South of the River – The Boxer

Compass-SouthComment logo 2I was so pleased when I heard that, hot on the heels of our article about 11 year old boxer Abby Briggs, she had won her first fight representing Yorkshire in Dublin.

Delighted, but slightly troubled too. I’m ambivalent about boxing.

Until about ten years ago I thought ambivalence meant you didn’t have a strong view one way or another on a given subject, but I discovered it’s more nuanced than that.

I can’t remember how I came to learn this, but it more about having counterbalancing views. You can have strong views both in support and against the subject, but still not come down decisively on one side or the other. It is in this second sense that I am ambivalent about boxing.

There is absolutely no doubt that boxers are skilled sportsmen and women. They need high levels of fitness and strength, they need good technique, stamina and a tactical awareness. If you watch Mohammed Ali’s fights there is an artistry at work.

I was delighted when Nicola Adams won her gold medals in London and Rio. Of course it helped that she is an LGBT icon, has the most glorious smile and comes from an unfashionable part of Leeds. But still I was very pleased that she’d won her fights.

If you go down to the Hunslet Club you can see how seriously they take boxing as a sport and rightly so, there is a tradition to maintain. The area and the Club have produced many top fighters. As with other sports, boxing can give young people a focus, teach them discipline and improve their health. It can channel aggression to a positive end and, bluntly, keep young people off the streets and out of trouble.

But … but …

At the end of the day it is still about one person hitting another person’s head as hard as they can. Our heads are not designed to take that sort of punishment. It makes the brain rattle around in the skull and causes damage. It’s not good for you.

Surely everyone can make up their own mind, weigh the risks, and decide whether to box or not? Of course that’s true and I know that as a sport boxing takes these things very seriously, but still Mike Towell died having been knocked out in the ring last month.

I don’t know much about the history of boxing, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find the aristocracy involved in it. They created horse racing to bet on. They invented cross country running – getting their gamekeepers to race so they could bet on the outcome. And of course the rules of boxing were set by the Marquis of Queensbury.

Boxing is predominantly a working class sport, at least in terms of participants. That’s no problem in itself, many sports are. There’s something unedifying about the rich and famous at ringside, are they hoping to get specks of sweat and blood on their expensive clothes? It looks to me rather like the roman gladiators in the amphitheatre.

Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, has been seen as a route “out of the ghetto”. That’s great for those who make it, but what about the others who take the knocks and injuries and remain as poor as ever?

So boxing – a great sport or a throwback that belongs in the history books with bear baiting and cock fighting? I cannot decide, I have strong feelings on both sides of the debate.

For all my misgivings, I wish Abby well, I really do, but I also hope she stays safe.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.


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