Summer Olympics: All About Boxing

All About Boxing

The death of Muhammad Ali provided a reminder of a time when Olympic boxing could launch a victorious athlete into international stardom. Since the 1960 Olympics in Rome, when Ali won the light heavyweight gold medal, boxing has gone through many changes. As its popularity waxed, the importance of the amateur-only Olympics lessened. Then, thanks largely to a disorganized and corrupt galaxy of competing promoters, leagues, and organizing bodies, professional boxing itself began to wane in popularity. These days, only a fight once every two years or so gets the wider public excited. From an American perspective particularly, things have been uninspiring over the last few decades. We haven’t had a star to root for. In this great boxing vacuum, it’s just possible that the Olympics once again become a place where stars can be born.

How Does Boxing Work?

Olympic boxing in 2016 will look a little different from how it has in the past. Between the 2012 Olympics and 2016, a number of changes were made, most of them shifting the Olmypics toward professional boxing. First, professionals are now allowed to compete. Second, for men, the soft helmets that had long been required at the Olympics have been removed. This is an interesting move — it follows increasing understanding of how concussive and subconcussive blows damage the brain — and it means that fans can see their boxing heros more clearly as they fight. Unlike professional boxing, bouts in the Olympics are relatively short, but boxers must fight multiple times in a short period. The headgear, although it did not protect against brain injury, did help boxers avoid cuts and swelling. Fighting without a helmet when you know you have to fight again soon means that fighters will need to find ways to avoid getting cut. A fighter who can fight through a cut to win a bout may still find him or herself having to withdraw from the competition before the next fight. Another change is the judging system — five judges score each round of each fight, with the winner of the round getting a score of 10 and the loser a score between six and nine depending on how close it was. At the end of the bout, a computer randomly choses three of the five judges whose scores are tallied to determine a winner.

Why do People Like Watching Boxing?

In my article about why people like boxing, I identified four key reasons: boxing is elemental, boxing is highly technical, boxing tests athletes to their limit, and boxing has great stories. In a competition full of elemental sports (run fast, swim fast, lift the heaviest thing, etc.) boxing is right up there in its elemental nature. Two fighters step into a square area (confusingly called a ring) and punch each other. Elemental does not mean angry though — you almost never see fighters lose their tempers. Part of what makes a boxer good is her or his ability to think calmly and analytically even when they’re getting punched in the head. Although the shorter Olympic boxing format reduces the drama of watching two boxer push themselves to the limit of their endurance in a single bout, the cumulative effect of fighting many opponents in a short period will make the eventual champion extraordinarily impressive. Will their be great stories in this year’s Olympic boxing? Only time will tell.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Boxing is divided into weight-based categories. This is like a quick first pass at making sure bouts are reasonably even. There are ten men’s weight classes ranging from light flyweight (less than 49 kg or 108 lbs) to super heavyweight (over 91kg or 200 lbs) and three women’s classes: flyweight (less than 51 kg or 112 lbs), lightweight (less than 60 kg or 132 lbs), and middleweight (over 75 kg or 165 lbs).

How Dangerous is Boxing?

There’s actually very little risk in Olympic boxing of dramatic sudden injury. Thanks to the short format, knockouts (when one boxer knocks the other boxer unconscious or otherwise unable to continue fighting) are very rare. On the other hand, if you consider long term brain injury to be a danger, then boxing is pretty the most dangerous sport imaginable. Even without the headgear on the men’s side, the light, cushioned gloves mean fighters can take more damaging punches without losing consciousness, causing more damage over time. Boxing is not safe.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Boxing?

In addition to their being many more weight classes (and therefore gold medals and competitors) for men than women, the rules are also different in curious ways. As mentioned earlier, men are no longer using cushioned headgear because going without is safer in the long-run. So, why are women still wearing them? Surely it’s because some chauvinist somewhere thinks either that women can’t handle being cut or that no one would enjoy watching them get cut. That’s absurd. Men’s bouts are also a minute longer (nine instead of eight) and cut up into longer rounds of three minutes each instead of two.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Boxing is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 21.

