble art of self-defence" under the "Marquess of Queensberry rules".  Even in the 1950s, when professional boxing in the United States was still heavily entwined with crime, A. J. Liebling could describe the meeting between Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore in centre ring before their September 20, 1955, heavyweight championship bout in almost playful terms:

"When the principals shook hands, I could see Mr Moore's eyebrows rising like storm clouds over the Sea of Azov. His whiskers bristled and his eyes glowed like dark coals as he scrunched his eyebrows down again and enveloped [Marciano] with the Look, which was intended to dominate his will power ... [I was] sitting behind Marciano's corner, and as the champion came back to it I observed his expression, to determine what effect the Look had had upon him. More than ever, he resembled a Great Dane who has heard the word 'bone'."

Liebling, whose book The Sweet Science was a celebration of the world of boxing, was not simply turning a blind eye to the violence. Rather, what he was observing as well was the possibility of joy even in the spirit of the beast heading off to the sacrifice. Boxing for him had a mythical dimension, which he reduced to its constituent parts - fear, courage, adventure. Those who have stepped into the ring would know what this means just as they know the risk, the pain, and at times the tragedy that attends the sport.

Boxing has been an instrument of economic advancement, of racial and ethnic integration, and of personal fulfillment as much as it has been a milk-cow for disreputable promoters or a source of grief for some individual boxers and their families. So before anyone – moralizers, critics or mere aesthetes - passes judgement they should at least consider the insiders’ account – boxers like American Bruce ‘The Mouse’ Strauss who, despite a career as a touring loser once said: “I love it all…the agony of victory, the thrill of defeat.”

The lesson is salutary: few things in this world are either black or white.

Chris McGillion

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