(This piece was also published here. Minor changes in this version)
The time it takes to listen to a good tune, the number of minutes to cook a microwavable snack, one eighth of your favorite television sitcom, is three minutes. One hundred and eighty seconds. For some, it is an instance, a fraction of time that can pass by unnoticed. But time has a strange way of working. It morphs with the surroundings encasing it, and inside the squared circle, three minutes can last a lifetime.
In amateur bouts, open fighters compete for 3 rounds, fresh pugs in the pros go at it for 4, and those at the pinnacle of the sport battle 12 three-minute rounds for the right to call himself “Champion”. But the actual number of rounds is irrelevant. Some fights are cut short due to a devastating knockout, accidental clash of heads, or one corner simply throwing in the towel to defend a fighter from hurting himself further. But legacies can be defined in one round, careers solidified or shattered within the duration between bells. All you really need in order to know a fighter is one single round, just three minutes.
Even in the gritty chambers of the boxing gym, one three minute round of sparring can tell you everything about a fighter’s mood, a reflection of their day, maybe even their life. How he moves, whether he adopts a slick southpaw stance or the posture of face first brawler, what he is willing to give and what he is willing to take, will tell you who that person is as a fighter.
Some boxers enter the gym after 16 long hours of menial labor; others come because it’s the only thing that will keep them out of trouble. I’ve heard countless anecdotes of how the Sweet Science saved troubled lives and strangely enough, sometimes a controlled environment of violence is what prevents fighters from committing violence outside of it. You might get a sprinkle of college grads or urban professionals looking to refine their skills in unarmed combat, but most of the serious ones are in it because they want a better position in life, and there’s no other option to go about it but to raise your fists and fight for it.
Boxing is the sport of the dispossessed; the gym a sanctuary for those outcasted from society. “I’ve had ex-convicts, rape victims and drug addicts walk through that door,” my coach tells me. “Anyone that needs it can train.” And sure enough, posted outside the gym door is a staunch reminder of this ethos: “This is a safe zone, all are welcome here.” You don’t need an academic scholarship to train here or even a shred of athletic talent; just show up with the right attitude and you’re good to go.
Most people who scurry in fresh off witnessing the latest Pay-Per-View extravaganza are gone within days. Where were the blazing fast fists? The back and forth action? Where was all the drama? Contrary to the exciting glitz of a bloody brawl, a boxer’s training regime is incredibly boring. You might spend 2 weeks throwing only one punch, endless hours studying footwork, and there’s a guarantee of at least 3 rounds of skipping rope in the exact same spot each time you walk in. But the ones that stick around gain something. They find a discipline, a few sacred moments of silent focus, and for some, maybe even a momentary sense of peace.
The first sparring session is a frightening one. In those three minutes you are tested of your will, your durability, and if you’re lucky, your resolve at the prospects of defeat. You learn what you are afraid of; you learn what you can do, and more importantly, what you can’t. But in any good boxing gym, sparring is never about beating up one another. It is a cultivation of skills, a bonding of camaraderie, and an exploration of into the self.
The feelings are heightened when a fighter starts competing. Now you are not only fighting for yourself, but you’re representing your gym. In a professional fight the stakes are raised even higher as most fighters compete to quite literally feed their families, and given the dim employment prospects for boxers, there is little recourse elsewhere. The Greats fight for an entire nation, sometimes even a universal cause beyond them. Muhammad Ali’s legendary bout against George Foreman legitimized his stand against Vietnam. Tito Trinidad fought in protest of the US bombings in Vieques, and crime on the streets of Manila comes to a virtual halt anytime Manny Pacquiao laces up the leather.
Of course boxing suffers its share of causalities. Benny Paret died ten days after taking 18 unanswered punches at the hands of Emilie Griffth, the death of Duk Koo-Kim changed title fights from fifteen rounds to twelve, and each year the sport continues to add victims to its mortality rate. But contrary to the tragedies that bestow the sport, the intention behind these combatants is seldom to actually hurt one another. It is merely a contest, a payday for all the hours toiled inside the gym and for the monastic abstinence from worldly temptation outside of it.
So if you think boxing is nothing more than an exhibition of brute savagery, go into a gym, talk with the fighters. Ask them where they’ve been, where boxing has taken them and where they would be without it. Just spend three minutes with them, in person or through the television screen. Three real minutes, and it might change your view on the whole thing.