At a glance:
- There are still obvious attributes to boxing that has traditionally been associated with masculinity: physical strength, aggression and acts of heroism are all relevant.
- Discussing why he boxed, Will Tomlinson doesn’t have the stereotypical backstory.
- Danny Green, a renowned Australian professional boxer, references seeing many boys (and men) turn their lives around through being a boxer.
I used to train in a gym that was often occupied by very large men. You know, the type that lift ridiculously heavy weights as they grunt and groan with every push and pull. This gym also had walls shrouded with pictures of buffed male celebrities: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno just to name a few. It basically reeked of testosterone-fuelled male dominance.
But it was a comment I had once overheard that truly intrigued me. A large, overly muscular male told his smaller male companion to join a boxing gym as “boxing is a sport for real men”. Baffled by this statement, I went back to lifting my 10kg bench press with a considerable amount of difficulty.
That comment stayed with me for some days, though. How exactly is boxing a sport for real men? I scoff at the thought. Is there an idea that those gritty boxing gyms with their ‘do or die’ mentality can only be occupied by ‘real’ men?
Sure, the overly populated male sport, with its components of brute strength and force, may support this notion. Its colloquial term of being a ‘manly art’ may even bare some truth; it does take a certain someone to take constant hits to the face.
But at the end of the day, what even constitutes a real man? Is it the muscle-bound men the world and Hollywood portray as the ultimate ‘manly’ figures? Or is it the idea of a man partaking in staged acts of violence, such as boxing, which is seen as courageous, competitive and heroic?
When analysing the sport and its ‘manly’ traits, it’s clear that it is egotistical-driven, through and through. There’s also the idea that masculinity is strongly associated with the sport in general.
Is it then fair to suggest that, as a solo sport, boxing helps to inform male identity?
Kath Woodward is a professor of sociology and head of department at the Open University UK and the author of Boxing, Masculinity and Identity: the 'I' of the Tiger. She says that the sport of boxing isn’t necessarily indicative of what it means to be a man.
“The aim of boxing is to inflict injury rather than it being accidental so it seems especially violent and this has been commandeered as the province of ‘real men’. Men are not, however, a homogenous group and I don’t think one can say boxing is necessarily part of masculinity or even male identity,” explains Woodward.
“It’s more complicated in that boxing is part of the cultural construction of a dominant form of masculinity which has a great deal of purchase. Boxing isn’t all about violence even though this is largely how it is promoted. It is a highly disciplined sport.”
Michael Inglis, a sports and performance psychologist at Melbourne’s The Mind Room, concurs. Having worked with countless athletes at elite and sub-elite levels—at the start and end of their careers—he believes athletic identity, rather than male identity, and boxing are strongly related themes in the sport.
“Boxing can play a role in men and women expressing themselves as well as providing an athletic identity that is important to them,” says Inglis. “Athletic identity is important to athletes because it represents who they are and who they want to be. This is highlighted further in boxing as it is a solo sport which means this identity is more concentrated.”
Whatever way you look at it, there are still obvious attributes to boxing that has traditionally been associated with masculinity: physical strength, aggression and acts of heroism are all relevant. You only need to reference the Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr fight in June to see that this sport is rooted in heroic endeavours.
But beneath the speed, poetry and brutal force that is boxing lies a metaphorical means for developing character and an identity.
Boxing requires a considerable amount of skill. And through its associated violence in the ring, it becomes somewhat of a celebrated ritual of courage, skill and technique; the will to endure is admirable and people pay to see the human spirit prevail or flounder.
Danny Green, a renowned Australian professional boxer, references seeing many boys (and men) turn their lives around through being a boxer
“Boxing breeds self-respect. It demands discipline and nurtures respect for others, like your opponents,” explains Green. “I have seen plenty of instances where boxing has literally saved people from either their own death, someone else’s or from being incarcerated. And I’m talking about real fighters here, not the ‘fly by night’ boxercisers. These guys are the ones who have come from tough upbringings and unfortunate circumstances and have completely turned their life around through the discipline and respect they’ve learnt as a fighter.”
