Boxing Clever

by Theodore Dalrymple (October 2013)

Many years ago, more indeed than I care to number, I had a discussion with my fellow-students that had a permanent influence upon my views and attitude to life. It concerned, of all things, the ethics of professional boxing, a subject to which until that moment I had not given a moment’s thought. But youth is an age at which it is felt necessary to have a strong opinion about everything, and mere ignorance is no bar to passionate advocacy. The same is true, of course, of journalists. There is nothing like passionate ignorance to keep one young at heart.

Needing to take sides in the discussion, for silence was not then in my nature, I found myself echoing, or rather parroting, the views of Dr Edith Summerskill. She was a Labour Member of Parliament who ran and was principally known for a campaign to outlaw professional boxing. She was, I think, a brave woman, for her campaign was not popular among her political party’s supposed constituency, the proletariat, and even excited some ridicule among them; but those were the days when there were still some politicians who fought for what they thought was right rather than for what was expedient in the careerist sense.

While many sports were dangerous, I said, boxing was the only one whose object was physically to incapacitate an opponent and even injure him. It often resulted in chronic brain damage such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunkenness, to the great economic and emotional cost of those who suffered it and those who cared for or looked after them. It exerted a brutalising effect upon spectators (here I spoke from neither experience nor information). And practically no one would go in for it who was not driven to it by desperate social and economic circumstances, so that to do so was not really a free choice at all.

I recalled my assertion about the brutalising effects of boxing as a spectacle when I attended the one and only professional boxing tournament I have ever attended as a spectator. It was in an industrial town that had once had a rather grand Victorian centre, but which had been destroyed by a combination of economic decline and modern town planning. The hall in which the boxing took place was large and dismal.

The draw of the evening was a world championship fight (the champion was a local boy), but before that there were many fights to sit through between young hopefuls on the one hand and ageing no-hopers on the other. I had not appreciated until then just how boring a brutal spectacle could be. The journeymen boxers grunted their way round the ring, taking swipes at each other that rarely connected, though occasionally they did. Sometimes blood would spurt from one of their noses and spatter the spectators close to the ring. It was then that I was glad not to have bought one of the ‘better,’ which is to say the ringside, seats.

The boxing fans waited for the world champion as fascists waited for the arrival at a rally of their leader, which is to say with mounting tension. And when the champion boxed, even I, who am no aficionado, could see that he was possessed of a completely different order of skill. He danced elegantly round the ring, and when he threw a punch it connected exactly where it was intended to; but he gave the impression of doing it more to score points than to inflict harm on his opponent. Even if I could not agree that boxing was a noble art, let alone the noble art, I saw that there could be great skill in it.

But what I most remembered of the evening was a spectator in front of me, a man from the look of him who was not himself much given to athletic pursuits. When one of the journeymen boxers caught another full on the face, drawing blood, the man in front of me rose excitedly to his feet and screamed ‘Kill ’im! Kill ’im!’ I had the impression that he meant it in no very metaphorical sense, and that he would have been quite content to see a man beaten to death before his very eyes.

Be that as it may, the question arose in my mind as to whether the coarse brutality of his sentiment was caused by the spectacle, or rather he attended the spectacle because of his coarse brutality. Probably the relationship was dialectical: appetites are not so much fluids in a closed space waiting to be released as propensities that grow with their satisfaction. My guess, or prejudice, is that attendance at coarse spectacles makes people coarse; and Lord Macaulay’s famous remark, that the Puritans hated bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators is not quite as damning of the Puritans as might be supposed.

I suspect, though I cannot prove, that boxing also exerts a brutalising effect upon its practitioners, contrary to those who believe in the hydraulic theory of human aggression. I once had as a patient a young man whose girlfriend told me that until he took up kick-boxing he had been kind and considerate, but that thereafter he became aggressive, bad-tempered and violent. Other interpretations of the story than mine are possible, and stories of a decline in violence towards others are sometimes told of those unruly youths who take up boxing. The possibility remains that the same activity has different effects on different people: where the evidence is equivocal, one does not so much suspend judgment as believe what one wants. 

In my discussion all those years ago, however, I did not emphasise the allegedly brutalising effect, both on spectators and practitioners, of boxing. Rather, my main argument was the supposed inability of professional boxers to choose their career rather than be chosen by it as an inevitable consequence of their social and economic circumstances.

