On Sunday afternoons my dad used to watch boxing on a tiny black and white tv at the kitchen table. I’d argue with him about it because that was time I wanted him to spend with me. So I’d sit and watch with him and I’d have an internal argument between the part of me that hated the violence that I had been raised with and the other part that was fascinated with and interested in the sport. I casually asked my dad questions, never giving away the fact that there was something I liked about it. He shared stories about how he had boxed during the Korean War.
So I just recently started boxing myself. Nothing serious. I just take a few classes a week at my gym. There’s part of me that has stayed fascinated with the sport my whole life but I’d never really had the opportunity. I’ve been living in London for over a year now and the pandemic has limited what is possible in a day, so I joined a fancy gym with hundreds of classes so that I could learn something new.
I’ll admit I’ve been a secret angry person. I don’t commonly take it out on people. I usually swallow my anger and turn it in on myself. But it’s fully there. For the better part of my life I have suffered from insomnia because right at the hour of my bedtime, my demons creep in and the battles big and small reaching all the way back into my childhood come to visit me and the feeling is as full as the original injury. I thought maybe in someway learning to box could be an outlet and an expression of that anger.
And I’m here to confess: I love to box. So far it’s just me hitting a bag. There’s some thing kind of Zen if not at least martial-arts-like about studying the form. There’s aspects of dancing and instinct and alignment and stamina that are exciting to me. And as to the anger, it does help. I don’t imagine someone I’m angry with. I don’t imagine punching someone in the face. It’s just me and a bag. But when a punch actually lands. When I feel that intention in force surge through my body and connect beautifully with the surface, I feel an electric charge and I feel some of that stored history seem to leave my body.
I just recently heard someone lump combat sports into the judgment of toxic masculinity and there are certain versions of this that I would agree fall under that. But I also think it exacerbates the problem to lump this with the word toxic. To be a human teeming with testosterone sometimes includes a level of aggression. What do we do with that? Do I, for example, continue to turn it inward. I know from experience that unexpressed emotion finds its way into the world one way or another. It seems like a creative solution for that to have a “gentleman‘s agreement” where two people can go into the ring, have combat, and live out this part of their psyche and experience. Some of the most terrifying boxers I have also been some of the most gentle spirits. Muhamed Ali was truly a poet and an openhearted activist. Mike Tyson, arguably one of the most terrifying humans I can imagine, is a rainbow of contradictions in the kind way he presents himself and the extremes of physical discipline he has mastered as a boxer.
I also think as men we feel that the time will come where we will be called to be the protector. That’s no small expectation to live up to. The cultural cues that ask our manhood into question if we fail at this are formidable. And to have a place to feel skilled, to feel safe in that role and supported is maybe necessary for the male psyche.