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“All I know most surely about morality and obligation I owe to football”,

Albert Camus

Can you box for God?

The moral and ethical implications of boxing

With David Haye winning a version of the World Heavyweight championship and Manny Pacquiao confirming his status as best fighter in the world, boxing is making the sports headlines again. We rejoice in having another British World Champion. Nonetheless boxing continues to raise moral and ethical questions. Just how violent boxing can be is illustrated by the following quotations from people on the inside.

Thomas Hausar, biographer of Muhammad Ali: "The job requires a man to move toward a battered, beaten foe whose hands are down, whose eyes are rolling and, if the referee allows, smash his face again".

Chris Eubank, former world super middle-weight champion: "The objective is to incapacitate your man and they [the crowd] want to see you do it. … The cameras are looking at you; the people are there howling for your blood. A guy is punching me to pieces. It's all very basic."

On the other hand, Dr David Bosher, director of the Pain Research Institute, said, "Throwing Christians to the lions in ancient Rome was so much better. At least only one contestant suffered. In boxing both participants pay the price." There have been a number of boxing champions who have been vocal about their Christian faith. When Floyd Patterson defeated Archie Moore to win the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in 1956, he commented ‘I just hit him again and the Lord did the rest’ (The New Yorker, 27 July 1957).

George Foreman combined a career in boxing with being a pastor – and still found time to sell meat grills. He had an encounter with God in his dressing room after losing a fight to Jimmy Young. He became a Christian and went on to form his own church in Houston.

Evander Holyfield, the former world heavyweight champion also has a strong Christian faith and added the following to autographs: "Philippians 4:13 – I can do all this through Christ who gives me the strength".

Yet boxing raises serious issues for the Christian. The fundamental question is whether a sport where the intention is to hurt, cut, injure and knock-out one's opponent, can be reconciled with the Christian view of man and God. Danger and injuries are, obviously, present in many sports. The difference with boxing is that hurting your opponent is the aim of the sport. Since the Second World War over 350 boxers have died from ring injuries.

The Church has always had an ambivalent attitude to boxing. When St Paul wrote to the Corinthian church I do not fight like someone beating the air (I Corinthians 9:26), he was not trying to write a theology of boxing. He was simply using a sporting analogy to make a point about the Christian life.

The early Christian writer, Terullian (ca.160 – ca.220 AD) warned his fellow Christians to keep away from the stadium for the things done inside them were wholly inappropriate for believers to see: blows, kicks, cuffs, and "all the recklessness of the fist, and every disfigurement of the human face, God’s image". Much later the Puritans were generally opposed to all sport and recreation. Scott Kershaw Phillips suggests that conversion for the Primitive Methodists involved turning away from "the God-forsaken old life symbolised by the cock-fighting, the bull-baiting, the boxing match, the wake and the ale-house".

On the other hand, boxing was encouraged in Public Schools under the influence of the Muscular Christian movement in order to show that Christianity was not 'feminine'.

The daily curriculum for pupils at Merchiston School included, rugby, gym and 30 minutes fencing or boxing. In the late 1890s, Rev Tiverton Preedy formed the All Saints Mission in Islington and used boxing to attract "men who would a short time ago have ridiculed the thought of darkening the doors of a church but who are by degrees learning self-respect and realizing the Divine Master is their friend and that true religion can be brought into their lives without spoiling their sport and pleasures…"

A unique example of Christian opposition to boxing came in 1911 when the Secretary of The National Free Church Council and a Baptist minister, FB Meyer led opposition to a scheduled boxing match in London between Jack Johnson and the bombardier Matt Wells.

Speaking to the International Brotherhood Conference, he said that, "God had led him, so he profoundly believed, to endeavour to put down the proposed fight. They had an opportunity to raise the conception of sport and to uphold the true ideal of Christian manhood untainted by brutality".

Meyer aimed to arouse "the conscience of the nation against a spectacle in which two men do their utmost to batter one another, not in self-defence nor to protect the weak but for high stakes and ... to gratify the craving for the sensational and the brutal which is inconsistent with the manhood that makes a great nation". The campaign was successful: the Metropolitan District Railway Company, owners of the freehold of Earls Court (the venue for the fight), obtained a court injunction stopping the Earls’ Court company from allowing the fight to go ahead.

A Scottish newspaper portrayed the event in a cartoon which showed a parson knocking out the two boxers. Above was this caption, "I broke the jaws of the wicked" (Job 29:17). This was the last time that an attempt was to be made to test the legality of boxing in the courts.

The only serious study of boxing from a Christian perspective was a publication by the Churches’ Council for Health and Healing titled Boxing: A Christian Comment. The paper summarised the purpose of the human body as:

1. The temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:10)

2. "The body is further dignified by its use as a model for the body of Christ." 3. It referred to the doctrine of the incarnation in which God "honours human flesh and life".

4. "The essential message of the Gospel is the creation of health or wholeness or salvation."

The report found it impossible to reconcile a sport that seeks to inflict deliberate damage to the temple of the Holy Spirit (the human body, 1 Corinthians 6:10) with Christian principles. It concluded, "It is, then, for both medical and Christian reasons that the working party feels bound to discourage rather than encourage boxing".

Perhaps it is time for more Christian thinking on boxing.

The article first appeared in the Times-on-line in November 2009.

See also My Olympic Dream, Katie Taylor London, Simon & Schuster, 2012

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