Fred is an old ally and mentor of Max (for old friends don’t call each other by their surname) who, despite the ferocity and speed of his punching, is much more than just a fighter. Composed in the face of aggression and wise in the ways of the world, Fred enables Max to keep going, even when the weight of the murders and the world start to feel too much.
FRED ON BOXING
If you are 15 years old or 50, the basic training required for boxing – a process that Joyce Carol Oates called, “the fanatical subordination of the self” – will make you infinitely fitter than you have ever been in your life.
You can’t box without getting fit, just as you can’t swim without getting wet. You can’t punch anything for three minutes – heavy bag, speedball, pads, let alone another human being – without a good level of cardiovascular fitness. Nothing pumps the heart and moves the blood and unclogs the veins like boxing.
And you can’t take a stiff dig to the belly if all you have down there is a soft gut full of premium lager. Boxing knows endless varieties of sit ups, and you will do as much abdominal work for boxing as you will in any yoga or Pilates class. Boxing kills your beer belly and awakens your abs.
You have to commit to boxing. You can’t do it when the mood takes you. Boxing is not like skiing or scuba diving – it is not something you can do once a year on holiday. Boxing is not even like football or tennis – you can’t do it on the odd sunny day in the park.
Boxing – even at the strictly amateur, recreational level – requires dedication, discipline and grit.
And here is what is special about boxing training – your physical fitness is just the start. Boxing is really about your mental fitness. Because boxing makes you calmer. Boxing teaches you control. Boxing heals your head. Boxing engenders respect – for others and for yourself. Boxing gyms often attract wild boys, bad lads, aggressive men – but they all learn, probably in their very first lesson, that you simply can’t box without self-control.
Boxing changes a man.
And if they taught boxing in our schools, then boxing could change the world.
Boxing was once taught in British state schools. Contrary to what you might think, it was never actually banned but simply died out around the time of the Beatles first LP.
Boxing stopped being taught in 1962. Although the Department of Education does not specify what sports should be taught (or not taught) as part of the national curriculum, if a boy wanted to learn to box after 1962, then he had to join an amateur boxing club.
This is a golden age for boxing. Professional boxing has a world champion in Carl Froch, amateur boxing had a revelatory Olympics at London 2012, and the clubs of the ABA – Amateur Boxing Association of England – are booming. But by exiling boxing from schools and confining it to clubs, boxing is rendered a minority sport – when it should be firmly in the mainstream. Boxing is the martial art of the west, as integral to our sports culture as Kung Fu in China, Karate in Japan and Taekwondo in Korea. There is nothing remotely esoteric about knowing how to defend yourself.
A few years ago schools in Bromley, south London, started introducing boxing training into PE lessons, under the supervision of the ABA, and although the training was non-contact – they did boxing training but did not spar – the boys and girls were invariably transformed. They always are!
What happens when kids box? Fat kids lose weight. Bullies learn humility. Girls are empowered. The weak become stronger. The timid find courage. The wild kids learn control. The unhealthy get fit. And everybody learns that boxing has no room for anger.
It is true that professional boxers take blows to the head that would very easily concuss or kill an ordinary man. But amateur boxers, and recreational boxers – and even professionals sparring in the gym before a big fight – always wear a head-guard.
You get the odd black eye or bloody nose, but recreational boxers are never going to end up seriously damaged because we are not being hit by Joe Frazier, and because we are wearing those head-guards and, most importantly of all, because we are not fighting beyond the point of extreme dehydration – the death zone where most serious boxing injuries occur.
Boxing teaches you to defend yourself at all times. Boxing teaches you that there are as many ways to avoid a punch as there are to throw one. And although the state schools gave up teaching boxing in 1962, in the great private schools they never stopped believing in the healing power of boxing.
And that is why the only men I know who boxed at school all went to Eton.
Footballers bicker, swear, spit and bitch slap each other in the tunnel. But it is almost unknown for boxers to do anything after a fight other than warmly embrace. Boxing has a bad reputation. Traditionally boxing has been a sanctuary for bad lads. But boxing saves anybody who embraces it. Because what boxing teaches you is that there is good stuff inside you.
Boxing is not about being a tough guy. It is about being a better man. For ultimately boxing is not about how hard you can hit – it is about how hard you can get hit and still carry on.
And because boxing demands so much, because boxing asks for that fanatical subordination of the self – even of the overweight kid who shyly gives the training a try for the first time, even of the middle-aged man who has not been in a fight for thirty years – and in return boxing gives you treasure to carry with you through a lifetime.
And when life hits you hard – when you lose your job, or lose your girl, or lose your health – you might find that you have a thread of steel inside you, and it will make those hard times more bearable.
Where did that thread of steel come from? It came from the sit-ups you did when your sides were on fire. It came from the medicine ball that you held up when your arms wanted to rest. It came from the hard knocks you took, and the sweat you left in the gym, and the way you learned to bite down on your gum shield and stick out your weary jab when a lesser man would have caved in. In your darkest hours, you will discover that you are a better man than you ever knew.
And it will be because you boxed.