The Cruel yet Inspirational Sport of Boxing

Over the past two years, what’s surprised me about myself is that I’ve taken up an interest in the sport of boxing. The sport where two people put on gloves and get onto a 6 m square platform, enclosed by rope. As the bell sounds, over the course of 36 minutes, they start boxing each other with the ultimate goal of scoring a knockout. The smallest margin of error can change their lives, all the while millions of spectators are cheering them on.

Canelo vs. Golovkin
Canelo Álvarez and Gennady Golovkin, two of the best boxers in the world, when they clashed on September 16, 2017

While it doesn’t take long to realize the sheer brutality of boxing, I realized more things as I gained a better understanding of the sport. Here are three things I realized, while drawing certain parallels to society as a whole.

Cruelty Beyond the Actual Fights

Something which is plaguing boxing, and has been for decades, is systemic corruption.

If a fight goes the distance, the scorecards of three judges determine the victor. But judges score boxing, like figure skating and diving, in a subjective manner. Outside of obvious knockdowns, judges look for the boxer who best controls the action and acts as the aggressor. They also look for the boxer who lands the most clean and hard punches, and the boxer who is able to defend better. In other words, the scoring is in stark contrast to the black and white nature of tennis and golf.

Boxing also has a lack of regulation and oversight. There’s no central authority in the form of a national commission. The sport also lacks structure, as there are no tournaments, leagues or schedules (outside of amateur boxing).

In the midst of all chaos, the power brokers are the promoters. They set up the deals and arrange the fights. They can also be the ones responsible for the travel, lodging and food costs of the judges and the referee. Promoters can also have direct ties to the manager of a boxer, the very person whom should be representing the best interests of the boxer. In short, boxing has conflict of interest written all over it.

Roy Jones Jr. vs. Park Si-hun
Park Si-hun lifts the rightful winner Roy Jones Jr. into the air. Park retired from boxing after the Olympics, and Jones would go on to become one of the best boxers of his generation.

An infamous example of corruption in boxing, although this was amateur boxing, happened at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. In the finals, Roy Jones Jr. beat his opponent Park Si-hun in a one-sided affair. Yet, when the result was announced, the hands raised by the referee were Park Si-hun’s. Park had an embarrassed look on his face, and in a display of human decency, lifted Jones into the air.

In the recent superfight between Canelo Álvarez and Gennady Golovkin, one of the scorecards sparked controversy yet again. Amidst all the discussions following the fight, one that stood out to me was Teddy Atlas debating for an entire hour on ESPN. Never in my life have I seen someone speak with this much passion, while expressing their anger and disgust. And if you take the time to understand his background you’ll understand why. He’s a veteran trainer who loves the sport and has devoted his life towards it. He’s one of the few people who knows what boxers have to go through to be successful. He knows the sacrifices they have to make. He knows what they put on the line day in and day out. Yet, due to corruption, their hard earned accomplishments can be taken away from them in one fell swoop.

It makes you wonder. What hurts more? Taking all those punches leading up to that moment, or swallowing an unjust loss?

A personal takeaway from this, is that life can sometimes be brutally unfair. And it doesn’t even have to be as a consequence of corruption. We have to remind ourselves this every time we’re too fixated on a certain goal or ambition in life. We have to ask ourselves if we’re also enjoying the actual journey itself, rather than the thought of reaching the destination. Because one day, unforeseen things can happen beyond our control, preventing us from ever reaching that destination.

The Importance of Marketing

To be regarded as a great boxer, you have to prove you can beat other boxers that are perceived to be great. As boxing lacks structure, you cannot force an opponent to step inside the ring with you.

If you aren’t marketing yourself well as you rise through the ranks, a consequence will be that other good fighters will evade you. If your boxing skills are through the roof, but you cannot sell out arenas and generate pay-per-view revenue, it makes little sense for other promoters to risk their boxers on you. On the other hand, if you’ve built up your personal brand well, opponents will line up to fight you even though they have little chance of beating you.

Some boxers have a harder time than others. They lack natural charisma. Their fighting style is too technical, as opposed to being an aggressive knockout artist. They don’t come from a country where the entire nation will rally behind them.

Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor face-off
Two master marketers in Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor showing how it's done

The boxer who mastered the art of marketing was Floyd Mayweather, having generated $1.3 billion in revenue throughout his career. Through boastfulness and flaunting his wealth, he created a persona that people hated. As he was such an exceptional boxer, he dangled his undefeated record like a carrot on a stick. Casual fans were paying for the chance of seeing him finally lose, while hardcore fans marveled at his skills.

Earlier this year, Mayweather came out of retirement to fight Conor McGregor in a boxing match. As they both walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars after the fight, I can’t help but think about a subject I touched on before. While both men are entertainers and great in their own right, the fight sold as well as it did because people believed McGregor had a chance. The marketing campaign led people to believe this would be a competitive match, rather than a spectacle. It was successful, because the average person doesn’t realize that, despite boxing and MMA being combat sports, they are still worlds apart. Leading up to the fight, when high-profile boxers (without a vested interest in marketing it) were asked about who would win the fight, you could tell it annoyed them. They felt that the suggestion alone of McGregor having a chance was disrespectful towards the sport of boxing.

This is a feeling I can relate to every now and then when it comes to software. I feel like some people, who lack an understanding of software and what it takes to create great products, marginalize the very profession I care so much about.

The Inspirational Side of Boxing

Looking beyond the cruel surface of boxing, what I find is something inspirational. It astounds me that there are people out there with the competitive spirit to step into the ring and excel. That there are people out there born into poverty with all the odds stacked against them. But because they had that innate drive, they endured more hardships and ended up forging a better future for themselves and their family.

The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.
- Muhammad Ali

In the world of boxing, my favorite quote is by the late Muhammad Ali. Today, due to the Internet and social media, we focus a lot on instant gratification. We read about accomplishments and watch highlights and award shows. We see couples in happy relationships. We see athletes break world records. We see actors put on masterful performances. We see entrepreneurs sell their startups for millions of dollars. What we don’t see, unless we look for it, are the tens of thousands of hours of work they’ve put in to get to where they are.