Losing in boxing isn’t like losing in most sports. If you have a bad game of football or tennis you feel kind of shitty, but hey, it’s only a game. If you lose in boxing you get your ass kicked, in a very literal, non-figurative fashion.
Few sports punish failure as hard as martial arts, and while getting punched can be fantastic motivation to “keep your fucking hands up” as my coaches so often tell me, there’s a psychological factor to losing in boxing that simply isn’t there in most sports. I’ve written before about the dangers of getting angry, but there’s also a risk that you’ll drift too far towards the other end of the fight-or-flight scale. After an opponent has got a couple of good punches – the kind that hurt – in on you, and you’re struggling to do anything but desperately defend while you straighten your head out, it’s easy for it to feel less like you’re having a boxing match, and more like you’re getting beat up, because, you know, someone is beating you up.
Getting beat up triggers a surge of adrenalin as your brain panics and thinks ‘oh shit this guy is trying to kill me’. When you stop fighting at the end of the round, that adrenalin is all there, leaving you jittery and upset. For men in particular, there’s also the additional effects of testosterone, which is what drives most of the unhealthy, socially destructive actions and attitudes that are loosely categorised as ‘masculinity’. Testosterone is what pushes us to want to be the alpha male, and it’s incredibly hard to turn off the instinct to feel like you failed as man when you get beat up or otherwise ‘lose face’ (see: rage murders), or, even more absurdly, when your sparring partner happens to land a couple more punches than you. This shouldn’t matter, in reality it doesn’t matter, but it’s difficult to fight the flood of chemicals in your brain that are telling you it’s time to leave the pride and wander alone in the wild.
Boxing is an intensively psychological sport, both in the manner in which fighters have to pay attention to numerous different things – their defence, the opponents attacks, planning attacks, countering, working out the opponent’s weaknesses – all the same time, and, perhaps more so, in suppressing the natural instincts of your lizard mind, which, while they may work great in evolutionary terms, kind of suck in the ring.
Billion Yuan Baby is a regular column by Shanghaiist editor James Griffiths, focusing on his experiences and those of his fellow competitors’ training for Brawl on the Bund.
Brawl on the Bund takes place on June 15, 2013 at Hyatt on the Bund. The event is in support of Leo’s Foundation, which cares for newborn infants with respiratory problems.