The Most Important Things I Learned In Life, I Learned In The Boxing Ring – Part 1

It feels a little strange talking about my illustrious fighting career, as I’m no longer fighting. I have retired. My excuse is that I’ve turned 35, which is rather a good excuse, as you’re not legally allowed to fight in NSW once you turn 35. I could complain about the ‘ageism’ involved in this, but to tell you the truth I’m quite glad. It’s not only escaping the trial of having to get up at the crack of dawn every morning to go running.

Actually I never made it up at the crack of dawn. If I were up and running by 7am that was pretty unusual. Tyson priding himself on running at about 3am or something like that, after which he’d go back to bed. His reason: ‘While I am training, my opponent is sleeping’. This doesn’t make much sense to me, as Tyson probably slept in after that, probably right through his opponents training session!

Anyway, it’s not just the training discipline, or the constant monitoring of your diet (I put on 5 kilos in a month after I stopped training). It’s having to live with that fear that takes hold of you leading up to a fight. It’s not a fear of getting hurt, but a fear of looking like a dork. I know you can get that fear anywhere (eg. preaching), but there is something particularly humiliating about looking like a dork in the ring, having a thousand staring spectators watch you fall in a heap on the floor while your opponent dances around laughing at you.

I’m quite glad to be passed it, but I’m also very glad I did it. Fighting for me was always more than just a sport. My first fight especially was a very spiritual experience. For me, as a male, stepping into the ring for the first time, was a bizarre experience. Your brothers lead you inside the ring, the women folk are all at a distance, and it’s just you and one other man standing there in your underwear facing each other. Your brothers pull back and leave you there alone under the spotlight, and you’re asked to survive for three rounds, while the other guy tries to take you apart.

There is something very similar in this process to the traditional initiation ceremonies in other cultures. Some tribes of American Indians have a ritual where, when a boy comes of age, they take him out into the woods, and then they pull back and leave him there, and he has to survive by himself for a week. When he returns to the village alive he is a man.

I remember when I stepped out of the ring after my first fight, I felt more at peace with myself as a man. Indeed, I suspect that if we had some ritual like this for all our teenage boys – where at a certain age we lead them into a boxing ring and then leave them there to survive the rounds, and then go and celebrate their coming into adulthood – I suspect we would have a lot less problems with our young boys and men than we have today.

You can learn from the ring – hence the title of this talk. And without going any further down that specific path of how boxing can work for adolescent males, let me rather offer three more general truths which have been engraved into my consciousness through my brief sojourn in the ring.

1. Learn how to take a hit

A myth circulates in martial arts movies that you can fight without getting hit. Not true.

Bruce Lee, more than anyone else I think, is responsible for spreading this myth. If you’ve ever seen ‘Enter the Dragon’ or any of his films, you’ll know that he has this tendency to fight off a circle of maybe a hundred assailants at once. They attack him with fists and feet and clubs and knives, and he destroys them all without taking a hit himself. This only happens in the movies.

Likewise in life, a myth circulates, often amongst Christian groups, that if you live a good life, you can avoid ‘getting hit’ in life. Not true. Bad things happen to good people.

It’s amazing how often in hospitals, as a priest, you get asked to explain how it is that God allows these things to happen. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong in my life’ people protest. ‘Why is this happening to me’.

I’ve taken a fair share of blows inside and outside of the ring, and the trick is not to go down. I can say with pride that when I fought for the NSW title last year against Mike Dwyer I took a hammering at some points in that fight. I was in pain, disorientated, at one point hanging on to my opponent while I got my bearings. The referee was shouting at me ‘no holding’. I felt like whimpering back ‘if I don’t hang on I’m going to fall over’. But I didn’t fall over. I didn’t go down. I went the distance, and I had him in trouble too at some points. I didn’t win in the end, but I maintained my self-respect, and was proud of my performance because I refused to crumble.

‘Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil?. (13) Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand’. (Eph 6:11-13)

I love that verse because it always reminds me of the ring. Sometimes the goal is just ‘to stand’. Sometimes that’s all you can do – just ’stand’. That’s true in life too.

I’ve taken my share of hits outside as well as inside the ring. The most painful hits for me, as for so many other men I know, have been associated with trying to get access to your children after a divorce. I’ve worked with a lot of desperate and miserable people over the last few years – people who are dying of one thing or another, people who are suicidal, who’ve been raped or beaten, addicted to this thing or another. While not downplaying any of those tragedies I still find the most miserable and pathetic group are men struggling to get access to their children.

Sometimes all you can do is just try to ’stay on your feet’. St Paul had his own list of struggles. I don’t know whether he ever had children, let alone custody problems. He was imprisoned frequently, flogged ‘countless times’ and sometimes near death. Five times he received the 40 lashes minus 1, three times beaten with rods, stoned once but he didn’t die, shipwrecked 3 times, once adrift for a night and a day (all from 2 Cor 11:23-28). Surely St Paul must have asked at times ‘Didn’t you say Lord that your yoke was easy and your burden was light’? He must have wondered at times, but in 2 Corinthians 4 he gives this great testimony.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9). To put it in my words “We are taking a beating but we haven’t been beaten, we are on the ropes but not on the canvas, we are hurt and in pain but we haven’t given in, we are down but not out.”

St Paul learnt how to take a hit and not let it destroy him, not let the bitterness overtake him, not let anger from the injustices you might have suffered overtake him and dominate his life. We all need to learn this, because whether you are a good guy or whether you are a bad guy, or whether you are like me – an ordinary guy – sooner or later you’re going to get hit. Learn it in the ring or learn it the hard way.

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