The Christian Boxer

When our Lord says turn the other cheek, He speaks of a spiritual strategy to humble the self and then perhaps, to win other souls to Him.  Not all the proud are shamed by humility and it seems pretty clear that those who smote the One who offered them salvation did not turn their hearts to him when He turned His cheek to them.  Saint John Cantius won the hearts of some bandits when he called them back to take some money they had overlooked, but that is an instance rare enough to have become the lore of hagiography.  Sane moralists insist that neglect of self-defense can be moral dereliction.  Glad tidings of peace are not lighthearted pacifism, and even the Good Shepherd brought news to the poor and brokenhearted carrying a rod along with a staff.  I learned the wisdom of this when I was briefly knocked unconscious by a man I had caught breaking into my church’s Poor Box.  It was then that I began instruction in boxing, which I still try to keep up about once a week.

My first coach was an African who hesitated to punch me. I told him I could never learn unless he punched me. He explained that in his homeland, superstitious people thought it bad luck to strike a priest. That is a superstition lacking in my own country.

The amateur boxer learns three things immediately. First, few activities are as physically demanding and, at least in my case, one three minute round can be more exhausting than running five miles.  Second, boxing is highly intellectual, requiring so much quick reasoning and psychology, that of all sports, it is the one rightly validly called the “Sweet Science.”  Third, the immediate instinct to punch someone who has punched you, issues in a thrill when you do so.  When it is done gratuitously in sport, it can make one even less eager to do it in retributive anger. No one is disinterested in you, once you have punched him, and so boxing with strangers can even create bonds of friendship.

That is not always the case, as we known from Ali’s acid behavior toward Frazier outside the ring, and the famous brawl between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick who later was murdered by his nephew, poignantly, in a church. Yet the saints themselves must have delighted in the way Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey became lifelong friends after the notorious Long Count in 1927. Tunney’s profits from the ring along with a beneficial marriage, by the way, enabled him to study literature, which he had not been able to do when poverty deprived him of school.  The autodidact Tunney came to know Thornton Wilder and Ernest Hemingway and he became the best of friends with George Bernard Shaw, once a bantamweight boxer himself. Tunney lectured on Shakespeare at Yale in its bright days.

Other sports such as baseball, tennis and squash racquets have their place, but their common drawback is that their players get to strike each other only inadvertently.  Football is as cerebral as boxing, but banging into one another is not as graceful as using fists. Then there are activities like shuffleboard, badminton, and billiards (and its outdoor variant: golf).  As they have the advantage of being able to be played in a state of physical neglect or advanced pregnancy, they are games and not sports. Swimming is superb for health, of course, but the water required for it conceals any evidence of exertion. Fencing may match boxing for mental elegance, but the use of protective devices has made it a shadow of ancient duels. Wrestling is the only real competition for boxing and is almost as ancient.  While Cain boxed Abel with fatal results, wrestling only put Jacob’s hip out of joint. If it is shockingly true that Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling is to be dropped from the next Olympic games, which inexplicably include curling, ping pong and beach volley ball, then the degradation of our culture has entered its fin de siecle phase of the Decadents.

Among sports, bullfighting is too rarified to be considered here, though it has not escaped the attention of holy eyes. Pope Saint Pius V condemned it in 1567, but this may in part have been a reaction to the appetites of his Spanish Borgia antecedent.  In 1597, Pope Clement VIII only forbade the clergy from attending or participating in bull fights, but this was little different from the policy against clerics attending the opera, which was still on the books right up to the reign of Pope John XXIII, whose benevolent charisms did not include physical agility.  Bullfighting as condemned by Pius V was quite different from the present form, which was stylized only in the eighteenth century. The preponderant opinion of theologians is that the present form is morally licit, as the bullfighter’s brains make him even with the bull’s brawn. Just as the Council in Trullo stopped the clergy from going to horse races, the Fourth Lateran Council forbade clerics to engage in hawking and clamorous hunting (that would be riding with the hounds to the sound of brass horns), but this had nothing to do with the killing of animals. Pope Julius II was a keen hunter and in more modern times, Pope Leo XII shot birds in the Vatican gardens for relaxation.  The Council’s strictures were really against wasteful consumption of time. Today the equivalent of hawking and hunting as languorous misuses of time by clerics obviously would be golf.

