Monday, June 18, 2007

The Thinking Man's Blood Sport

In my mind, boxing is a sport that gets a constantly bad rap. A lot of people say that it is too violent and rife with corruption. I would not disagree. As a fan, I've seen a lot of dubious fights that can only be justified by the fact that a party has leverage over the other. But, this is not my primary concern.

A lot of people criticize boxers because some of them are dumb. Muhammad Ali is well documented as being too stupid to enter the military, having failed the entrance exam twice before the legal limit was lowered by Congress to ensure his enlistment in the draft. Mike Tyson was notoriously duped by Don King out of millions of dollars.

Such incidents would only go to prove the lack of book smarts present in most boxers. But, boxing is not a sport that requires the recognition of the subtleties of Shakespeare's sonnets; it's about something way simpler than that: pure competition between two people in a ring. And, for one to even step in the ring, the boxer's mind has to be sharper than your average mind. Even above-average, book smart minds would be pummeled in the melee that is prizefight boxing because the mind of a boxer, while maybe not the most articulate one on the face of the planet, is the sharpest form of athletic mind.

People would consider arguing against that last point, suggesting that other sports are far more cerebral. And, on the surface, such an accusation may have merit. What sort of thought can go into punching the crap out of someone? Can't more thought involved in pitching a baseball game, calling a football game, or playing basketball. While each one of these sports does require a fair amount of thought on the part of the participant, basketball is instinctual while baseball and football are strategic sports. All three require intelligence, that is for sure. But, boxing is superior to them all.

Basketball's intelligence is having finite skills, a court awareness, and good visual recognition. You do not play basketball and think about what you are going to do; you more or less have a set of skills and do what you can given your situation. If you are a shooter and the defender gives you space to elevate, you are going to take the shot. If you play on the posts, you know which way the defender is working due to their physical input. At the point, the guard can see where players are going and makes decisions appropriate to their reads. If the guard is given space, they will push the ball down the lane to the hole. That's a component of making the initial read.

Basketball is not a cerebral sport in the sense that players are able to play games on instincts and feelings more than actual logic processes and mental calculation. What is meant by that is that basketball players can feel that they are hot and work themselves into positions where they can take advantage of that. Other players will respond to that by giving them the ball more or working them into situations where they can score. As well, a player can sense the weakness in another's game and force them to play that hand without having to make an adjustment to their initial strategy. Both of these are situations of feel and instinct more than they are actual end products of thought.

The same holds for football. Football, in some ways, is simpler than basketball mentally. Football requires each team having a general theme for how they would like their team to execute. When one team plays another, both are usually scheming against each other to figure out the most effective way to stymie the other. For example, if one team has a bad run defense, the other team will find out where that weakness is (usually through tape) and plan against it by doing a few more running plays than usual. But, all of what I said is in an ideal world and football is rarely predictable.

The game of football comes in with the idea of strategizing against the other team and adjusting said strategy when it is compromised. To use the above example, if the team has decided to go run-heavy but the other team is defending the run well, the offensive team will need to come up with a new plan of attack. Since maybe the team is biting run, the offensive squad will call a run fake that ends up with a 25 yard pass across the middle to the slot receiver. But, this is the core of football: tinkering. The only thing that is purely cerebral in football is the strategy and that is not done by the players; planning is done by the coaches in the days leading up to the game and is taught to the players during the same time. So, the players do not have to display a sense of mental acuity while playing. They do have to react, but that, like in basketball, is purely instinctual.

Baseball is another sport that plays like football in the sense that the athletes are not the decision makers strategically. They are reactionaries as in football. The players, like in both basketball and football, have specific skills that can be exploited to the benefit of the team. For example, if you are a fast player, fast players are usually placed in the lead-off position because they have the ability to steal bases and create offense. But, these types of decisions are not made by the players; they do not have the agency in baseball. Such tactical decisions are made by the coaching and managing staff who knows what each player on their team can do, but also knows what the other team can do as well. Once again, the cerebral aspect of the game is left to persons other than the actual athletes.

Boxing, unlike football and baseball, puts the mental agency in the hands of the athlete. Additionally, unlike basketball, instinctual action does not get one very far in the sport. If one acts reactively in boxing, they will end up with their jaw broken, laying flat on the ground. Also, unlike in other sports, the strategy used by a challenging boxer cannot be easily predicted. While there are trends, there is no guarantee that such information will be the same in the actual battle. What this means is that the boxer has a distinct need to act in a strictly cerebral manner while also displaying a high level of physicality. This does not hold in other sports due to the fact that there is a high level of information to work from. Baseball teams play each other multiple times a year as well as have people whose sole job is to watch teams to keep track of their patterns. Additionally, basketball and football rely heavily on scout work to prepare for their competitions. It would be misleading to say that boxing does not use this type of information, but it is important to say that such scouting work only gives a rough expectation due to the fact that a boxer can switch styles between fights and have different training.

With this high level of uncertainty and the need for restraint and instinct, the average boxer, by stepping into the ring, is on another level from the average athlete due to the fact that the pugilist has no concrete idea of what will confront them when the bell rings for the first round. This comparative advantage is increased by the execution of the sport and such critique extends to all levels of boxing from Golden Gloves to professional prizefighting. For each second that clicks off the clock, the boxer has to decide what their method of attack will be, keeping in mind that their opposition will more than likely have an appropriate reaction to their action. Such realizations will change the approach used by the boxer.

Thought in boxing is also greater than in other sports because of the fact that while you are determining a course of action, there is, most likely, another person who is trying to cause you bodily harm. There are fists flying, jabbing at the face, hard hands to the body, and other ways to distract the mind from actually pursuing a form of attack. So, in addition to thinking about how to start their own attack, the boxer has to contemplate launching a defense as well as a counter-defense, which is different from an offense that is also an important component. While a boxer only has two hands to work with, the number of things that can be done with those hands is infinite. Only the boxer in the ring can make such a decision. Additionally, the boxer has to make the right decision about how to attack. If the wrong decision is made, the person who launched the attack can end up on their back. I've seen it many a time when boxers will make the wrong decision on attack and end up sleeping on their feet.

While I am not suggesting that boxers are going to be the future intelligentsia , I believe that their intelligence is greatly undervalued by the public and other athletes. The fact that they think on their feet while getting hit in the face with a constant stream of jabs and crosses is something to be completely admired. Their sport, unlike all other sports, is not one driven by pure instinct and reaction like many other sports, but does require a bit of that to be successful as well. Boxing, unlike team sports or other individual sports, is the only sport that does operate like chess mentally; the initial action must be considered with its ramifications three steps later, and the athlete is the sole decider. While I am not saying that you have to be a boxing fanatic, I do want you to respect the beauty and intelligence that is the sport of boxing even if the athletes don't make the most brilliant comments on television.