Read more about diving on the official Rio Olympics site.

What does it mean to roll with the punches?

Dear Sports Fan,

You know the expression, “roll with the punches?” It means to be adaptable to whatever comes at you in life. Is that a sports phrase? What does it mean to roll with the punches in a sports context?


Dear Sara,

The phrase “roll with the punches” comes from boxing, where athletes are literally in the business of punching and getting punched. Although many people think of boxing as the ultimate aggressive sport, defense is as important or perhaps even more important than offense. If a boxer can develop techniques to defend themselves from being hit or being hit hard by their opponent, they are well on their way to winning the fight. Rolling with the punches is one defensive option in boxing. What I love about how the expression has moved from its sports context into general use is how precisely the meanings line up with one another. The parallels are almost poetic once you see them. Here’s how rolling with the punches works in boxing.

Getting hit is inevitable in boxing. Oh, sure, boxers are taught to protect themselves with their hands, so punches land harmlessly on padded gloves instead of chins, noses, or stomachs. And yes, dodging a punch is a great idea too. But eventually, every boxer is going to get hit right in the head. This is when the smart boxer rolls with the punch. As they see or feel the punch coming, they move their head or body so that it’s moving the same direction as the punch. If a punch is coming at their head from their left, they move their head backwards and to the right. Watch Mohamed Ali demonstrate with two classic rolls:

This allows the body to arrange itself into an alignment that’s used to moving and proper for moving in the direction the punch will inevitably send it. This protects the boxer from the most damaging element of being hit – the sudden rotational force applied to the brain. This rotational force is what generally knocks a boxer out and causes the worst brain damage. If you watch fights, it’s usually the punch that a boxer doesn’t see and therefore can’t prepare for that knocks him or her out. The head snaps backwards or sideways and you know the fight is over.

Rolling the spot that’s going to get hit with the expected force of the punch protects a boxer from being surprised in this way. If you don’t believe me, take your hands and put them out and up in front of you with your elbows bent and your palms faced out. Get a friend to punch your hands a few times. Experiment with trying to keep your arms rigid (it hurts, right) and then letting your arms go loose and your hands give way as your friend punches them. It hurts a lot less, right?

The beautiful part of this is that in boxing, as in life, every one is going to get hit. If you can find a way to prepare yourself, not with fear or rigid resistance, but with calm acceptance, you can learn to live through most of what the world has to throw at you.

Thanks for reading,


What does "tale of the tape" mean?

Dear Sports Fan,

You’re good with words and phrases. I was watching Rachael Maddow the other day and she said she was doing a special “tale of the tape” show. What does “tale of the tape” mean? Is it some kind of sports thing?


Dear Ellis,

The phrase “tale of the tape” refers to making an objective comparison, particularly between two combatants. It comes from the sport of boxing where fighters are measured and weighed before a fight.

The pre-fight measurement has an important function but it also has its share of pageantry. To make boxing reasonably fair, it is organized into weight classes. For example, the famous fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns in 1981 was fought in the welterweight category. Both fighters had to be less than 147 pounds and more than 140 pounds during the weigh-in, which is usually the night before the fight. For a professional fight, the minimum weight is usually waived, but for amateurs, it’s an important safety element. Why the obsession with weight? Assuming that most boxers are not flabby, weight translates almost directly from muscle and height into punching power. The heavyweight class, the most traditionally prestigious weight class, has no maximum weight, only a minimum of 200 pounds, and even that isn’t enforced. So why do heavyweight fights still have weigh-ins the day before? Part of the answer is that the weigh in has become an important part of hyping or developing interest for the fight. The boxers pose for promotional photos with eyes locked on each other and fists cocked. Often trash talk is exchanged. Sometimes they even come to blows, although that’s usually put to an end quickly. The other reason is that the boxers’ weight, height, and reach are important factors for people who are betting on the fight. Reach, for example, or wingspan, as it would be referred to in a non-boxing context, is important because one fighter being able to punch the other from a distance at which they cannot be punched back is a big advantage.

