The Beltline: Is it necessary to have once been punched in the face for money to express an opinion on boxing?

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THIS morning, motivated by a bout of self-loathing and the peculiar guilt attached to never having boxed for a living, I tried to recall each of the times I had been hit in the face by punches; the ones painful to receive but not the ones too painful to recall.

Few and far between, I could remember one at 14, during a playfight which escalated into a real fight at school, as well as several at 16, during a sparring session at a local amateur boxing club in Guildford. Beyond that, there were several more punches received in a later sparring session, at 21, this time thrown by three professionals in Northern Cyprus, plus a couple of sucker punches I caught not in a boxing ring but on football pitches. The first of those, which happened when I was 23, occurred with me grounded and the opponent on top of me, while the second, which happened at 31, was a right hand I received in a five-a-side fixture in London Bridge. Interestingly, a few weeks prior to that blow I had been struck by an elbow on the very same pitch, the result of which was a black eye I wore to that year’s Sports Journalism Awards. It was there, too, while sitting around a table, a drunk woman with whom I was unfamiliar told me, “See, that’s how a boxing writer should look.”

She wasn’t to know, of course. She wasn’t to know that the shiner I sported that evening in some swanky Westminster hotel was not the product of being punched in a boxing ring, like a real man, but instead the product of winding up an opponent, both with my feet and my smile, on a five-a-side football pitch. Still, regardless of its origin, it gave me a momentary boost to think my appearance that night somehow legitimised my job; becoming, without knowing it, the membership card I was otherwise without.

It is, after all, a sport unlike any other, boxing, one very few will do for “fun” or just to experience what it’s like. It is not football, it is not cricket, and it is not golf. There is in fact a giant chasm between those who know what it feels like to fight and the rest of the population and therefore any attempt to describe the experience, or simply comment on it, seems a job for which I, and many others, are woefully ill-equipped. It would appear, on the face of it, something only a professional boxer should do. Someone who, based on experience, knows exactly what it is they are looking at. Someone who, based on experience, knows exactly how it feels.

Often, boxers will come out and express this same view. If wounded by criticism, they might say, “How would you know? How many fights have you had?” Most of the time, too, they will be well within their rights to ask these questions, especially if in the throes of debating aspects of the sport entirely foreign to someone who has never spent any amount of time in a boxing ring, or preparing for a fight. For instance, the torture of making weight is surely something only those who have attempted it will ever understand. Similarly, when a boxer “quits”, there is nothing uglier than the judgemental comments to follow, most of which come from people not even au fait with the stinging sensation of a jab between the eyes.

HBO commentators Lennox Lewis and Jim Lampley at FedEx Forum on May 19, 2007 in Memphis, Tennessee (Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The best thing, I’ve learned, is to stick to what you know; comment only on what you see rather than the stuff that requires you to feel or possess some deeper level of understanding. In other words, I humbly accept and appreciate that experience in the ring would increase my depth of knowledge and insight, as well as allow me to open doors and enter rooms from which I am otherwise prohibited.

And yet, although it would undeniably provide insight, I am just as aware that experience in the ring would also reduce my capacity to think, rationalise, concentrate, be honest, remain objective, remain patient, and, in all likelihood, put words together and write. I know this because I have spent time around boxers, those who are experts in the art of punching people but not much else, and because I have come to understand that ring experience gives with one hand and just as soon takes away with the other.

Indeed, while a lot of what I know about boxing came from men who boxed for a living, just as much, particularly when I was younger, came from men who had never boxed, or done so only at amateur level. It came from the men I watched discuss the sport on HBO, for example, or the men whose words I read in magazines like this one, or Boxing Monthly, or The Ring.

That is to say, long before I was permitted to spend time in gyms and be around boxers on fight night, I was being educated on the sport by people who watched a lot of it rather than participated in it. And that, to me, was just fine. Back then, after all, there was more of a proclivity to watch and to study and to educate oneself. It was all part of belonging to the club. It was, in fact, the very thing that allowed you to get close.

Now, though, you wonder how much of this legwork is being done by new fans of the sport, as well as those “working” within it. Gone, it would appear, are the days when you would diligently research and you would study and you would, in lieu of doing it yourself, try to reach a greater understanding through listening and learning. Seemingly, the barrier to entry no longer requires this education, nor any sort of test to be passed. You simply show up these days and give them what they want: a camera in their face.

In doing so, you perhaps undermine not only what it means to be a boxer, but also what it means to cover the sport. For when the act of covering the sport is dumbed down to such a degree it appears as though basically anyone can do it, questions are naturally asked – even by the boxers themselves. If all “media” amounts to in 2023 is tweeting incessantly, bantering your way inside, or shouting baseless opinions at a webcam, is it any wonder the qualifications and insight of those with their volume turned up come under scrutiny?

Whenever in doubt, I used to ask myself this: If a person suffered a heart attack in the street, would they rather have standing over them someone who had suffered one previously or an expert who was medically qualified but had never found himself in that same situation?

The answer to that, I believe, is and always will be an obvious one. However, the issue today, in the context of boxing, is that rather than experts or students of the game, what we have instead are a host of followers hanging around waiting for people to collapse as a result of this metaphorical heart attack so they can essentially shove a phone in their face and ask them, “How does it feel? Does it hurt? Any last words?” They will then later use this phone to tweet the time of death before anyone else.

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