People sometimes ask me how I can be a fan of such a dangerous sport. It’s a fair question. For all the outrage directed at the NFL and its cavalier attitude towards repetitive brain injury, boxing has escaped relatively unscathed. Some of that is probably due to the fact that the NFL receives much more media attention generally, but I think most of it is due to the simple fact that everyone understands boxing is bad for you. If you didn’t realize being repeatedly punched in the head is bad for your health, well, perhaps you don’t have too much to lose up there in the first place.
I know from whence I speak. I’ve played contact sports my whole life and I’m a klutz to boot. I don’t know how many concussions I’ve had over the years. I do remember my first one vividly: I was about 5 years old, me and my friends were playing three flies up on a concrete yard, I went up to make up a catch and woke up a minute later with everyone gathered around me. I remember thinking it all was very cool.
By the time I started boxing, I’d long since come to the realization that blows to my head didn’t really hurt. I’d probably had my bell rung at least 40-50 times – by which I mean taking a blow such that everything went black for at least a moment, usually followed by seeing stars – either playing baseball or football, or in one case, walking headfirst into a flagpole during recess (I’m a klutz, remember). In high school, for some reason I thought it would impress girls to drunkenly smash my head into walls at parties. Assuming it wasn’t a friend’s place, I could usually put it right through drywall. And, no, obviously, it did not impress girls.
I never got knocked out boxing, but I did come close one time. It was college. I was sparring in the gym but outside of the ring. My opponent was a short heavily-muscled guy with control issues, and I was having an easy time keeping him off me with my longer jab. That is, until our coach blew the whistle, I dropped my hands, and BAM, he sucker punched me square in the jaw. My head ricocheted off a concrete gymnasium wall and I almost went down. I managed to keep my balance, clear my head, and return the favor with interest as soon as we resumed sparring.
I remember sitting in a bar one night beside a well-known combat journalist who was freshly back from Iraq. As he basked in the attention and admiration from his comrades, I overheard him say, “I hate to say it, but we wouldn’t have wars if they weren’t so much fun.” I don’t share his attitude as to war but it certainly rings true as applied to boxing. No one would lace up the gloves if there wasn’t something incredibly fun and rewarding about trading leather. Remember that guy who sucker punched my head into the wall? After another few minutes of sparring, the bad feelings were forever exorcised. When we wrapped up, we shook hands and went out for a beer. Boxing certainly requires sacrifice, but in return one gets an incredible workout, an entirely unique cathartic release of one’s repressed frustrations, and a feeling of mutual respect and connection with one’s opponent that might take weeks or months to develop in other settings.
When I first started reading about CTE and other long-term effects of repetitive brain injury, I didn’t think about myself. To be honest, I usually still don’t. But, if I take a step back, I can see I’m an obvious candidate to have some problems in the future. I started getting migraines for the first time in my late 20s, and even the slightest blow to my head now tends to lead to a headache that clocks in at about 7 Jim Beam and Cokes on the hangover scale. Maybe there’s no connection to all the abuse to which my skull was subjected in my youth, but then again, maybe there is. I’ll probably never know.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume there is a link. And let’s assume things are going to get worse. Much worse. Even knowing all that, I still don’t know that I’d do anything different (other than finding a better way to meet girls in high school, but that goes without saying). If I had never boxed, maybe I would have done something even worse for my health: I could have become a smoker, I could have been sedentary and obese, I could have taken up base-jumping. Nothing short of encasing my head in bubble wrap would have guaranteed me a concussion-free existence (and I already had enough trouble meeting girls).
There are plenty of clichés I could trot out about how a life without risks is not a life worth living, but that’s not my style and hardly the point. Even without it becoming my career, boxing contributed a great deal to my life. It kept me fit. It improved my self-confidence. I made new friends. I developed a deeper connection with a sport that I’ve loved my whole life. It even left me with the occasional black eye or bandage that did impress a girl!
I can watch boxing with a clear conscience. The guys in the ring know the risks better than anyone else. They’ve seen Muhammad Ali. They’ve seen Gerald McClellan. A few years ago, Shane Mosley did an anti-dog fighting campaign for PETA. The slogan was that Shane chose to fight while the dogs did not. And, even though I now wish Shane would stop choosing to fight (and the sport would stop enabling him), I cannot for a second deny that he understands the tradeoff he makes when he steps in the ring. I chose to make that tradeoff, albeit at a very different level of risk and reward, and I certainly see no sin in reveling in memories of my time in the ring whatever its long-term effect on my health may be. By the same token, I see no crime in watching others do it much better than I ever could.