The word, “tape,” in the phrase, “tale of the tape” suggests that reach or height were the first measurement being referred to. After all, what else do you measure with a measuring tape? Over time, the phrase has expanded, not just to include weight, but also other semi-objective measurements like a fighter’s previous record, what championship belts they possess, as well as biographical information like where they are from. In this context, it combines making an objective comparison with simply describing the fighter. That’s likely the sense in which Rachael Maddow was using the phrase. Did she do a comparison of two candidates which included objective information about their positions as well as stories about their past?

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Why is the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao scandal erupting now?

Mere hours before the most highly anticipated boxing match of the decade, a scandal erupted. Two prominent journalists from ESPN and CNN have had their press credentials, those magical passes which grant them access not just to the arena but to the fighters themselves to ask questions before and after the fight unexpectedly revoked. Fellow journalists around the world and internet have rallied to their defense. #boycotthefight began trending on Twitter. What’s the fuss about? The short answer is that the two journalists in question are women and the fighter who is being blamed for pulling their credentials is a well known abuser of women. The long answer? Well, about that long answer…

As with many situations in life, it’s helpful to tell one of my father’s jokes.

A person from a big city is visiting some friends of theirs who live in a tiny town. She gets in at night and enjoys a few hours of sitting by the fire and drinking beer while letting her friends regale her with all the scandalous goings on of their small town. She learns about the Smith’s strange sexual proclivities, the Borden’s habit of sleep driving, that Dan Trent is cheating on his wife with his dental hygienist, and many many more stories. In the morning, the big city visitor awakes, refreshed after a good sleep. She walks down to the breakfast table where her hosts are already eating. They’re laughing at something in the local paper. The visitor asks what it is. She’s told that the local gossip columnist has printed a story outing Dan Trent as being a cheater. The visitor says, “but that’s not news, you told me everyone in town already knew about that. Why do they bother printing it and what’s so funny about reading something you already know?” Her friend wipes the tears from his eyes and says, “Yes dear, we already know everything, but we still like to know who got caught!”

Classic Dad joke. Not funny, per se, but useful nonetheless. The problem with the presently erupting scandal is that we already knew that Floyd Mayweather was a misogynist, egotist with a long history of abusing women. Why should it matter now that he “gets caught.”  That’s all this is — it’s society “catching” someone for something we already knew about. On one hand, this is good. The more abusers we collectively shame, even if we can’t lock them up, the better. On the other hand, manufacturing outrage now feels hypocritical — as if revoking press passes were some how worse than abuse.

For background on Mayweather, please read some or all of these articles, they are both wonderful writing and much needed journalism. Thanks to those who wrote them.

The Boxer and the Batterer

by Louisa Thomas for Grantland

If you only read one thing about Floyd Mayweather or this fight or boxing in general or just anything at all this weekend, this should be your choice. Thomas writes a completely engaging, objective, and most of all, true story about the contradiction of a man whose boxing success has been built by controlling his rage within the ring, who expresses his rage freely on the faces and bodies of women in his life.

On Saturday, Mayweather will take on Manny Pacquiao in a fight that has quickly become the biggest, most important event in recent boxing history. What’s so striking to me isn’t the spectacle of it but the dissonance around it. A sport that is increasingly marginal is dominating SportsCenter. A fight in a stadium that holds only 16,800 and is available only on pay-per-view could generate $300 million. A boxer who wins like a dancer allegedly beats women like a pugilist.

What are you supposed to do with this?

This Is How Las Vegas Protects Floyd Mayweather


by Diana Moskovitz for Deadspin

A long, exhaustive, and brilliant investigative attempt to counteract Mayweather’s refrain that if he had really abused women, there would be pictures of it.

