The most important things I learned in life, I learned in the boxing ring

The most important things I learned in life, I learned in the boxing ring
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.

2. Learn to Take Control of your emotions
It might not be obvious that this is important to a good fighter, but I believe it is the most essential skill a fighter can learn – how to keep his cool under pressure.

You might think that the more emotional, the more angry, the more wild a person is, the more aggressively and effectively they are going to fight. Admittedly some fighters think this way too, and they try to work themselves up for a fight by slapping themselves around the face a few times. The technical term we use to refer to such fighters is ‘brawlers’, and most brawlers don’t get too far in the ring.

Brawlers are often also referred to as ‘checker players’. If you play checkers you don’t mind getting a few of your pieces taken if it means you can take a few of the other guys pieces. Brawlers are the same – they don’t mind getting hit a few times so long as they can get a few good ones in themselves. The other style of fighter is the ‘chess player’. He isn’t wanting to get hit and he isn’t too concerned about ‘landing a few’. He has the fight as a whole in mind, and he is playing for a win at the end of the game. Like a good chess player, he will give away nothing until he is ready to, he’ll establish a good position, and then he’ll make his moves.

I like to think of myself as a ‘chess player’ when it comes to fighting. I don’t have the youth or speed to be an effective brawler, but I managed to beat guys who were younger and faster than myself by using my brain. Daniel is another good chess player in the ring. In his last fight the other guy was just as strong, just as experienced. What made the difference was his mind – his most valuable weapon.

Most young fighters, especially novice fighters, don’t know how to control their emotions. That’s why they make basic mistakes – they throw everything in the first round, and when they get hit they have to hit back.

We’ve had guys here who have been notorious like that. Young guys (normally) who cannot help themselves. They get a bop on the nose and immediately they have to return the favour. They then leave lots of openings while desperately try to get in a shot. Then they start getting hurt and try even more furiously to hurt their opponent. Then we have to stop before they get knocked out.

Another way of putting this is to say that brawlers simply ‘react’ to whatever is happening to them in the ring. The ‘chess player’ fighter is not controlled by the other person’s actions. He is not reacting, but is making sober decisions about what he is going to do. To use modern terminology, he is not ‘reacting’ but is ‘proactive’.

A friend told me of someone he used to go to work with who every day bought a newspaper from the same newspaper stand on his way to work. Every day he would buy his newspaper from the same newspaper man, and every day this newspaper man would be abusive to him in one way or another. ‘Good morning’ the friend would say as he paid for his newspaper. ‘It’s a bloody awful morning’ the other guy would say, ‘I don’t know why you like it.’ The friend would continue to be pleasant. Eventually his friend asked him ‘why do you continue to be so pleasant to that man who constantly abuses you’. He said ‘why should I let him determine the quality of my day’. That’s being ‘proactive’. That’s being a ‘chess player’. That’s taking control of your emotions.

I’m not saying you can control how you feel, but you can control how you behave on the basis of your feelings. The trick is NOT to let your feelings drive your behaviour. This is the key, I believe, to much of the teaching of Jesus. ‘If someone slaps you on one side of the cheek, you don’t slap back’ says Jesus. The natural thing to do is to ‘react’, to pay back in kind. Someone slaps me, I slap them back, someone shouts at me, I shout back. Someone belittles me and calls me names, I do the same to them. Being proactive means making a controlled and planned response. Learn it in the ring, or learn it the hard way.

3. Learn to listen to your corner
‘Jean Yyes Theriault’ devoted a whole chapter of his book on how to fight to the subject of picking your corner. I thought ‘what for, it’s the fighter who does the fighting’. Not so, you don’t realise until you are in there that your corner are the only ones who can really see what is happening. I am proud to say that I learnt early on to focus on the voice of my corner man. Ange would say to me after the fight ‘did you hear me cheering for you’. My answer would always be ‘No. I only heard my corner’ Daniel, in his last fight, said much the same thing.

Your corner can see the state of the game better than you can. You are in the middle of a war-zone. Punches are flying around and banging into your body. You are struggling to keep your cool. It is your corner who can see what is going on. They know when and where to make your move because they can read where the fight is going and can see opportunities, assess the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent because they know your strengths and weaknesses.

I only once made the mistake of thinking I knew better than my corner men. I remember it well and I’ve watched it on video again many times and I’m always embarrassed to watch myself. It was my title fight, and my corner man is shouting to me ‘kick his inside thigh’, but I was determined to take him out with straight punches and uppercuts. As it turned out, I couldn’t take him out with the punches, and watching the video I can see now what I should have been doing.

Isn’t life like that some times? You realise in retrospect that you should have listened. You knew the word from the man in the corner ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, but you thought ‘what does he know? No one is going to get hurt.’ You realise too late that the man in the corner really did know the game better than you did.

Of course it is not always that obvious. In life there are many voices coming at us from all directions telling you what to do. Someone is saying ‘kick him in the head’ and someone else is saying ‘jump on him now’. Your opponent’s friends are saying ‘try dropping your hands’ and ‘lead with your chin’. Life is like that – there is never a shortage of people telling you what to do and what to think, and sometimes we are not sure who to listen to.

As a Christian I believe that there is someone else who knows the game better than we do. There is someone else who knows what we are up against and who knows our strengths and weaknesses better than we do. And I do believe that he desires, as it were, to work your corner. Perhaps it is an off-putting image – the Lord Jesus Christ with an ice bucket in one hand, a towel in the other, Vaseline on the back of the hand. I think it is a very Biblical image. ‘Behold I stand in the corner and call. If you will come over to me and listen to me I will towel you down, attend to your wounds, give you the good word, and help you win the fight.’ (cf. Revelation 3:20)

I know it is very unAustralian to admit that you need help. And ‘why should I go to church every week’ and ‘who needs religion shoved down their throats’. The truth is that we are all getting stuffed rammed down our throats every day, and most of it is not healthy.

Every day multi-million dollar advertising agencies devote their whole energy to giving us crap to swallow. They’ll make sure we see and hear every day that ‘It’s Mac time now’, that the most important person in the world is you’, that ‘Coke is it’. And we must believe what they tell us because we are still buying it! They tell us the crap, but they don’t tell us what we need to hear -that life doesn’t consist in the abundance of your possessions, that having integrity is more important than having power, that we are each significant people created in the image of God and loved by God, that Christ died on the cross to bring us forgiveness and new life.

Friends, if we want to hear the good word we don’t just need church once per week, we need to be in contact with the Lord Jesus Christ every hour of every day – tuned in to him, hearing only His voice above the roar of the crowd