What’s your story? Thoughts on belonging in boxing.
Young man, poor academic attainment, angry at the world, unsure of his place and facing an uncertain future with few opportunities. Finds boxing, channels his anger into something positive, learns discipline and respect, and finds his place - and himself - amongst the blood, sweat and tears of the gym.
It’s a familiar story, oft-repeated to the point of cliché, yet it retains an enduring power. Partly, this is because of its truth; but it is also because boxing remains a great metaphor for life. Struggle, disappointment, feeling lost, facing defeat, getting knocked down, digging deep inside, and, of course, finding hidden strength and getting up to win.
It’s a story that resonates with all of us.
This is the power of boxing. But more than that, it is the power of stories.
It’s an important point to recognise, and one that has implications for the sport, and for each of us within it.
Human beings are storytellers. Since our primate ancestors wandered the plains, we have made sense of our world, of ourselves, and of each other, through stories. From cave paintings to shooting the breeze around the campfire, from ancient myths and legends to the Facebook stories that we curate each day - we communicate via our stories. And the stories that we tell ourselves can have a significant impact on whether we achieve our full potential, in boxing and in life.
What’s your story? And how does it influence the boxer, coach, and person that you are?
My story kept me away from boxing for many years. I’ve been a die-hard fan of the sport since watching Rocky 2 as a 10 year old in the mid-1980s. My love for the sport grew through watching Barry McGuigan and Lloyd Honeyghan rule the world; watching a young Mike Tyson blow through the heavyweight division, and watching it all crash down around him, and the famous rivalries between Benn and Eubank, Holyfield and Bowe, and the Four Kings. Many young people, inspired by such legends of the sport, joined their local gyms as they sought to emulate their heroes. Not me. Despite being passionate about the sport, and despite being an athletic youngster with discipline and a strong work ethic, I never did go to my local boxing club.
The story that I told myself was that boxing wasn’t a sport for me. I didn’t get into fights. I wasn’t ‘hard’. I wasn’t from a tough area. I told myself that if I dared walk into a club they would take one look at me, think, ‘what does he think he’s doing here?’ before chucking me in with a hardcase who would give me a thorough introduction to the sweet science of knocking me out. No thanks!
What’s the relevance of me telling you this? The point is that a particular narrative about boxing stopped a young, fit, sporty, boxing lover from giving the sport a go. And if this was true for me, who else is feeling that they can’t walk through the doors of their local boxing gym? Who else feels like they don’t belong there, and why?
It may be that the story I was telling myself was incorrect, and I may have been welcomed with open arms. But I never got to find out, because the story that boxing wasn’t for me, was the dominant story. And I was a white straight male with all the privilege and confidence that comes with that. What about young people from BAME backgrounds, or who are gay? What about young people who are struggling to feel confident enough to try new things? What about women, who at the time certainly weren’t welcome in boxing gyms, and still haven’t achieved equal treatment in the sport?
Later, as an employee of England Boxing for 11 years, I found gyms to be very welcoming places with a real sense of community. But if the sport is going to attract people from all backgrounds, it needs to actively promote itself as welcoming to a range of different kinds of people, with real and relatable examples visible in the gym, in the coaching teams, and in leadership.
You may not agree, and think ‘what’s he talking about? Boxing is a very open and diverse sport, everybody is equal in my gym; people from all backgrounds are welcome in the boxing family.’
This is a narrative we hear a lot. But is this really the lived experience for all the boxers in that gym, or everyone who considers walking through the door?
Even if we don’t actively turn anybody away from our gym, does that mean they are truly welcome? Or from the outside that they perceive that they would be welcomed? For instance, over the last couple of years I have seen some appallingly racist posts shared on social media by people that are well known within the sport. I have heard homophobic comments from coaches. While boxing undoubtedly has a proud history of providing opportunities for minority communities, and many clubs will support this ethos, we mustn’t let ourselves be blinded to the very real prejudices that still exist in some parts of the sport.
While there is an obvious ethical argument for being diverse and welcoming, there are more practical arguments that even the most prejudiced among us would be hard-pressed to dispute. Two things that the vast majority of boxing clubs crave are success and financial sustainability. It is short-sighted to not make clubs as welcoming to new talent as possible, to get more people through the door, staying with the club, and succeeding. You never know where the next champion might come from!
I have met some of the best people I’ve ever met through boxing; wonderful, caring people that give countless hours to the sport, developing better boxers and better people. I’ve also met some of the worst; power-mad with huge egos, small-minded, and rude. And the latter group would often justify their behaviour on the basis that they were ‘true boxing people’.
So, what’s a “boxing person”, or a “true boxing man”? Well, obviously you need to have boxed competitively yourself. And be a man! So straight off the bat, loads of people are excluded. But what about Angelo Dundee, trainer of Muhammad Ali? Enzo Calzaghe, trainer of Joe? Not a single competitive round amongst them. But have they contributed to the sport? It’s a stupid question isn’t it? Their contribution is huge.
“Boxing people” seem to throw challenges out to others’ right to belong in the sport, such as ‘what’s your fight record?’, ‘how many champions have you had?’, and ‘have you ever run a club?’. It feels to me that the ‘boxing person’ category was merely a way of excluding anybody that they didn’t like, or that they perceived to be some kind of threat to the status quo, that it was in their personal interests to protect.
So how do we develop a culture in boxing of being open to different perspectives, different approaches, and fresh ideas? It has always struck me as oddly ironic that a sport that is fundamentally built on constant improvement and innovation, can be so resistant and oppositional to change.
I don’t say these things to criticise boxing. On the contrary, I say them because I love it. And that’s the point. For me, that is the only ‘criteria’ for belonging in the sport. For being a “boxing person”. That is the story, the narrative that matters. A love for the sport, and a passion to make ourselves and the sport better for our involvement in it.
That’s why boxing clubs and organisations like In Your Corner, that actively try to welcome young people from a range of backgrounds, the kind of young people who might not ever see a place for themselves in boxing, are so important.
I hope that given a supportive welcome, in a context that values all kind of people, a range of young people can be given the space to try out boxing, and find out if they are, a “boxing person” after all. Because their story might be a story of skill, commitment, belonging and success. But unless “boxing people” embrace diversity, that story might never be told.
Matthew Williams is an author, speaker, and trainer. He is a Director at a community boxing club and is a passionate advocate for mental health.