As two manly men prepare for Heavyweight fisticuffs at Wembley Stadium this weekend, I once again reflect on the fact that we have all apparently agreed that boxing – a sport in which one of the main ways of winning is to punch your opponent until he or she is unconscious – is totally normal. To beat your opponent you literally have to beat your opponent. Lovely.
Prior to the 1920s, boxing was actually illegal in much of the USA but once it became apparent that the public liked to pay to see men smacking each other around, the dollar signs began to flash in the eyes of the right men. Such a lucrative activity was not going to stay marginal for much longer. For America or the rest of the world.
I understand that legal boxing has a lot of safety measures in place. Those big gloves are just like soft cushions attached to the hands, for instance – it’s all basically just like a glorified pillow fight, right? And yes, there are also referees, mouth guards, paramedics on standby etc. But all the safety on display is surely irrelevant within a game where people are still being knocked unconscious – not even as a potential consequence, but within the rules. The sport itself – the way in which you play it – is inherently unsafe and that is what makes it so unacceptable. The lasting brain damage, due to boxer’s brains being smashed about so often, are well documented. Boxing’s apparent safety is just a short term illusion.
I also, to some extent, understand the argument that boxing clubs can be good for kids, or adults for that matter, giving them purpose and a safer place to channel their aggression. It has also been an effective form of social mobility, but it isn’t unique in this and it doesn’t make such organised violence morally right. The Nazis gave people employment; a good consequence from an ultimately bad thing does not justify it. There are other ways of creating the good outcomes, without the bad. Any physical sport (or creative outlet or apprenticeship even) could achieve this same solution; surely the encouragement to hone the craft of punching other humans in the face isn’t for the best in the long run.
Of course, importantly, both participants in a boxing match are fully consenting. If they want to fight, what is the problem? If this fighting stayed between the two participants, I could accept (though not really understand) this more, but it is all on such a grand and popular stage. One problem is that people are enjoying this; actively enjoying seeing violence between one human and another; actively cheering that a person has been knocked unconscious, in the same way that they would if a footballer scored a winning goal. Another problem is that these boxers are held up as role models – heroes even – for kids to admire and aspire to be. “What do you want to do when you’re older, little Timmy?” “Punch other guys for a living, Daddy!” It’s absurd.
This sport is one of the many things that is so accepted, most people don’t even give it a second thought. This has been the case down the ages with moral and ethical issues, until enough people stand up and go “hold on a minute…” Abhorrent things, such as slavery and women not having the vote for instance, were so woven into the fabric of society at the time it was difficult for people to snap out of it. Boxing is on a lower scale to those things, but it is surely worth analysing as an important part of the human race’s unhealthy relationship with violence.
Boxing joins currently accepted absurdities to ethics, such as eating meat and dairy, newspapers and politicians going unpunished for blatantly lying, and the ever-increasing wealth inequality. I am sure we will get there eventually with these things. But, hey, perhaps not.