There are pictures, though. In at least two cases of domestic violence, official records show pictures were taken. In one case, a police report explicitly says that the photos show a victim’s injuries. But authorities in Las Vegas, a city poised to make millions off Floyd this weekend, have either destroyed the photos or haven’t released them.

This is perhaps the cruelest part of the victims Mayweather chooses. They’re mostly women who have emotional relationships with him, sometimes even children with him. They still care for him, despite the bruises, concussions, and death threats, because domestic violence is a cycle of power and control that is difficult to escape. Like many domestic abusers, Mayweather wins them back with apologies, lavish gifts, and promises he’ll never do it again—taking advantage of his power and control over them—and then hits them again.

The same feelings that make it so hard to break out of an abusive relationship make it hard to release the surest proof that Mayweather beats women. It’s easy to throw everything you have at a stranger on the street who slugs you in the face. It’s not easy to do the same with the father of your children.

Floyd Mayweather Bans Michelle Beadle, Rachel Nichols From Covering Bout

by Daniel Roberts for Deadspin

The best article (at this time) about today’s scandal.

Stop and process this for a moment. Showtime has denied press credentials to two of the most prominent reporters for three of the world’s most important television outlets, including HBO, which is co-producing the fight, and ESPN, which has invested huge chunks of its prime schedule this week promoting the fight in infomercial-like fashion.

While it is Mayweather’s team that is pulling the strings, it’s Showtime that owes the world an explanation. Why have they continued to sanitize their coverage of Mayweather’s history of domestic violence while continuing to unhesitatingly promote other aspects of his outside-the-ring lifestyle? Why did they allow Mayweather to air a one-sided self-produced infomerical in which he denied any responsibility for his convictions? Why are they blackballing important female journalists for having the temerity to question Mayweather about what everyone else seems to recognize is a legitimate topic…

Why do people like boxing?

Dear Sports Fan,

I don’t get why anyone watches boxing. It’s brutal and doesn’t seem all that interesting. Why do people like boxing?


Dear Nick,

Boxing is a truly brutal sport and you have my permission not to like it if you don’t want to. No one will make you! There are lots of people who do like boxing though and I think they have some pretty good reasons. There are a lot of things that are appealing about the sport. It’s a sport where fans really get to know the athletes because there are only two of them and they barely wear any clothing. Along with running, it’s the most elemental sport there is. It’s both highly technical and very emotional. Over the years, it’s also inspired a wealth of wonderful stories and the legacy of those movies, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and books imbues the sport with an air of drama. Lastly, it’s kind of an old-school sport. During the middle of last century, boxing was one of the biggest sports in the United States. Being a boxing fan today gives you permission to enjoy a big does nostalgia. It’s also honest. There’s no pretending that the sport is about anything other than damaging someone’s brain or their body. There’s something to be appreciated about that, even if it is brutal.

Let’s explore some of these reasons in greater depth.

Boxing is elemental

Boxing is to sports what the paleo diet is to nutrition. There’s no sport which calls to our ancient hearts more than boxing. If prostitution is the oldest profession, then boxing (or running) is the oldest sport. Boxing is sport stripped down to it’s base elements. It’s just two people, trading punches until one person falls. Every other sport seems artificial and contrived in comparison. OffsidesTwo-line pass? Block/charge calls? Boxing doesn’t deal with any of that nonsense — don’t kick or head-butt, don’t hit someone in the crotch… those are about the only rules. Part of the joy of watching sports is wondering what you would do in a similar situation. Would you come through? Would you battle through pain? That’s increasingly difficult to do in sports like football. How can you imagine yourself in a situation whose details are virtually beyond understanding. It’s hard to daydream about catching a hook route or a stop-and-go much less how you would attack a pulling guard to get to the quarterback. It’s easy to imagine being in a fight. Fights happen in real life all the time. You hope it doesn’t happen to you but it’s not hard to put yourself in that situation and think about how you would respond.

