WHEN boxing is called “the hardest sport in the world”, we think of punches being thrown and received, and we picture the faces of brave boxers who for a living do both, and we generally accept the comment without so much as questioning it.
One former pro (George Groves), having years ago met a Premier League footballer (John Terry) on matchday, later described to me this occurrence as follows: “Footballers think we train harder than we actually do, and boxers think footballers don’t train as hard as they probably do. That’s why you get this weird respect from them and they almost look up to you.”
In reality, the respect is deserved, of course it is, as is any vote for boxing being “the hardest sport in the world”. After all, anything that requires you training the way a boxer must train in order to navigate your way through a 36-minute “competition” deserves respect, and that’s before getting to the fact that, during those 36 minutes, you will be both evading and delivering punches in the presence of someone whose principal aim is to render you unconscious.
Put in those terms and it’s a hard thing to dispute. Indeed, in that moment earlier described someone like George Groves would have seen his profession through eyes different than those of someone, like John Terry, with no experience of it. He would, for better or worse, have been conditioned to think what is abnormal in the view of the majority is actually something quite normal to him.
For men like that, it is only when the sport is blackened by news of injuries and tragedies that their equilibrium is momentarily upset and a fresh perspective is found. It is then, during those unfortunate moments, even the ones who take their toughness for granted, and in turn fail to acknowledge the difficulty of their sport, find themselves having to accept the sheer insanity of what it is they do for a living.
Yet, equally, on the flipside of that, just as we have injuries and tragedies and 12-round wars which seem beyond our comprehension, we also nowadays have fights between YouTubers, which, for better or worse, tend to present to us the complete opposite view. They, in contrast to the classic fights and proper fighters, have a way of making boxing look relatively easy. Easier than football. Easier than anything else. Arguably, the easiest sport in the world.
For “easiest” can mean two things. It can relate to the level of difficulty involved or it can relate to access. If something is easy, for example, it requires very little effort or expertise to complete. If, on the other hand, someone is easy, they require very little convincing.
Whichever it is in regards to boxing, the term, when watching YouTubers attempt to do it, seems more than applicable. Their route to entry, as easy as it can possibly be, certainly makes the sport appear easy to those on the outside, while the action then produced in the ring, best described as woeful, makes it appear as though it is a sport anyone with hands and a pair of gloves can do in their spare time.
Fun though it may seem, that’s a problem, a big one. It’s not a problem for them, no, but it’s definitely a problem for boxing – or at least its optics. Because the more we encourage this fresh take on the sport, and the more we blur the lines between what is real and what is not, the more likely it is that the sport and its competitors – the real ones – will eventually suffer.
Even just on a very basic level, is it not slightly embarrassing to think about the ease with which we let stragglers in and allow them to pretend to do something that often takes boxers years and years to understand, much less master? It’s in their hands, after all, the hands of the influencers and needle-movers, that boxing is suddenly made to look elementary, dumb, easy. You simply throw punches and that’s about it, right? You might move around a bit for as long as your legs allow it, and you might spin around now and again to avoid danger, but, essentially, it’s just punching someone in the face, innit. It’s not that special. It’s not that hard.
And yet, anyone who knows the truth, knows this to be a lie; a lie we are being fed with increasing regularity, with “boxing people” often involved in the telling of it.
It’s one thing, I think, to let them in, but it’s another thing to have them then redefine what it means to be a boxer. It starts from the promotional angle – “pro boxers need to learn to self-promote as well as these YouTubers and influencers” – and then, before you know it, the quality of action in the ring becomes secondary to the names involved and social media followings they bring with them. It’s at that point you have lost control – no, surrendered it. It’s at that point you have allowed a once hard sport – to do, to understand – to become easy for the sole purpose of mass consumption. In other words, you are dumbing it down. You are simplifying it for simple minds.
This is not a problem exclusive to boxing, of course. In fact, I have lost count of the number of boxers who have either released books or mentioned to me their desire to one day release a book without having mastered even the basics of grammar and punctuation, let alone the art of storytelling. These people, not unlike YouTubers in the boxing ring, feel that an ability to compose a text message or a tweet, or even just express their thoughts out loud, is a gateway to the page, with their ego – “everyone needs to hear my story” – doing the rest of the work.
The truth is, though, I have met perhaps four people in all the time I have worked in boxing whose story needed to be heard, and have known maybe just two with the potential to carry out the telling of that story. They are, after all, two completely different arts, writing and fighting, and it is almost insulting to think that a switch from one to the other would be anything other than disastrous.
Despite this, day after day I find myself still having to read the poorly-written posts of various boxers online. Despite this, I still often read that some of these boxers believe fans shouldn’t comment on the sight of two boxers punching each other in the ring if they haven’t boxed themselves.
That, by the way, is a stance that probably had legs before the recent influx of YouTubers and influencers scrapping for screen-addicted kids. Now, however, just as the idea of writing a book is to a boxer merely a matter of sitting down for a few weeks and massaging their own ego, the idea of “boxing” seems today no more complicated or taxing than entering a ring and throwing your fists about willy-nilly.
Maybe, in the end, in much the same way social media has managed to undermine the importance and power of the written word, we will one day look back on this time with a similar view of YouTube Boxing, this supposedly harmless gatecrasher who somehow made the hardest sport in the world look easy; easy to enter and easy to do.