There is a real moral doubt about professional boxing, no less today than in the days of bare knuckles and even John L. Sullivan’s compromise with two-ounce gloves. This is based both on its deliberate intent to inflict serious injury and on the corruption of promoters, which has figured in the decline of its popularity.  I tend to consider “professional sports” almost a contradiction in terms anyway, and would no more watch others play than I would pay to watch others eat.  Two minutes of listening to commentators on one of the sports channels is sheer mental anesthesia.  Because of physical danger in professional boxing, especially in the heavyweight class, it is only reasonable to require careful monitoring. There are more concussions, orthopedic injuries and neurological damage in football than in boxing, and the life expectancy of an NFL player is less than that of a professional boxer.  Remarkably, cheerleaders in the NFL reported four times more injuries than did the players.  Amateur boxing, of which I sing, ranks 71st in sports injuries, far below even baseball and soccer.

In a fallen world there always will be excesses and in my book Coincidentally, I described Mike Tyson biting off the ear of Evander Holyfield.  I now can add to that because just one hour before I began to write this, I ran into a bartender walking along Park Avenue who had served a non-alcoholic drink to Tyson at the start of his career and prophetically called him “Champ.” Brute violence seems to be going mainstream with the rise of Mixed Martial Arts, which should be banned for its incitement of bloodlust.

Holyfield’s robe was inscribed with the text: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)” Little did he know that he was about to become another Malchus.  Saint Paul may very well have been a boxer. He refers to the races and boxing in 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27.  The “corruptible crown” was a reference, not to the Olympian games of Athens, but to the Isthmian games of Corinth, which had been restored by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.  Long before the victor’s wreath was of ivy, the Isthmian wreath had been of fast-wilting celery leaves.  Pindar even mentioned it: “I sing the Isthmian victory with horses, not unrecognized, which Poseidon granted to Xenocrates, and sent him a garland of Dorian wild celery for his hair, to have himself crowned….”

The Apostle to the Gentiles did not consider the Way of the Lord Jesus a spectator sport. “Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”  No young man should venture into the larger world without having sparred with his peers, and boxing should be required of every seminarian who would preach like Paul.  The writer to the Hebrews (12:4-13) quite likely took counsel from the Apostle when he wrote:

In your struggles against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood… Suffering is part of your training… God is treating you as his sons.  Has there ever been any son whose father did not train him? If you were not getting this training, as all of you are, then you would not be sons but bastards… Of course, any punishment is most painful at the time, and far from pleasant, but later, in those on whom it has been used, it bears fruit in peace and goodness.  So hold up your limp arms and steady your trembling knees and smooth out the path you tread; then the injured limb will not be wrenched, it will grow strong again.

Editor’s note: The image above entited “Boxers” was drawn by Theodore Gericault in 1818.

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

  • Michael St. Joseph

    Father Rutler, I recently had the great pleasure to attend the Traditional Latin Mass at your parish and was moved beyond words by the experience. I hope to return soon with family in tow.

    Having said that I must disagree with one part of your article. As a proponent of both boxing and wrestling, your opposition to MMA is a bit surprising. It seems to me that MMA is combat sport in its purest form and is merely a combination of its two ancient predecessors.

    I do agree however that the removal of wrestling from the Olympic games is another sign of the collapse of the West as all things traditional are being dispatched in favor of novelties.

    • HigherCalling

      It is MMA-type fighting that is the ancient predecessor to boxing, wrestling or any true martial art. Traditional fighting arts that we see today were designed to “elevate” human combat away from fighting “in its purest form” by injecting the element of philosophy and the intellect, turning it into an actual art-form. MMA-type fighting is merely a return to the brute bloodlust Father mentioned. As we drop the rules, the philosophy, and intellect in an effort to “purify” the fight, we are only sinking backward (decidedly not forward) into brutish inhumanity.

      I find it interesting, though, that as modern MMA is evolving, it is taking on more and more rules. It is even adding (or stealing) philosophy and fighting science. When it started, it was almost rule-less (more “pure” I guess), and now it’s becoming more like the traditional fighting arts it was supposed to put to shame. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime soon MMA styles start to develop forms (kata) to simulate and train for fighting situations. That kind of development identifies the progress of the sport — from its ancient, brutal beginnings, to something more refined and artful. Ironically, those arts already exist. MMA is slowly morphing into the very things it was meant to replace. That’s good, because only then can it recover the humanity that was removed when it was in its “purest form.”

      • Peter

        “by injecting the element of philosophy and the intellect, turning it into an actual art-form” I would argue that MMA has more of an art-form by the very nature of melding the martial arts (every martial art having it’s own philosophy, no need to manually inject it), instead of strictly punching your enemy. I don’t really see how boxing has a different element of intellect when the great majority of martial arts have just as many or more forms and techniques as boxing. I would even argue boxing is simpler (less philosophy and intellect) than MMA.

      • Michael St. Joseph

        How stripped down, rule-laden forms of martial arts became ‘philosophical’ is a mystery to me. How exactly does adding layers of restrictions and rules make combat sports artful and refined?

