Boxing with Humility
I grew up in a home in which there were main events a couple of nights a week. Often on Wednesday and Friday my father would come home late. There was the clink of ice for drinks, a few jabs, and then the rumble between my parents would start. The fray would run far into the night. During the day, there were belts and backhands for me to duck. There was plenty of love as well, at least of the paternal and maternal sort, but my suburban boyhood home was a cave of screams and swats. That sort of start to life can make a person very focused on the question of who can do what to whom. That is to some extent the parent question of pugilism. And it is not surprising that with this sentimental education for a background, I would have a natural interest in boxing.
There were no boxing gyms on the New Jersey coast where I was raised, but my grandfather, a onetime boxing instructor in the Army, offered some tips and encouragement. I rigged up a heavy bag in the basement, corresponded with that most humble of champions, Floyd Patterson, and did whatever I could to learn about the bruising art. Apart from fights at school, of which I had my fair share, there was not much fistic action in my neighborhood. During my college years I finally got my chance to study the sweet science. After a brief Division I football career, I was fortunate enough to be able to transfer to Columbia University in New York, where great boxing gyms were only a subway ride away. I leapt at the chance to begin rigorous study of the so-called manly art.
Two years into boxing, I had had a few bouts and was progressing well. One fetid summer afternoon I stopped by a well-known gym. After a conversation with the man who ran this school for modern gladiators, I found myself in the ring mixing it up with a finalist from the New York City Golden Gloves. The sparring went very well and the trainer offered me a professional contract on the spot. I let my ego get the best of me and signed right up. Things got pretty serious quickly. I was sparring every day and at night, going back up to Columbia with black eyes. Naturally, I wore my cuts and bruises like badges of honor and felt safer in the world for being a certified tough guy — a licensed professional boxer.
About two weeks into my new career, I got into the gym and my trainer told me to get ready to work with a young upcoming heavyweight. He was a tall, powerfully built kid of twenty, already a pro with eight wins under his belt. As I gloved up and put on my headgear, he stood in the middle of the ring lazily swinging his arms around. Somewhat intimidated, I was trying to rev up my aggression engine, telling myself, “This kid may be big but I’m going to get inside his long reach and rip him apart.” The bell rang. I tested a few angles and stepped in on the attack. Wham — he clocked me with a stiff jab. It was as though a giant flash bulb went off behind my eyes. I can remember appreciating the power of the punch as something akin to beautiful, like a force of nature. I can also recall recoiling in fear, lest he hit me with his much more powerful right hand. I survived two stanzas with this young fighter who would go on to become, albeit briefly, a bona fide heavyweight contender. But in a matter of moments, I went from feeling like an Ivy League version of Smokin’ Joe Frazier to thinking as though I had a lot to learn and that maybe at twenty-two it was too late for me to become a serious professional boxer.
In A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, Andre Comte-Sponville quotes Spinoza as saying: “Humility is a sadness born of the fact that man considers his own lack of power or weakness.” Though I did not feel humiliated by my ring encounter, there was a sadness that came with my updated self-understanding of my powers.
I am not sure why, but for men, at least, a good punch in the snout can make you take a quick look around yourself. Boxing offers a limitless supply of such reminders. Teddy Atlas, trainer of world champions, including Mike Tyson, recently told me: “I know it is a cliché but boxing really is the best metaphor for life. Everything that happens in life happens in the ring but at warp speed. There are times when you can coast, sudden crises, pauses, rests, winners, and losers. But one thing is for certain: like nothing else, it can force you to take a very quick inventory of yourself. There you are. You think you’re a tough guy. You get in the ring and bam — you are hit and hurt and the guy in front of you wants nothing more than to deliver more hurt. You are suddenly faced with this person who is very strong and trying to take you apart.”
The boxing guru continued: “In a flash in boxing you feel your mortality, you feel how vulnerable you are. And the feeling of vulnerability is the lesson in humility that boxing offers like no other sport.”
Spinoza expounds upon this conception of humility. He writes: “If we suppose that the man conceives his lack of power because he understands something more powerful than himself, by the knowledge of which he determines his power of acting, then we conceive nothing but that the man understands himself distinctly or that his power of acting is aided.” My training in boxing and the martial arts promoted the illusion that as long as I did my roadwork and sit-ups and kept my hands up, nothing could hurt me. But that punch to my inbox quickly popped my superman delusions and, à la Teddy Atlas, brought a fresh self-understanding that would be a more faithful guide in my future pugilistic encounters and in my behavior outside the squared circle.
One of Teddy Atlas’s protégés was heavyweight champion Michael Moorer. In November 1994, Moorer was coasting to a victory over forty-five-year-old George Foreman. But just as Atlas noted, boxing, like life, is full of surprises. And Foreman had a little surprise for Moorer. Big George had a big trick: he would begin by throwing his punches at three-quarter speed and so lull his foe into thinking that all his shots were going to come at the same manageable pace. Then, out of the blue, he would throw his fastball. And with one powerful right-hand swipe, Foreman laid Moorer low. Just five years short of half a century and after thirteen years out of the ring Foreman became the oldest man to ever win the heavyweight title. I think it was one of the most remarkable athletic feats of the twentieth century, but I digress.
George Foreman is also a preacher with a boxing outreach program for youngsters. I once pressed him on how he could be a Christian and at the same time teach young kids how to hurt people. Foreman responded, “Because the discipline of boxing gives you practice with your emotions, emotions like fear and anger. In time, the kids learn to control rather than to be controlled by those powerful feelings. People who have control over their emotions are less violent.” Foreman also had something to say about the power of the fist in teaching humility.
Born into abject poverty and without a stable family, Foreman was a very troubled and troubling young man. When he was seventeen he went into the Job Corps, where he was lured into boxing. He recalls: “After practicing for a few weeks, the day was set when I was going to have my first sparring session. I told everybody to come and watch me. They did. And I got whupped very badly. It was so embarrassing that I never wanted to box again. When my coach came up to me a few days later and asked me if I was coming to the gym, I’d make up some excuse, like I don’t have my shoes or something. Eventually, I came back, of course, but that beating taught me humility in this sense. It taught me never to think that I was better than anyone else. It taught me that on any given day, you can be beaten. This always helped push me to prepare for my bouts. A few years later, after I knocked out Joe Frazier and won the heavyweight title, I forgot that lesson in humility and again, I had to pay the price by getting beaten and embarrassed by Muhammad Ali in Zaire.”