On Anger and Impulse Control in Boxing by James Southwood

If asked for the virtue most associated with boxing, I guess most people would choose courage. For me, it is temperance.

Boxing has been practised across cultures for millennia. It featured in Greek Olympia, in ancient Egypt, Minoan culture, and doubtless passed unrecorded in many other settings, for the urge and facility for one man to strike another with his fists has presumably been universal. If we pick up its history from early British bare-knuckle boxing, the bloody and chaotic bouts started to become regulated in the 18th century by such injunctions as not hitting a man when he is down, giving a count to a fallen fighter, no butting, no gouging, and other restrictions on brutality. In the full heat of a sweaty, noisy battle someone thought to insist on restraint.

The Broughton rules of 1743 were designed to prevent deaths and served to lift boxing out of a miasma of unregulated, bloody dueling. In this way, temperance applied to violence is the beginning of the definition of the sport of boxing. The Broughton rules became the London Prize Ring Rules and are more relevant for us than the later but better-known Marquis of Queensbury rules of 1867, which served to give sporting uniformity for factors such as ring size, round times, and glove weights.

Fast-forward to today’s modern fighting arts and sports. They tend to divide on that descriptive point. If you wish to learn to fight, but you wish to refrain from damaging, hurting or even killing your practice partners and opponents, you have already decided on temperance. There are two broad ways to go about that.

Either you train deadly movements, but with certainty about what is going to happen, the full cooperation of your partner, slower technique, and the replacement of dangerous weapons, holds, or chokes with replicas. This is the method in, for example, some self-defence, krav maga, aïkido, and weapons arts.

At the other extreme you allow full speed, uncertainty, and opposition, but you severely limit the techniques that are permitted. The sport of boxing falls into this second camp. You wear heavily padded gloves and are permitted to strike only with (and to) certain parts of the body. You must follow the referee, gestures, and regulations. Boxing chooses a rule-laden approach to tempering violence.

Temperance is judged by what you can refrain from doing, which is incorporated into boxing training from the start. In every rough, brick-lined and sweat-stained gym around the world a trainer will ask you to refrain from your normal style of walking around. Boxers don’t walk, they use a falling-step or push-step and it takes hours of practice to refrain from a lifelong habit of ambulation. The trainer will ask you to refrain from dropping your hands to their natural position by your side, rather you must defend yourself at all times. These and other injunctions inform your behaviour.

On emotion, you soon will be admonished for looking away or flinching when a strike comes towards you. Night after night you are taught to regulate your fear response and learn that it is not the strike that is the problem, but your judgement of it. Skilled boxers and coaches know this, even though they may never have read Epictetus.

At a later stage of your development, respectable boxing gyms will offer you sparring as a reward for comporting yourself properly. You are invited to box freestyle between the ropes only when you have exhibited enough discipline, perseverance, and skill on the bag, alone, to merit the chance. Good coaches model the desired restraint by not allowing a literal free hand to an unchecked fighter. (I personally identify suspect gyms as those that display no such discipline).

The next stage, as you develop your sparring weapons, is to learn not to mutate fear into anger.

For Seneca, anger is “devoid of self-control”, “regardless of decorum”, and “deaf to reason and advice”. (De Ira, Book I). Boxing is, by this Stoic definition, fully outside of anger. In reverse order: We prefer to box using reason and tactics. Against a technical opponent, the only way to make ground is to understand clearly what is actually happening, not what you wish it to be, and stick to a game plan. In high-level boxing, this kind of reason applied to the nature of your opponent is widely understood to be a virtue. You amend your will to suit the world. There is no place for self-delusion if the strategy is to step a little further left, roll each right cross, or keep working to the body, when that might be exactly what you least favour in yourself.

Further, bouts come bundled with a one minute round of advice in between the three minute rounds contested between the opponents proper. Wise counsel, listening to reason and reflection is therefore fully one quarter of every amateur and professional boxing match. It is understood that the fighter who does not listen to his corner will not perform half as well as his more clear-headed rival.

Next, decorum is insisted upon by the rules. With violence close at hand, it must be. Touch gloves, mind your heads, stop at the bell. Boxing has a form and a harmony which can be beautiful to watch and writers and thinkers have noted it, from Norman Mailer and Albert Camus, to Joyce Carol Oates and A.J. Liebling. The last of which, though originally a food critic and no kind of athlete himself, referred to the unskilled brawling that characterises poor boxing as “anti-intellectualism,” grasping very directly the point. Finally, in its most important aspects, boxing relies on self-control to do what is necessary over what is favoured emotionally.

Good boxing can never therefore be angry. Jack Dempsey, the early 20th century heavyweight champion of the world writes in his lucid and explanatory book that:

Anger provides the No. 1 difference between a fist-fght and a boxing bout. Anger is an unwelcome guest in any department of boxing. From the first time a chap draws-on gloves as a beginner he is taught to “keep his temper” never to “lose his head”. When a boxer gives way to anger, he becomes a “natural” fighter who tosses science into the bucket.

Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense p. 20.

Boxers understand that anger cannot be their direct fuel. Boxing has a history of gathering up disadvantaged young men from poor backgrounds and transforming the anger derived from an unjust life or economic situation into a proud and virtuous technical ability. Boxing teaches at the outset the discipline not to be ruled by that kind of anger, but to sublimate it.

