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Is Boxing Play?

Psychologists tell us that by age four, children are very good at differentiating playing from fighting. But, what about those events that fall in the middle, play-fighting and rough-and-tumble play? Can fighting be playful? Here we have an instinctive sense of the answer to the question—one that most of us boys honed by experience. We know the difference. The culture informally discouraged fisticuffs (but not verbal rough-and-tumble) for girls of course. And legal strictures discouraged it, too. For most of the 20th century most countries officially banned women’s boxing. But the sport for women began to grow in the 1990s as other tough, demanding sports such as professional women’s soccer and basketball also gained in popularity. Jackie Frazier-Lyde, Laila Ali, and Freeda Foreman—all fierce daughters of former heavyweight champions—distinguished themselves in the ring. With the aid of the Clint Eastwood film Million Dollar Baby (2004), women boxers helped knock-out at least one old stereotype, and thus they opened the question about play fighting for women, too. Play fighters display the answer to the question with the signature “play face”—the open, mischievous, crinkly eyed, smiling, inviting face. They mean to play. By contrast fighters frown and face-off and grimace; they mean to hurt. Play fighters and fighters both hit, but players use an open hand or otherwise pull their punches. And usually players avoid aiming for the face. It’s an unspoken, unwritten rule: cause real damage and play likely ends. Injure an eye or bloody a nose and the fun stops. Play fighters don’t want the fun to stop. On the other hand, real fighters close their fingers and make hard fists of their hands. They mean to injure, humiliate, and flatten as soon as possible. There is no point to prolonging a fistfight.

There is no point to prolonging a fistfight except, of course, when it comes to the sport of boxing—the combat sport of boxing. Boxing is violent, but it operates by rules. Rules strictly govern the place and time of the match. Boxers meet in a ring, a special, roped-off area for the contest. Once fistfights were free-for-all, now boxers clash in three-minute rounds. Typically three rounds comprise an amateur match. Women professionals fight for a maximum of 10 rounds, men, 15. One minute breaks between rounds protect the fighters, allow them to recover from the pounding, and prolong the bout. A prolonged bout doesn’t just measure endurance, conditioning, and the ability to absorb pain; long contests also usually favor skill over strength. Rounds also increase the suspense of the match and hence the pleasure of the spectators. Real fights are brief. Someone quickly goes down in real life. But boxing, the contest, is an event that is meant to last. Fights that end in round one are no contests at all. Do boxers mean to hurt, injure, and humiliate? Yes and no. Rules govern how much pain, how much injury, and how much humiliation both winners and losers will suffer. Bare knuckle fights that began to gain popularity in England in the 16th century began to acquire rules by the middle of the eighteenth. The Broughton Rules declared a fight finished if a contestant failed to rise after 30 seconds. (In fact, a fighter could once drop to one knee to catch his breath and clear his head and then resume a fight.) There would be no hitting felled opponents. There would be no “grasping” below the belt, mercifully. A referee would enforce the rules. John Broughton, author of the Broughton Rules, also introduced padded “mufflers,” the first boxing gloves. Fighters mostly wore these to protect their spindly, vulnerable hand bones. In practice, the hand is no match for the skull; more fights ended prematurely from a broken hand than a busted noggin. And so fighters once specialized in body punches, landing blows on the softer target. Modern, heavily padded gloves make matches more spectacular because they make a target of the head. A punch to the head surely looks scary. Do gloves make boxing more violent? Arguably, yes. Do they make boxing more exciting? Certainly. Even though very few shots to the head result in a knockout, a match always holds out that prospect. And a knockout brings a prizefight to a spectacular end. With the British, Irish, and revitalized American boxing teams off to a good start at this summer’s Olympics in London, I’m wondering about a basic question: can we ever regard this fierce, demanding, competitive sport as play? Here let’s look at two undisputed heavyweight champs, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. Tyson, a fighter of tremendous strength, talent, courage, and ferocity is probably remembered best for breaking the rules with violent outbursts and erratic behavior in and out of the ring. I should stipulate that boxing, regardless of the contrived and theatrical face-to-face confrontations at pre-fight press conferences and weigh-ins, and despite all of the punching, is really an exercise in control. For instance, a boxer learns to control his reflex by not shutting his eyes and instead, watching the punch aimed at him to better to avoid it. To learn how to deliver a punch is to learn a kind of choreography. Tyson memorably lost his cool in a return match with Evander Hayfield in 1997 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Referees disqualified Tyson at the end of the third round after he bit both Hayfield ears, spitting blood and flesh on to the canvas. Horrified fans called Tyson a disgrace. The Nevada State Athletic Commission fined Tyson $3 million and suspended his license to fight. There is much more complexity and intrigue in this story, with blame to share and motives to examine, but no room to tell it here. I introduce it only to introduce Muhammad Ali, one of my heroes, and a paragon of poise, and yes, a master of playful humor, even in the ring. Ali became as famous for his mouth as for his fists. He stung opponents with verbal and physical jabs. He bragged that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” To unnerve an opponent he would perform the comic “Ali Shuffle.” Or he would wind up a right hand like Popeye. Or he hunkered down with the patented “rope-a-dope” to wear out and enrage sluggers like Joe Frazier by inviting tiring but unrewarding body shots. Ali teased and disarmed his reporter-friend Howard Cosell (a nonstop talker with an overdeveloped vocabulary) by snatching at his toupee. And he’d wear out his most dangerous opponents with taunts after their hardest punches, “that all you got, chump—oops, champ?” Boxing is deadly serious. Ali took the sport, his peace activism, and his religion seriously. But oh, Ali was funny. He made up funny names for his perilous championship fights in Zaire and the Philippines calling them “The Rumble in the Jungle” and “The Thrilla in Manila.” At a photo shoot in 1964, he mimed knocking out John, Paul, George, and Ringo with one punch. When asked about his conversion to Islam, Ali said he’d want four wives, “one to shine his shoes, one to feed him grapes, one to rub oil on his muscles, and one named Peaches.” Ali continued fighting long after he should have retired and paid a steep bodily price for it. But he enjoyed playing around with his celebrity and playing with the graceful violence of his sport far too much to stop. “When you’re as great as I am,” he said, “it’s hard to be humble.” In 1999, Sports Illustrated dubbed Ali the “Sportsman of the Century.”