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International Conference on Men's Issues
August 16-18, 2019, Chicago
Masculinity and Boxing beyond the Ring
The poster ad for Modern Masculinity: A Guide for Men
Boxing and Masculinity

My essay in the program book, right & below

When my boxing coach tells me to focus on 3 things, I know I will probably remember two of them. I like those odds. So do others. Chad Howse, for example, often sets out three goals for men in his Average to Alpha page. I don't think that being masculine is as easy as 1 2 3, or that it ever is—or should be—easy at all. Even so, I organized every chapter of Modern Masculinity: A Guide for Men (Amazon e-book, 2016) around three points I wanted men to focus on, and I have three points here, borrowed from three Jacks who have useful observations about being an active man.

In his 2012 book, The Way of Men, Jack Donovan writes that masculinity "is about what men want from each other" (p. 2). He points out that masculinity is created by men for men. There is no masculinity without an audience of men. In an often-quoted essay called "Citizenship in a Republic," Theodore Roosevelt writes: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds" (continue below).

In every world, Roosevelt is telling us, there are actors, and there are spectators. Roosevelt was a boxer, and he was thinking of the boxing ring. He dismisses the "critic" and the spectator, "the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better." These men don't compete or test their skills. Rather, they make it their job to evaluate those who do. I don't see a simple opposition between the doers and talkers, however. Instead, I place men on a continuum that forms what I call a scale of masculinity. The scale shows how one man measures up to other men at specific tasks. On a scale of masculinity that assesses boxing skills, for example, boxers who compete in sanctioned fights stand higher than those who spar but don't compete. Boxers who spar stand higher than those who only boxercise, doing aerobic workouts that include shadowboxing and hitting the bags but not getting into the ring and—here's the thing—getting hit. The harder it is, the more credit you get for attempting it. You don't have to win. You do have to try.

We don't achieve masculinity by talking about it. We achieve it by doing things with our skills, whether they are in cooking, swimming, rock climbing, boxing, or playing musical instruments. If a man does it, any competitive activity can be used to establish a scale of masculinity. We should use our skills, not simply watch other people use theirs. Every day I see men who can't walk across a parking lot without watching television. They stand in doorways or on stairs to see what happens next on the screen in their hand. There is no scale of masculinity for men who prefer to look at somebody else's life rather than live their own. How do you get better at that?

Men who set out every day to achieve something need to be self-aware and self-assessing. I see myself as being in competition first of all with myself. Whatever I do, I always try to do it better than I did it the last time. I also compete with others who command similar skills. I want to do better than they do. I hope that they also want to get better at what they do and that they want to do better than I do.

This brings up the second Jack, who is Jack Bauer of 24 fame. When he is extracting information from a bad guy but not getting what he wants, Bauer will say "Not good enough." Then he applies more pressure. That's what I say to myself when I want to cut short a workout or omit a step in cooking. I apply more pressure. No meal kits at my house. Not good enough. I will sometimes take on an extra round when I spar with my coach. Usually we do 6 rounds. If the 6th is not good enough, I ask if we can go to round 7, which is going to be a stretch for me. Next time, I will make the 6th round good enough.

The third Jack often demonstrates his boxing skills, but never in the ring. He is Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child's twenty-plus adventure novels. A master of many boxing moves, Reacher doesn't wait to go on the defensive. His principle is to "Get your retaliation in first." Like Reacher, every boxer knows it is best to seize the initiative and dominate the round. It is more blessed to land punches than to take them.

Reacher's fights are spectacular. He exemplifies Roosevelt's claim that boxing is a great theater for manhood, both as an event in the boxer's head and in the traditional sense as a performance for others. When you box you are in the arena, where the active man needs to be. I've boxed for eight years. I started at 63, which is a little late, an age at which I have to be careful of what I get into. Still, in the last 4 years I have sparred over 1400 rounds with my coach, who had 76 fights and boxed for twenty years.

Boxing is, gloves up, the best form of competition I have ever experienced. Before I retired, I saw competition in many areas of working life. Competition in most professions is real, but it is disguised. Professional accomplishments, popularity in the workplace, and financial success are all highly competitive. However, direct competition in the workplace is often discouraged. It upsets the congenial atmosphere that businesses prize. It disturbs the comfortable illusion that every participant is a winner. Competition is definitely not cool. Although I believe that cooperation and collaboration should be rewarded, I also believe that it is important to compete.

I experience competition in the most creative and beneficial way, and also in the most immediate and embodied way, in the ring. There is no such thing as “cool” there. Boxing is intense and committed. One boxer tries to out-smart, out-punch, and out-last the other. Clarity is the whole point. Many professionals value boxing precisely because it is undisguised competition. In a book about Floyd Patterson, Alan H. Levy writes, "Actors, musicians, [and] stars of other sports have often commented on their attraction to boxing as an embodiment of a most stark version of what they do" (Floyd Patterson, p. 6). Boxing is a "most stark version" of what a lot of men do a lot of the time, which is to compete with other men. That's a basic way we affirm our sense of who we are. We can't compete that way all the time, but we should compete that way some of the time, and probably more than we do.

People are accustomed to dismissing boxing. My friends used to do that. One said that boxing might be good for me because it “gets the aggression out,” an idea that seems to be fueled by images of angry men pounding the heavy bags. That's not boxing. If boxing “gets the aggression out,” so do ballet and other expressive art forms. Good fighters know that competition is about strategy and control, not venting frustration. We know that "venting" does not relieve pressure. "Letting off steam” to get relief is "an illusion," P. D. Ouspensky writes, because venting does not change the “wrong thinking” that lies behind negative emotion (The Fourth Way, pp. 72-73).

There is plenty of "wrong thinking" about men in the air around us. When you talk in positive ways about men and masculinity, you will be challenged, even attacked. If you are, it will help to think of yourself as a boxer, a strong and confident competitor equipped with skill and endurance. Don't just think of yourself as a boxer. Box. Win or lose, boxers know that it's better to be the man in the arena than the man outside it. Elite groups and the media scorn and defame traditional masculinity. I don't spend time arguing with them. I glove up. I value face-to-face, hand-to-hand, toe-to-toe competition with men who do likewise. Like Jack Donovan, I understand that masculinity is about what men want from each other. Like Jack Bauer, I know that when something is “not good enough,” I have to make it better. Like Jack Reacher, I get my retaliation in first by acting rather than reacting. I live the joyful life of the active man, competing with myself and engaging in friendly competition with others. At the end of the day I feel good about what I have done. If you box, so will you.

Aug. 25, 2019