Is There Any Skill in Boxing?

Dear Sports Fan,

Is boxing really about skill? I mean it kinda seems like they just pound on one another until one of them breaks. Is it more about talent/training/etc or more about whose skull is thickest (and can thus take more hits)?

Been wondering,
Thick Skull


Dear Thick Skull,

They call boxing the “sweet science.” They call economics the “dismal science.” I don’t know who “they” are, but they’re right. What happens in the ring can often appear to be a glorified street fight, and at times there may be two brawlers going toe to toe, too tired to do anything other than trade huge punches and see who has the bigger heart.

But watch a good boxer against a lesser boxer, and you’ll see that it’s not just the thickness of someone’s skull that makes a boxer better: it’s their ability to hit without getting hit back.

That’s partly training – the work the most successful boxers do would probably kill normal people – and it’s partly plain old-fashioned nerve. Somehow the boxer has turned off evolution’s “don’t get hit switch,” or at least dialed it down so that it doesn’t prevent him (or her) from inflicting some damage of their own. Some of it is good – biology: some guys are simply faster and quicker and, yes, some guys are less or more prone to getting knocked out depending on the structure of their skull.

But the rest of it is good old-fashioned strategy and tactics – the science part. Boxers in the early rounds often look tentative and paw at each other like blind puppies. What they’re actually doing is getting a read on how their opponent will react to different things. If I throw three jabs (short, quick punches with the lead hand), and each time I do my opponent moves his head the same way to avoid the blow, then I know just where his head will be after I throw a jab in the future – making for an easy follow-up. If I see that my opponent drops his left hand whenever he throws a punch with his right, leaving his face or body unprotected, I’ll file that away and plan a nice counter-punch sometime later in the fight.

Boxers study footage of their opponents’ previous fights to look for weaknesses; they come into a fight with a game plan; they adjust the game plan according to what they’re seeing; and they work for months to get their bodies trained to not only endure but thrive as they absorb a ridiculous amount of punishment.

It’s a brutal sport, no doubt – but if you watch enough, and pay close enough attention, you’ll see that it’s not two guys locked in a cage flailing away at each other.  It’s two scientists in a lab trying to answer man’s most basic, primitive question: how the hell do I hit this guy in the face without letting him hit me back?

That’s much more exciting than economics.

Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

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