        By your definition thumb wrestling and slap fights should be very near the pinnacle of the art form. And I imagine the staring contest would rate as the ultimate martial art. After all it has so many rules you can’t even make contact! Now that’s refined!

        • HigherCalling

          No one is talking about adding layers of restrictions and rules. But real martial arts, like real religion, consists in making rules (or dogmas). An advancement in either requires the creation of a dogmatic, definite philosophy; a growth into more and more definite convictions. To be truly human means coming to conclusions, making reasonable rules, while still adhering to purity and simplicity. Casting away reasonable rules or dogmas in an attempt to restore purity is a regression, not an advancement.

          Since we are now carrying things to absurd extremes, by your definition the pinnacle of “pure” fighting would be done in the dirt without rules, biting, pulling hair, gouging eyes, spitting, perhaps dropping the nearest rock on your opponent’s head. As for a staring contest, well, yes, that is the highest level of true martial arts philosophy — any true martial artist understands this as the ideal of “fighting without fighting.” Paradoxically, the only way to achieve such a high level is to first endure the extreme physical training found in every real martial art. Yes, truly fighting, truly engaging an opponent, without making contact is the definition of being refined. That is how real martial arts “elevate” fighting into something truly human.

          Anyway, I am not against MMA. I’ve learned some things from watching it, and I give the fighters ultimate respect for their courage and skill. But I’m not sure MMA has within it the prospect of creating a real master, such as the one in this story: One of the best (true) fighting story I’ve heard involves a Japanese karate master who was surrounded by a group of 6 to 8 thugs in London in the mid ’60s. Intent on taking out this “slant-eyed Jap,” the group circled him and his companion (the man who related this story to me), and made their intentions known. The small karate master asked his companion to step behind him, and he looked each thug in the eye, slowly, engaging them seriously. Each of the thugs melted mentally and the group soon came up with an excuse and backed away. The karate master and his companion walked on as if nothing had happened. Obviously, the thugs were out-manned by a single, small Japanese master who used his martial arts skill at its highest, most refined, artful, and truly human level. Interestingly, this kind of mastery is achieved only through brutal physical training, in a martial arts system that is run on a real philosophy — in this case, the philosophy of budo that is an intrinsic element of Japanese culture.

          • Michael St. Joseph

            The martial arts are sport and combat training, not philosophy. Let’s not take it to a higher level than is warranted. The Catholic faith in all its beauty and complexity (and simplicity) is the only philosophy I need.

            The whole point of MMA in the beginning was to test one pure and refined form of martial arts against another to see which was superior.

            As you probably already know, It began with the Gracie family from Brazil, who, in an effort to promote their discipline (Brazilian Jiu-jitsu), began challenging fighters from other schools (boxers, karate fighters, even sumo wrestlers) to no-holds barred matches to see which style was superior. From this the sport developed organically and the best methods of each individual discipline were adopted to this new, blended form of martial arts called MMA.

            That is all MMA is: the best of all the other fighting styles, minus what is extraneous and impractical.

            It is not a philosophy or a way of life; it is simply a sport.

  • Alecto

    Excellent! I thoroughly enjoyed this, but I would add bicycling to this list of mentally and physically challenging sports. As a long-time aficionado of bicycling disciplines (road, track, mountain and cyclocross), it’s as physically demanding as running or swimming yet more efficient and enjoyable. It takes courage to speed down a winding mountain road at 60+ mph on a tire the width of a paper clip inflated to 125 psi. In the U.S., we are like lepers, motorists hate us, and I have been run off the road, spit on, even shot at once. I guess that is an opportunity to turn the other cheek? In my case it’s usually the one on which I’m seated! It requires mental stamina, strategy and cunning. Even the equipment is basically functional art. Who hasn’t longed for a beautiful bike with a history like Colnago, de Rosa or even the more recent but stylish Pegoretti? Those Italians know how to make even a simple machine exquisite.

    Unlike running or swimming, bicycling is a social sport meant to be done in the company of others. Bicyclists are excellent people: kind, generous, responsible and fun. When the Bible speaks of “Salt of the Earth”, it is surely directed to us! It’s tragic the sport has a black eye at the moment, but I still admire the physical and mental discipline required to engage at the highest levels.

  • Arizona Mike

    When I grew up, most parishes had a boxing team under the CYO. My first boxing coach was our parish priest, who really knew his stuff. The CYO leagues were huge and helped create the Golden Gloves competition, and most Catholic boys learned at least a little about boxing. In addition to some basic self-defense skills, it helped teach control of anger and the wisdom of making prudential decisions about whether to fight or not. The popularity of boxing as a sport in historically Catholic immigrant communities – Irish, Italian, Filipino, Mexican, Polish – probably helped and gave us a lot of really good coaches.