Boxing is highly technical

Of course, any real boxing fan will be squirming in their seat reading the previous paragraph. While it’s true that boxing is fighting and fighting is elemental, it’s not true that boxing is simple. It’s highly technical. If you listen to boxers talk about their fights, what’s usually going on in their heads is as foreign for most lay people as complex football concepts. Boxing is a highly tactical sport. Despite the fact that they’re getting hit, often in the head, constantly, boxers are busy trying to think one step ahead of their opponent. Something seemingly small, like how a boxer moves his left foot out an inch before throwing a particular punch, or how, after landing a punch to the head, they leave their right elbow a smidge too far to the outside, can be the difference between winning and losing. Clever boxers will spend whole rounds sussing these little weaknesses out or setting their opponent up by simulating a weakness of their own, only to make it disappear when the other guy least expects it.

Boxing tests athletes to their limit

How many times have you watched a soccer game and seen the players hug, trade shirts, and walk off the field smiling. Or an NBA game where players give each other dap before the games and stroll off after the game to get changed and do some media interviews. Forget about baseball, where professionals can still play two games in one day. Those sports are all hard in their own ways but they don’t test their participants the way boxing does. When a fighter steps into a boxing ring, they’re guaranteed to have an intense, life-altering experience. It happens every time. That’s why boxers only fight once to a handful of times a year as opposed to basketball with its 82 game regular season or baseball with double that amount. There are no substitutions or injury timeouts in boxing. If a fighter is injured, they lose. That’s kind of the point.

Boxing has great stories

Boxing has inspired great fictional movies like Raging BullThe Fighter, and Million Dollar Baby, not to mention the all-time classic, Rocky. There’s a slew of great articles and books about boxing like David Remnick’s King of the World, Norman Mailer’s The Fight, and Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing. If you’re in a documentary mood, check out these two lesser known films, Ring of Fire – The Emile Griffith Story about a fight that begun with gay slurs and eventually led to the death of one of the boxers or Kassim the Dream about an Ugandan child soldier who became a champion boxer. Boxing is one of the most personal sports out there and it’s rawness lends itself to compelling characters and dramas.

Thanks for reading, hopefully this has explained some of why other people like boxing, even if you never do,
Ezra Fischer

Why do Some Sports Play Through Bad Weather and Others Don't?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do I always hear about baseball games being delayed or rescheduled due to a light rain and yet soccer games continue around the world in a downpour?


Sport, baseball. Hardest material, a wooden bat. Plays through rain? No.

— — —

Dear Jesse,

Thanks for the question! It’s true that sports react differently to the elements. I’m tempted to try to explain this culturally. I’m not the biggest fan of baseball, so it would be fun to bash them for not playing in the rain. A more fair explanation would probably explain that weather affects the trajectory of balls and that this is much more dangerous with a small, hard ball traveling at 95 miles per hour than a big soft ball flying at 35 miles per hour. What is most interesting to me is trying to explain the general phenomenon of why some sports play through bad weather and others don’t and if possible, coming up with a rubric that explains why.

There seem to be two or three simple rules that we can abstract to to explain how each sport deals with weather.

  1. If the sport is played inside, there should almost never be a weather related delay.
  2. The harder the hardest substance used in normal game-play is, the less likely the sport will be to play through bad weather.

Let’s see how these work in practice.

Pro or College Basketball, Volleyball, Boxing, Hockey, Ping Pong — all played inside and all safe from weather delays.

Soccer, Football, Rugby, Cross Country Running — all played outdoors and the hardest material involved is no harder than a soft, inflated leather ball. Their surfaces are all grass or dirt. The only weather that will stop these games is a lightning storm in the direct area of the game.

Golf, Baseball, Tennis, Cricket — all played outdoors and the hardest material is significantly harder than leather. Golf has metal clubs and hard resin balls, baseball has wooden bats and hard leather balls, tennis is played on concrete with fiberglass rackets, and cricket has wooden bats and a hard leather ball.

