Fighting Spirit: Where Boxing and Politics Overlap

TW: Some racist language is quoted here, yet as it is pertinent to the piece, it has been kept in.

In the past few years, I’ve noticed something strange. Perhaps it’s because I’m interested in both boxing and politics so when the two meet, it’s a bit more obvious to me. But the two meet a lot. 

I took up boxing in first year and fell in love with the sweet science. It’s an activity where there’s constantly room to improve – technique, stamina and muscles matter. But unlike an essay or some of the other markers of success we see around us, it’s a place where sheer grit and willpower can lead you to success. I also enjoy the stakes. If you mess up or you’re doing something wrong, you find out quite quickly. Between this necessity for a strategic mind and the courage to be able to “get hit and keep moving forward”, I think there is a fighting spirit that is as important in boxing as it is in politics.

To showcase what I mean, I want to take a look at a few fighters that decided to fight for more than money or a belt. An obvious example is Muhammed Ali; the man who could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee and took a stand against the draft for all to see. But this isn’t just a one-off. 

More recently, I was reading Tyson Fury’s autobiography courtesy of my friend Tariq (give his articles a read!) and one of the running themes of it alongside boxing is mental health as a social issue. 

Look to the war in Ukraine and suddenly you see former heavy weight champion Vitali Klitschko leading troops as Mayor of Kyiv. Across the world in Asia and Manny Pacquiao has spent six years of his life as Senator in the Philippines. Look back at history once more and you’ll see Jack Johnson – son of former slaves who became the focal point for race tensions amongst his bid for Heavyweight Champion against James Jeffries and while defending his title, he would run a desegregated “black and tan” restaurant and nightclub.  

Boxing hardly has a monopoly on sports personalities getting involved in politics – Lineker’s tweets demonstrate that. But I think there is more to learn from this fighting spirit. 

On a quick side note, I’m a huge fan of biographies. It’s one thing to know a lesson and it’s another to understand how someone puts it into practice. One book I’m reading at the moment is Leadership by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and it covers a number of world leaders like Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. They found their countries in unbelievably bad situations. Adenauer, for example, took Germany after World War II from being shattered, morally broken and distrusted by the rest of the world to the country it is today. It wasn’t just a good plan that made that happen or even behaving well and winning trust. It was the courage to move forward after getting hit, the grit to keep going when it seemed like nothing was going right. It was a fighting spirit that brought the likes of France and Germany back from the brink of defeat and depression. On that note, it’s worth having a look at some of those fighters who dipped into the politics of their time.

Jack Johnson 

Jack Johnson was born to two former slaves in Texas, 1878. His rise to boxing prowess came at the height of Jim Crow laws in the US. That wouldn’t stop him from becoming the first African-American Heavyweight champion. This was 1910 and race tensions were taut. For one fight, he was made to against Jim Jeffries – an undefeated (white) heavyweight champion who was brought out of retirement for the match. Author Jack London wrote that Jeffries was “the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them” and even Jeffries himself said that he had come out of retirement to “prove that a white man is better than a Negro”.  

The fight was set for the 4th of July – Independence Day. None of this deterred Johnson. In a 15-round fight, Johnson dominated, knocking Jeffries down twice and forcing Jeffries’ corner to throw in the towel. Despite vocal racism beforehand, commentators after the fact admitted that Johnson had fought fairly and that he was the “the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen”. 

Johnson would go on to set up a restaurant and club that was specifically desegregated. He became a symbol for the burgeoning civil rights movement at the time. Alas, his fight with racism was not to end in the ring. Convicted on a racist law for marrying a white woman, Johnson travelled to Europe before eventually returning to the US and living out his sentence of a year and a day. While there is more to his story, there is some solace to be found. After a petition by Sylvester Stallone, in 2018, President Trump granted a posthumous pardon for Johnson. He fought. He struggled. But in the eyes of history, he won. 

Muhammed Ali

Ali is a name that nearly everyone is familiar with. Known for being kind, generous and an incredible boxer with a talent for witticisms, Muhammed Ali is a fighter that demonstrated a capacity for greatness. In 1966, this was clearer than ever. The US was at war with Vietnam and called up men for the draft. Despite being a prizefighter with everything relying on his reputation, Ali refused the draft. In a moment that echoed W. E. B. Dubois’ poem ‘We return from fighting, we return fighting’, Ali asked “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”. 

After refusing to step forward when his name was called for the draft, Ali faced prison and a fine (though the sentence never materialised despite conviction). More importantly, he was stripped of a boxing commission in every state for three years. His stance didn’t waver and he spoke at universities across the country during this time until his return to boxing. Slowly but surely, the support for the Vietnam war would wane and Ali proved that his fighting spirit did not waver in the face of punches or political outcry. 

Tyson Fury 

Racism is not the only issue that has been tackled with a fighting spirit. More recently we have seen Tyson Fury lace up the gloves to advocate mental health. Fury grew up in the North-West of England (in the same town as me, funnily enough) and was to be a prodigy at boxing. Standing in at 6 foot 9, the man is a giant. His jittering style of boxing and ability to move between Orthodox and Southpaw led him to success until he eventually went up against Vladimir Klitschko. Vladimir, and his brother Vitali, dominated the heavyweight division for over a decade until Vitali retired (more on that in a second) and Vladimir went up against Fury. It isn’t a fight that is remembered for its brawling, but the decision nonetheless went to Tyson. Despite being at the top of the world, he writes in his autobiography, he knew that it was downhill from there. 

Fury would spend years indulging in food, drink, drugs and struggling with his depression. At one point, he nearly took his own life by driving off a bridge but at the last moment, turned back onto the road. Since then, he has dedicated books to mental health, supported charities, made a Christmas song with Robbie Williams due to their shared desire to improve how mental health is discussed and more generally been a vocal advocate of seeking help. In Behind the Mask, Fury made it clear that he understood that it wasn’t just advocating mental health that was important – it was demonstrating that even a 6’9 heavyweight champion of the world is part of this fight. Perhaps that is something that other fighters who have stepped into the political arena can empathise with. 

The Klitschko’s 

I mentioned Vitali Klitschko in the last section and it was when I realised that he was Mayor of Kyiv that I started to see the connection between boxing and politics. Vitali had an extraordinary record and was utterly dominant in his fights. As Mayor of Kyiv, he advocated a pro-European stance for Ukraine. More importantly, his fighting spirit has not dimmed when the arena he has fought in moved from a stadium to the battlefields of Ukraine. Both Klitscko brothers have been tweeting and posting throughout Russia’s invasion. They’ve been involved in the fight themselves and their fighting spirit has clearly not dimmed now that their nation – rather than their pay checks – are on the line. 

Final Thoughts

It’s a tough world out there but just because you’re on the ropes, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a second wind. Sometimes you need to roll with the punches and other times, you need to take it on the chin but without a doubt, the knowledge that you put up a fight is what’s important. 

Teddy Roosevelt – a prodigious boxer himself – famously said that it’s not the critic who counts but the man in the arena. The man whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Because when they succeed, they know the thrill of triumph and even if they end up defeated, at least they failed in the attempt of something great. Their number is not with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.  

You can’t just run in swinging and assume you’ll win. Strategy, thinking things through, calculating your strengths, weaknesses and the challenges in front of you are all crucial. But above all, fight. Fight for what you believe in. Confront the problems of the day – submit an article to BathTime; lead a society; set up an organisation to try and tackle the issues you think are important; raise money for charities that you think do good work. You don’t have to take on more that you can handle – it’s always risky punching above your weight class – but starting somewhere is always better than not starting at all. 

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