  • hombre111

    Reveals an interesting side of the author. Worth reading.

  • sarge628

    As a midshipman at the Naval Academy decades ago I was coached by Mr. Emerson Smith who taught me a valuable lesson in the Boxing ring. Losing your temper in a desperate battle can be fatal. Keep your head or lose it.

  • Rouxfus Rouxfus

    James Cardinal Gibbons was pastor of St. Bridget’s parish in Baltimore during the Civil War. Baltimore was a rough town in those days, filled with gangs of belligerent rowdies and Union soldier encampments. Here is an account from Allen Sinclair Will’s biography of the of some pugilistic encounters he had while serving in that parish as a young clergyman:

    The young clergyman’s courage was repeatedly proved in those stirring times. Returning to St. Bridget’s rectory one night, he found a soldier asleep in the yard, and started to arouse him with an admonition to leave the church property. The soldier leaped to his feet, seized a paling from a broken fence and rushed at him with the fury of a tiger. Father Gibbons turned and ran toward his door, but soon found himself trapped in an angle formed by wall and fence from which there was no escape. The soldier had the paling raised to strike him a murderous blow, when, realizing that he must defend himself quickly, he summoned all his strength, knocked the man down and thoroughly subdued him. When the big soldier came to his senses he realized that the frail young man in priestly dress was more than his match, and beat a precipitate retreat.

    On another night, arriving at his rectory after collecting money for the church, he was met outside the door by his housekeeper, in tears, who told him a crazy man was inside. It proved to be an intruder of herculean size, naked and raving, who had taken possession of the premises and was threatening everybody. Father Gibbons found no weapon at hand but an umbrella, with which he belabored the man to such good effect that in a short time he forced him to dress and leave the house.

    He was often in danger from drunken soldiers, and always avoided a conflict when he could do so, but when that was not possible, proved that he could defend himself against any.

  • I recommend a concealed Glock in 9mm or .40 depending on your comfort level. A loose cassock is an ideal cover garment.

  • LarryCicero

    I recently bought a punching bag for my son, after he was punched in the nose. And then I read a book about coincidences by George Rutler, and got a sinus infection.

    • Fr. George Rutler


      Your son has a very good father. Here is another coincidence: just before reading your comment, I saw an article about world champion Super Featherweight Bobby Chacon who had a chronic sinus condition!

      • LarryCicero

        Thank you.The sinus condition might have something to do with a deviated septum. Maybe learning to defend yourself might prevent colds.

  • Thomas Gallagher

    Don’t we now know from recent Scriptural exegesis that “turning the other cheek” means denying to your assailant the ability to strike you a second time, by rotating away from his (right) striking hand? Turning the other cheek always seemed cowardly and unmanly to me, when I was a boy, and now praise God I don’t have to think so any more. My boyhood instincts were right all along: we ought to make it impossible for the wrongdoer to do us further harm, rather than meekly accepting further injury. As a kid I also liked “Muscular Christianity.” Of course the Revd. Charles Kingsley, whom Gene Tunney likely read and perhaps enjoyed, intended the Muscular Christian movement to be an antidote to the effeminacy he found among the Oxford Romanizers. Let’s therefore have a full curriculum of boxing in all Catholic seminaries and seminary colleges, forthwith!!!

  • tom

    To honor a dead boxer, at the beginning of the card the ring bell is rung 10 times, in an air of silence. It’s a special “requiem” for all boxers, an ecumenical religious experience to honor a fallen gladiator.

  • Nanci K

    ” Fencing may match boxing for mental elegance, but the use of protective devices has made it a shadow of ancient duels.”
    As a fencer who also teaches and coaches (along with having three young adult children who are also involved in fencing), I agree with your statement, but I am also glad we use “protective devices” as well as blunt weapons since that could cause us to lose fencers! The “mental elegance” and physicality of fencing is, I think, still a sport that helps young men and women to learn honor, chivalry and respect both on and off the fencing piste.

    • Fr. George Rutler

      I suppose dueling scars are now out of fashion. Anyway, it is said that Saint Francis Xavier was a very good fencer, and began fencing when he entered the College de Sainte-Barbe in Paris in 1525.

    • musicacre

      My son took fencing a few years ago, when he was around 15 and he loved it! For the short time he was in in he won at some tournaments. They call it, ” chess on your feet;” a very strategic sport and excellent for the mind also!

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  • Fr. David Abernethy, C.O.

    Very peculiar reflection. How about teaching seminarians the “science of the fathers” rather that the “sweet science” of boxing?

  • Fr. David Abernethy, C.O.

    Very peculiar reflection. How about teaching seminarians the science of the fathers rather than the “sweet science” of boxing?

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