Larry Holmes in his prime
By Thomas Hauser
"Courage," Irish scholar C. S. Lewis wrote, "is every virtue at the testing point." But courage has special meaning for professional boxers.
It gets tiring to hear television commentators talk about the courage that a golfer exhibits when he holes a crucial twelve-foot put; or the courage that a relief pitcher shows when he strikes out the side in the bottom of the ninth inning with the tieing and winning runs on base.
The ability to play a sport under pressure is not necessarily an act of courage.
Quarterbacks know that 300-pound linemen will pound them. Linebackers and defensive backs come at them like projectile weapons. But comparing the courage of football players with the courage of boxers is like comparing apples and oranges.
A fighter steps into a small roped-in enclosure, half-naked with no helmet or body armor other than his musculature and no protection other than his fists, to face another skilled physically-gifted athlete who is intent upon beating him into submission. Each time he enters the ring, he's risking everything. He doesn't know what the outcome will be. He does know that he's going to be hit. If his opponent is a good fighter, he'll be hit hard and often. His teeth might be knocked out. His eye could be rendered sightless. The punches hurt. And every punch thrown has the potential to change his life for the worse forever.
Walking with a limp for life because of a damaged knee is different from walking with a limp because of brain damage.
Most people never find out how much courage they have or don't have. But courage is the beginning point for boxers and their sport. All professional fighters have courage. It takes courage just to get in a boxing ring.
All fighters know physical pain. The fighter's nose was first broken in the amateurs, if not on the streets before then. He gets hit by his peers every time he spars in the gym.
Young fighters face the unknown. They're brimming with youthful confidence but inexperienced with so much to learn. Sooner or later, a young fighter faces adversity of a kind that he has never encountered before -- a bad cut, getting beaten up -- yet often he manages to prevail. It demands even more courage when he has been brutalized and knocked out in the past, finds it happening again, and this time manages to turn the tide and win.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the spectrum, aging fighters face a different set of demands on their courage. They aren't as fast as they once were. They can see the right hands coming but, somehow, can't avoid the blows. The pain and swelling in their knuckles is worse than it used to be after a tough fight. The blood in their urine takes longer to go away.
But all fighters go out and fight. That's courage. And if a fighter's courage fails him, the good part of his ring career is over.
Courage is inseparable from fear. Dr. Patrick Tissington has researched the performance of soldiers under stress and says, "About one percent of the general population is genuinely fearless. They simply don't experience what we call fear. That can be measured physiologically in terms of their heart rate remaining constant despite exposure to situations which would frighten other people."
Still, most fighters experience fear. Indeed, former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan observes, "Some people enter boxing to become courageous. They've been bullied and felt tremendous shame and fear. They want the physical skills to confront their tormentors but they also want to develop mentally so they won't give in to their fear."
"We all have a weak side," McGuigan continues. "No matter how confident you are, somewhere in your mind when you enter the ring, you know that what happens might be too much for you."
"You're scared the first few minutes in every fight," the legendary Willie Pep once acknowledged.
"Courage," says Lennox Lewis, "is overcoming your fear and doing something you're afraid to do. Brave people feel fear. It's the way you handle the fear that counts."
Even the indomitable Larry Holmes admits, "I always felt jitters before a fight. I expected to get hit, and I expected it to hurt. The first time I fought, I was scared as hell. Over time, I got confidence. But when I walked down the aisle to fight guys like Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Mike Tyson; my heart was jumping. I asked myself, 'What are you doing this for?'"
"Courage." Mark Twain wrote, "is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." Without fear, there is no courage. In boxing, courage is the ability to recognize and overcome fear in a way that allows a fighter to perform at the highest level possible. It's a battle of body and spirit against pain and fear.
Often, when we think of physical courage, we think of character. But physical courage and good moral values aren't necessarily related. Someone with lousy moral values can exhibit great physical courage. And having a great chin doesn't necessarily mean that a fighter has courage. All it means is that the fighter can take a punch.
Courage is built in large measure on self-confidence and self-respect. "It comes from feeling good about yourself," says Holmes, "and having confidence that you've done everything before a fight that you had to do to win. Until you know yourself very well, it comes and goes when you least expect it. But after you've fought for a while, it's not a big deal anymore. It's what you do."
Some fighters have courage but their will can be broken. The greatest fighters have a will of iron in addition to courage. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier would fight until there was nothing left in their body. "A champion," Jack Dempsey observed, "is someone who gets up when he can't."
