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.

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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 a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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