One of my interlocutors, a young man much more mature than I (and now an eminent surgeon), granted that most – though not all – professional boxers emerged from the poorest section of society. But that, he said, was not enough to establish my point. Not only were some professional boxers not of the lowest class, but the vast majority of the lowest class were not professional boxers. To regard professional boxers as virtually inanimate products of forces acting upon them was not generous, but to deprive them of their humanity, that is to say their powers of conscious agency. True, their decisions were affected by their circumstances: but whose are not? They chose, and chose freely.

I saw at once that he was right; that my attitude was condescending and dehumanising. But of course I did not change my opinion there and then, by admitting that he was right, rather I cleaved to it all the more obstinately. Schopenhauer has many eloquent pages on the purpose or end of argument or discussion being victory rather than truth, the latter being but a weapon, for the achievement of the former. But it does not follow from this that there is no point in discussion (other than victory): for truth seeps through the mind like damp through a wall, and eventually conquers it. I lost the habit, common among those of intellectual bent, of seeing my fellow beings as objects rather than subjects.

Not many years later, it so happened, I had as a patient the widow of a former world champion boxer. She was approaching seventy and her husband’s career had been mainly pre-war. By the time the war was over he was past his peak and his career, at least as a boxer, was never so glorious again.

To my surprise, his widow was an elegant, mannerly, intelligent, cultivated and articulate woman, and in her recollections of her husband (which I encouraged, as much for my own sake as for hers) she managed to convey the same qualities in him. It was clear that she had loved and even revered him; she said that he was what one might not have expected in the milieu of professional boxing, and what to her was the highest term of praise, a gentleman. I was moved by her love for him, but also saddened by it, for it was clear that her happiness consisted of living imaginatively in that past. It is a stage of life that comes to us all, and sooner than any of us thinks.

Her husband had clearly been a most remarkable man. Born into a working-class mining family, he had used boxing as a means of making his way in the world. He was adulated in the area of his birth, without such adulation in any way turning his head. In those days, there was little in the way of medical supervision of boxers: a man could fight until his brain was destroyed if he wanted to and no one stopped him. In his great book, Organic Psychiatry, Lishman says of the characteristic brain damage caused by boxing:

Severe examples date mostly from boxing careers pursued before the second world war when medical control over boxing was less rigorous than at present. Fair-ground booth boxing appears to have been especially hazardous.   

My patient’s husband had indeed started out as fairground-booth boxer, and in his time must have had more than a thousand fights, at least four hundred of them professional in the full sense. By luck and no doubt by skill he had avoided all brain damage; he had been a man interested in literature and other quiet intellectual pursuits.

Whether because the nature of fame and celebrity had in the meantime changed, I somewhat doubted that his like would easily be found nowadays. But the unexpected story that his wife told me nevertheless affected my development. I had a stereotype in my mind of boxers as brutes; here was a boxer who had been considerably more gentlemanly than I.

I did not draw from this the conclusion that it was wrong to have stereotypes in one’s mind. Not only is the effort to eliminate stereotypes futile, and likely to lead to dishonest claims of success, but any person who did actually succeed would be in grave danger, like the very rare person who is born without the capacity to feel pain.

I still believe it likely that, on average, professional boxers are unlikely to be fine gentlemen; but I learnt from this example that one ought to retain the mental flexibility to recognise when stereotypes are no longer a guide to reality: a guide which, in the first place, is never more than rough and ready. The man without stereotypes is like the man who steps out into the world stark naked; the man who sticks to his stereotypes despite evidence is like the man who dresses the same whatever the weather.

If professional boxing is, on the whole, brutal and brutalising, is there anything that can be said in its defence? I confess that I have no desire ever to attend a professional boxing match ever again; one was enough, perhaps more than enough, for me; but personal taste is not necessarily a good guide to public policy, and even the most ferocious opponent of the sport must confess that, brutal and brutalising as it might be, only an insignificant proportion of the brutality in society could possibly be attributable to it.

At the very least, boxers must be brave; and there is something stirring about the spectacle of two men, more or less evenly matched, testing one another according to rules by which, at least in principle, they abide even in the extremity of their need to break them. Moreover, however much they may have insulted each other beforehand in an attempt to stoke their own aggression, they kiss and make up, even honour each other, immediately the fight is over. This is chivalry, albeit of a relatively coarse kind; but chivalry is always inspiring. Rational utility is not the measure of all things, and is not the only guide as to what to permit and what to prohibit.


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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