These rules work pretty well to predict whether a sport will play through bad weather or not with only a few exceptions. You may have noticed that football is in the play through the weather category despite its helmets being much harder than an inflated leather ball. Two possible explanations for this are that historically the helmets were made of soft leather or that because the helmet is attached to the body, its danger is not modified by the weather. Of course if we allow the historic state of sports to enter into the equation, we’d have to admit that tennis used to be played only on grass and clay and that the rackets used to be made of wood. Then again, women’s tennis attire once “included a bustle and sometimes a fur” according to one history of tennis. Basketball’s treatment of weather is modified by its setting. If you are in an outside basketball league, played on concrete, games will be canceled if it is raining. Cycling admittedly breaks this rule entirely. They ride in the rain even though their bikes are made of fiberglass and the roads are made of road. I can only explain this by saying that cyclists are a little crazy and that no rule is perfect.

These rules should help you if you ever need to know whether your tickets to a sport are in danger of being rained out or if you decide to invent a new sport and want to set reasonable weather expectations.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer


What does being "on the ropes" mean? What about "rope-a-dope?"

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for someone to be “on the ropes?” I heard it the other day during a hockey game but I think it’s a boxing term. While you’re at it, what is “rope-a-dope” and are they related?


Dear Morgan,

You’re right, they are both boxing terms although they get used in the context of other sports as well as just in normal conversation. We’ll define what they mean and how you can use them in this post.

They call boxing the sweet science for a reason: because despite the fact that it may look like two sweaty combatants flailing away at each other – or running away from each other – in reality boxers enter the ring with deliberate strategies and do their best to execute them.

Still at some point in a fight, one boxer may get the upper hand and land a few devastating punches, leaving his opponent senseless and barely able to stay on his feet, let alone defend himself. In such cases, a boxer has two choices to keep himself upright: leaning into and grabbing his opponent (known as “clinching”) or leaning back on the ropes surrounding the ring and using his gloves and arms to cover up as much of his body and head as possible. When a fighter does this, and his opponent pummels him endlessly in search of a knockout, the fighter covering up is said to be “on the ropes.”
But remember – they don’t call it the sweet science for nothing. A boxer who sees his opponent cowering and leaning on the ropes,  seemingly defeated and therefore posing no threat, may become overconfident – and in his quest to finish his opponent he may exhaust himself by throwing bunches of punches that don’t actually do damage.
Thus a particularly clever and gutsy boxer may pretend to be more injured than he is, encouraging his opponent to throw too many punches in a vain effort to knock him out – and then, turn the tables and go on the offensive when his opponent has punched himself out (ie, exhausted himself by throwing too many punches).
The most famous example of this strategy being put to use is known as the “rope-a-dope” – when Muhammad Ali lured an aggressive George Foreman into attacking relentlessly for the first seven rounds of the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Ali did this not only by seemingly letting Foreman dictate the action, but by taunting Foreman mercilessly. Foreman wore himself out and Ali seized the initiative and knocked his drained opponent out in the eighth round.
Today, the term “rope-a-dope” is just as likely to be used to blithely describe political or business strategy as it is to describe a fighter’s approach in the ring. But it’s worth remembering the original principle: being willing to absorb potentially devastating punishment with the knowledge, or hope, that you ultimately have the ability to outlast your opponent.
Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

The Return Heard Round the World — Djokovic Beats Federer

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s up with yous? No posts for more than two weeks?? What are we, chopped liver?

Dear Sports Fan Fan


Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan,

Apologies for the long interregnum between posts. We will be trying to ramp back up to close to a post a day in the coming week or two!

Today I’m going to repost an article that Brian Phillips wrote for Grantland.

