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Why Boxing Is Better Than Wimbledon

by Gymbox writer Genevieve Teevan

Because I’m a keen tennis player, it’s taken me years to admit: watching tennis is like alternating your gaze between one wall of wet paint that refuses to dry and another wall of wet pain that refuses to dry. What’s better? Boxing.

It’s considered dangerous, sexist and barbaric. There are serious legal and medical arguments in favour of banning it and boxers sometimes die. So why would a discerning feminist and obsessive tennis player spend a Saturday evening at something called Hellraiser Fight Night?

I found myself at the home of British boxing, York Hall in Bethnal Green, with a group of gym friends to support undefeated super-welterweight Tony Milch, a trainer at our local Gymbox. I enjoy the fitness benefits of boxing, but feared the actual sport would be crass, tedious or both. In fact, it was graceful, inspiring and entertaining.

There were 19 fights on the bill. That means 38 personalities. Actual personalities – apparent via stance and style. It’s like a cabaret. British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC) Rule 3.6 even states that the referee must wear a black bow tie – how charmingly vaudeville is that? In order to match boxers with opponents in their weight class, promoters fly them in from around the world and the variety makes for intense drama. I hadn’t looked up any of the performers’ – sorry, fighters’ – backgrounds in advance, so they were communicating their character through sheer physicality. And what a show.

Pro tennis players acquire a profound single-minded blandness, whereas pro boxers would be wrecked if they fought professionally more than every couple of months. They have to support themselves in other ways and the path to a pro career is winding. It can build slowly. Tony, for example, started as an amateur boxer in the Olympic style training at the same Barnet gym as Anthony Joshua, then gave up competing at 24 and moved to Canada for seven years.

Now, after a realisation that his talent deserves to be developed, he’s making a serious comeback and aiming for a national title. Mature and focused, he’s a “fresh” 36, meaning he hasn’t got many “miles on the clock”. Others are battle-hardened – it shows in their resilient, dogged style. They get knocked down and they get up again. No one says ouch. They’re sweating and sometimes bleeding, but it looks as effortless as ballet. As a spectator, your mouth falls open in awe at the flair and skill.

One of the standouts was a cocky young Tigger who jigged on his toes leaving his awkward opponent pivoting in the centre of the ring. You’d expect the fighter in the centre to have the upper hand but this kid taunted his opponent as he danced around the perimeter, gloves dangling by his sides between jabs and confounding all the basic theory I thought I knew: keep your fists up, never leave your face unprotected, control the ring by making the other person move backwards.

“Styles make fights,” Tony tells me, but there’s also drama in the subjectivity of the scoring: it’s like gymnastics or figure skating. Tony’s fight confused the hell out of me. His was the penultimate bout. By the time it started, I’d seen everything from quick knockouts to drawn-out tangos, but it was always pretty clear who won. Tony fought the full six rounds of three minutes each and ended up beating his opponent, Arvydas Trizno, with a score of 58-57. I wouldn’t have known who won if it hadn’t been announced, yet the battle was still compelling on an intuitive level.

Later, I sat down with Tony to find out what the score meant. The ref awards a maximum of 10 points to each boxer for each round. They get 10 each if the ref deems the round a draw. In the case of a KO, points become irrelevant. Boxers score points for: (1) “attack” meaning direct clean hits with the knuckle part of the glove to the front or side of the head or body above the belt (an imaginary line across the top of the hip bones), and (2) “defence” – guarding, slipping, ducking or getting away from an attack. Where contestants are otherwise equal, the majority of points will be given to the one who does most leading off or displays the better style.

And that’s why Tony won. Style. Describing his opponent, he said, “He had a high guard. He was hard to hit, but I was never in a position to be knocked down or hurt.” His manner is controlled, with an element of Olympic flair that comes from his training as an amateur. Others are more flamboyant in their showmanship. Does that cheapen the purity of the athletic competition? No, there’s a cleanness and authenticity that’s eminently watchable regardless of your emotional investment or knowledge.

You don’t have to understand the scoring or know anything about the individual fighters to enjoy the spectacle. It doesn’t require the precious quietude of Wimbledon and you’re not surrounded by suburban Hyacinth Bucket types. Plus, there’s no need to pace your drinking. At Wimbledon, you inevitably end up with shades of a hangover – and either sunburnt or rain-sodden – before the last match has even started, whereas at the equally historic York Hall, the entertainment doesn’t flag and the buzz acquired via a few drinks beforehand sees us through to the after-party.

What’s not to like? For me, as a feminist, only the ring girls. Between each round, wearing exaggerated eyelashes, thong leotards and platform heels, they hoist themselves into the ring and parade holding round numbers above their heads. After you exchange a “FFS, it’s 2017” eye roll with your friends, you ignore them in the polite way you ignore over-caffeinated undergrads in animal onesies collecting for charity in tube stations. I even felt happy for them – at about lap 93 – when some lads half-heartedly wolf whistled, because, surely, a thing that’s worse than being treated as an object for titillation is being trussed up for objectification and then ignored?

So, does my feminist conscience prefer Wimbledon? Not so much. Whether you’re on Murray Mound or in a corporate hospitality tent, pretty soon some douche who couldn’t run for a bus – much less from base line to net to return a drop shot, says, “Serena Williams would only be 700th if she were playing on the men’s tour.” In all my time training in male-dominated martial arts gyms, I’ve never seen women treated with anything other than courtesy and straightforward respect. Yes, the women’s sport has only recently become an Olympic event and there are issues with funding and visibility, but have you ever heard anyone saying Nicola Adams doesn’t deserve her status as a top athlete? Nope. The staggering skill and guts demonstrated in boxing seems to eradicate dick-ish attitudes from participants and spectators.


Find Genevieve on Twitter: GjTeevan or Insta: @gjteevan

Posted: 12th Jul 2017

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