That notion of working hard, fighting for a cause and never giving up is relevant and commendable. If you want stories of overcoming, look to boxers.
My late grandfather was a boxer. Why he boxed, I’ll probably never know. But there is that idea of it being a sport for the dreamers; for the warriors with no quit in sight. My grandfather dreamt of a better life when he escaped communist Yugoslavia for Australia. He was one of the hardest working, disciplined and regimed individuals I knew. And one of the most admirable qualities he portrayed was his strong sense of identity. He knew, unequivocally, who he was as a man.
Who’s to say that boxing didn’t play its part?
Touching on boxing’s inherent violent components, it’s seldom seen that mimetic and real violence intertwine. Tomlinson does recall, however, a standover tactic used on him once whilst watching the Anthony Mundine versus Garth Wood fight. He was king hit, ringside, by an unnamed Sydney fighter who thought doing so would tempt Tomlinson to fight him for a title. Should these actions have been outside of the boxing fraternity, perhaps there would have been some criminal sanction imposed.
Inglis discusses this idea of the difficulty in separating the violent component of boxing in the ring and outside in the real world.
“I think some people are attracted to the violence as it represents characteristics they don’t have or are attracted to, such as power, dominance and superiority,” says Inglis. “It gives them the feeling of a dopamine high that then extends the feeling of wanting more of it.”
The feeling these individuals get, when boxing, outweighs and overpowers any feelings that they may experience outside the ring. Boxing is a test of their character and perhaps they like the person they see or become in the ring, be it good or bad.
On the topic of violence, Danny Green can resonate. Australia’s favourite son of boxing is currently going toe to toe with one of society’s biggest issues: violence on our streets.
Green is Australia’s advocate and founder of the Stop the Coward Punch Campaign. He coined the term ‘coward punch’ todescribe individuals who throw king hits, which can be fatal. He explains how as a society, we are facing an epidemic; a generational issue where violence is ruling our streets.
“Stopping the coward punch will not happen overnight. It’s an educational and generational shift that’s required, but already it’s [the campaign] had a hugely positive impact in our society,” says Green. “The Coward Punch Campaign is a long-term vision. People are still dying on our streets from its related violence, but these deaths have been greatly reduced since 2012. It’s very clear that the campaign is having an effect and is being noticed. I mean, to change the vernacular in society in seven years is an extraordinary feat. This is something I could not have predicted in such a short time but it goes to show how much the community despises acts of cowardice.”
Although boxing isn’t directly correlated to this uproar in violence, you can’t help but wonder if that act of punching a man until he is down and the supposed ‘high’ it achieves is somehow relatable.
These individuals who partake in these violent acts are often touted by peers as heroes for partaking in such ‘manly’ crimes.
Perhaps sociocultural and economic factors should be considered in the midst of this conversation, however. There is a high percentage of boxers who have come from either tough upbringings, broken homes or lower socio-economic backgrounds with a host of pressures and problems.
“Boxing may be a disciplined outlet for physical aggression, but it also offers a route into legitimacy and earning a living for migrant people or those subjected to racism and poverty,” explains Woodward. “Boxing gyms are also a place where you engage in albeit risky behaviour which will hurt, but you can leave all your other worries outside and everyone is otherwise equal in the gym.”
Boxing allows its participants to perhaps escape the mundanity that may consume their lives; the pressure of work, family life, making ends meet. These socially framed identities experience a heightened level through boxing. When you enter the boxing ring, these problems dissipate. And it’s a feeling worth coming back to.
My understanding of boxing, this art of fine training, has considerably changed of late. Delving deeper into this considerably thought-provoking topic, it’s evident that the sport forms character building, self-development and ultimately, an identity.
It shapes its athletes. It moulds the motivated. And it enriches the dedicated.
Words by Joshua Bozin.