Everybody thinks this is a tough man’s sport. This is not a tough man’s sport. This is a thinking man’s sport. A tough man is gonna get hurt real bad in this sport

Mike Tyson

To an untrained eye, however, violence abounds in a boxing ring even today. With one fighter blooded and another raining down strikes in an attempt to knock away consciousness to the point he cannot continue, it surely has that appearance. Violence is disorganised, therefore it is natural to infer disorganised rage in the participants. But to a true boxer, a punch is never made or thrown in anger. It has a purpose. It is directed by prudence. It is governed, both by the rules of the sport and by a fitness granted only by discipline.

Boxers also practise temperance through their daily habits. By what other virtue might they rise at 6 a.m. for a morning run, diet year-round to stand on the scales with as much lean muscle as possible, and continue training, sparring, or fighting unperturbed when every nerve in their body screams “stop?” The sort of hardship experiences touted by Musonius in his lectures are in evidence in the daily regime known to boxers worldwide.

Boxing is both an exercise of, and training in, a Stoic style of mindfulness against unchecked reactions. As Stoics, we aim to treat even the worst difficulty as a welcome chance to practise our preferred response. Boxing training amounts to getting punched in the face by your peers and spending hours working on the best possible response to it.

If you have never done so, find a boxing gym and witness your own flinching, cowardly behaviour under the threat of a well-placed glove from a well-trained opponent. Then appreciate the skill with which these young fighters hold their nerve, and react in wisdom and not in fury to what is happening. Progressing through this kind of adversity is, in a way, a meditation: paying attention to the present moment and assuming responsibility for your fear.

My thesis is not that boxers are model Stoics, far less model citizens, but that they employ a characteristically Stoic temperance, reason, and response to adversity, at least when inside the ring. Boxing, in common with almost any demanding human endeavour, ultimately approaches a Stoic attitude in its practitioners.

More praise to Stoicism! Which implies (and this is my thesis) that a boxer’s education will be likely improved by interweaving Stoic thinking into their craft. Oriental martial arts often come packaged with a Confucian, Taoist, or Buddhist training philosophy for its students. Boxing has a centuries old oral tradition of emotional control and training discipline, to which a practical philosophy of temperance and reason clearly has the potential to be a useful complement. I contend that modern Stoicism is a suitable fit.

The approachable writing style of the original Stoic authors is very much to our favour in this project. I have quoted Marcus Aurelius directly ringside to fighters in the heat of competition, with benefit to them.

If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.

Meditations, Book X

In every boxing gym I have ever visited there has been a picture of Muhammad Ali on the wall. The famous one of him standing over Sonny Liston in their second fight in 1965. In my (unpopular) view, Ali displays fewer admirable traits than many other fighters. He is remembered fondly, but in his public pronouncements he rarely did anything more than promote himself and his self-declared genius. (‘It is hard to be humble when you are as great as I am‘).

He inspired people, certainly, and I dare say he helped them – especially people of colour during the era in which he was boxing in America – by standing up to his full human height. This kind of display can be a glorious feat, even a noble one, which people badly want to emulate in order to rescue their own difficult situations. For that reason they love him. But his method was to inflate his ego to such a size that it toppled over lesser opponents. This is self-delusion: hardly Stoic.

But in his favour Ali was able to box clever – he had a boxer’s reason or logos – and it was a more virtuous quote of his which inspired me to discover the courage to win my own world title: ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’. Which returns us to the emotional control I contend is the centrepiece of boxing competence – here, the discipline to prioritise a preferred future over the suffering of the present – often conspicuously lacking in Ali’s more brash pronouncements.

In our gym, however, self-control would always be favoured over self-promotion; fighters would know the folly of getting upset and reacting badly to what the opponent, or the referee, or anyone else is doing; they would respect fair-play and understand that this is just a game played for a short time in collaboration with our partners to mutual benefit; they would want to stay upright in virtue even when it is no longer possible in posture. In other words, ours would be a Stoic boxing gym, and the faded black and white poster on our exposed brick wall would be of Seneca.

James Southwood is a former world champion in Savate: French style boxing with feet and fists. You can find him on Twitter or at his training website academy.londonsavate.com

4 thoughts on On Anger and Impulse Control in Boxing by James Southwood

  1. Rob Jaworski says:

    Many good points raised here, thank you for the thoughtful application of Stoicism to a sport I’ve typically loathed. I especially enjoyed the image drawn of an ancient Stoic’s representation pasted on the exposed red brick wall in the place of a vainglorious anti-Stoic athlete. Nice touch!

  2. Kevin Vost says:

    This article has given me a new appreciation for the potentially quite philosophical sport of boxing and I very much like the idea of grounding boxing in Stoic thinking much in the way that Eastern martial arts have been ground in Eastern philosophies. Thank you for this excellent article so full of practical Stoic insights, including your opening thoughts on the roles of courage and temperance. I think Seneca himself would have found it a good read!

  3. Mick Mulroy says:

    This is an excellent article. Well done James. As a former amateur boxer and boxing coach in the Marine Corps, I couldn’t agree with you more.

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