In it he recaps the amazing tennis match from Saturday in the U.S. Open semifinals between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. In it he describes how Djokovic survived two Federer match points and came back to win the match. He wonders about the meaning of this:

We want athletes to be able to explain sports. Sport, at its most basic, is about physically realizing intentions — calculating the angle, plotting the spin, executing the shot. So surely the people who have the intentions, the people whose inner lives sport is expressing in some complicated way, are in the best position to tell us what really happens on the court. And to a certain extent that’s true. But one of the reasons it’s so scary to imagine going into the postmatch press conference as a loser is that it’s not entirely true. What happens during a match may concern you to an emotionally devastating degree, but what happens can also turn on tiny fluctuations of chance so complicated that they are astoundingly difficult to articulate — minute physical differences that fall within any conceivable margin of error, emotional swings that could have gone either way and went against you, who knows why. These sorts of breaks are often monstrously unfair. And as with The Shot and The Confrontation, they tend to take on outsize importance in matches that are otherwise very close. Meaning that the greatest contests, the ones whose outcomes are most exalting for the winners and most devastating for the losers, are the ones most likely to be decided by infinitesimal turns of luck.

I have to say that I think he’s taking a little away from the greatness of the match and the greatness of that moment. Let’s watch it:

What I see in Djokovic’s face before the shot is someone who is resigned to his situation as he sees it. He knows that he has only a small chance of winning and he knows exactly what that chance is. He knows that his only hope is to take a low-percentage chance. He’s going to guess — to over-commit to where Federer might serve. If he’s right he’ll be able to win the point decisively. If not, Federer gets an ace and the match is over. Here’s where the greatness comes in — by this point they have been playing for over four hours. Djokovic has seen 162 Federer first serves. They’ve played 22 other times before Saturday. Without a coach talking in his ear, or a catcher flashing signs at him, Djokovic has to decide what gamble to make. Does he commit outside or inside? How many steps behind the base-line should he be? Should he return cross-court? Facing defeat in front of thousands of people, exhausted by four hours of tennis in the hot sun, annoyed at a crowd which has supported his opponent all day, Djokovic makes up his mind… and he’s right.

Sure it was lucky — but it was lucky like Larry Bird was lucky when he stole Isiah Thomas’ inbound pass, like Muhammed Ali was lucky not to get knocked out while he was rope-a-doping George Foreman.

Ezra Fischer

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

Sam and Max Kellerman

This is an old story but it’s one of the few that I have kept a physical copy of and moved from one apartment to the next. The death of Sam Kellerman is a tragedy in the old sense of the word and in Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated it found its bard. Be warned: this article is well worth it for its inspiring depiction of familial love, kindness, and breathtaking talent, but it will make you cry. It is sports related only insofar as it has to do with people who play and love sports.

Max began to sharpen his power of reasoning, to strip the sentiment from an argument and make it stand on the legs of logic, knowledge … and will. The dinner table became his workshop. Pick a topic. Any topic. Hakeem Olajuwon, best center in basketball? How can you say he’s better than Patrick Ewing? Didn’t matter what the conventional numbers said; Max unearthed factors that nobody else at the table knew, debated in a way that made you feel he’d already rifled through the closets and drawers of your argument and discarded it. He became an animal of logic. That’s what brother Jack said.

One boy kept entering the animal’s lair. Sam, as a fourth-grader, wrote a story about a monkey in a barrel whose keeper pelted him with numbers–big, heavy ones like 110–until the monkey heaved back a huge one, 1,186, the sum of all the numbers hurled at him, and knocked out the shocked keeper. All the brothers, as sons of a shrink, knew it was a story about Sam and Max. Sam could think and articulate as fast as his big brother, lie in wait listening and then wreak havoc with a reply. Once, debating why man had invented sports, Sam unloaded this haymaker: “Sports is man’s joke on God, Max. You see, God says to man, ‘I’ve created a universe where it seems like everything matters, where you’ll have to grapple with life and death and in the end you’ll die anyway, and it won’t really matter.’ So man says to God, ‘Oh, yeah? Within your universe we’re going to create a sub-universe called sports, one that absolutely doesn’t matter, and we’ll follow everything that happens in it as if it were life and death.'” Which delighted Max, because he craved a foil, someone who would compel him to hurl ever bigger and heavier numbers.