"I learned something from watching Larry Holmes against Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes," Bernard Hopkins says. "You get up first. Then you worry about whether or not you're all right."
"When I got off the floor," Holmes responds, "I didn't put it down as courage. I put it down as doing what I had to do to win."
Fear of losing also has a lot to do with will. "I was more afraid of losing than I was of getting hurt," Lennox Lewis admits. "Imagine what it feels like to get knocked out and listening to the ring announcer tell everybody that you've been knocked out and giving interviews about being knocked out and then going home and talking to your family and friends about being knocked out."
Lewis might have added that, chances are, a fighter who has been knocked out will get a lot less money for his next fight. Still, it's often only a short reach from courage to foolishness.
The Greek historian Plutarch wrote, "Courage stands halfway between cowardice and rashness." At the opposite end of the literary spectrum, Rocky Graziano opined, "To be a fighter, you can't be a smart guy. To get in the ring, you got to be a little wacky."
Contrary to Graziano's dictum, there are many smart fighters. But as Lennox Lewis acknowledges, "Sometimes courage borders on stupidity." And Larry Holmes expounds upon the distinction when he says, "Courage is doing something when you should do it. Foolishness is doing something when you shouldn't. A fool doesn't have courage. He's just a fool."
There are times when a fighter has to be protected by someone else drawing a line between courage and folly; most often by a fight being stopped. A lot of four-letter words are honored in boxing. "Quit" isn't one of them. The traditional view is that a fighter is supposed to go out on his shield.
But sometimes a fighter finds himself in a hopeless situation. He's being badly beaten and beaten up. He's exhausted without enough of a punch to have a "puncher's chance" to win. Yet he refuses to quit. Is that courage or foolishness? And how does one contrast that behavior with that of a boxer who's knocked down and jumps to his feet eager for battle at the count of ten-and-a-half?
There are many ways a fighter can quit. Bruce Seldon and Clifford Etienne hardly covered themselves with glory in their bouts against Mike Tyson.
James "Buster" Douglas, who fought courageously against Tyson, was a virtual no-show when he faced Evander Holyfield. As James sat on the canvas in the third round, a Socratic dialogue between the forces of discretion and valor seemed to be playing out in his mind, with discretion making its case more persuasively.
"He didn't try to get up," referee Mills Lane said afterward. "I'm not saying he could have gotten up, but he didn't try. Either you're born with a ticker or you're not."
"Pacifism is an honorable creed," British journalist Hugh McIlvanney wrote of Douglas. "But a man's public espousal of it looks less than noble when he has just accepted twenty million dollars to go to war."
It's easy to criticize fighters who don't measure up to expectations. As a general rule, the critics sit on the easy side of the ropes. Roberto Duran's "no mas" (perhaps the most famous act of surrender in ring history) was most likely caused by frustration rather than an absence of courage. It was indefensible, but at least he quit "honestly".
Meanwhile, Mike Tyson biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear stands alone as an act of retreat. "Nothing reflects character more nakedly than boxing," Budd Schulberg wrote of that moment. "In the face of intense pressure that you cannot handle, you unravel, come apart, abandon the sport of boxing, and revert to mugging."
But there are times when quitting is consistent with courage. Vitali Klitschko suffered a torn rotator cuff in his fight against Chris Byrd and retired after nine rounds although comfortably ahead on the judges' scorecards. He felt that, by continuing to fight, he would risk permanent physical damage. Naysayers labelled him "Quitschko" and his courage was questioned until he fought Lennox Lewis three years later.
Against Lewis, Klitschko suffered a gaping cut on his left eyelid. The gash was so bad that, after the fight, the doctor who sutured the wound had trouble finding a place on the eyelid to put the anesthesia. Wherever he inserted the needle, the skin shredded away. There was also a cut along Klitschko's right eye. Yet Vitali fought valiantly and bitterly protested the stoppage.
"People could see what happened to my eyes because the cuts were on the outside," Klitschko says. "The injury to my shoulder was worse, but they could not see that injury so they did not understand."
John Schulian once wrote, "Fighting is not a coward's business no matter how much the air is polluted by cries that this pug is gutless and that one has no heart. To lace on a pair of gloves and climb into the squared circle to face a man intent on relieving you of your senses is to give the world irrefutable proof of your courage before a punch is thrown."
There's courage in the tentative steps that a young fighter takes when he gets into a boxing ring for the first time.
There's courage in every club fighter who has ever been badly hurt but comes out round after round, trying not just to survive but to win.
Courage is the willingness to take punches to land punches and continuing that process.
Courage is venturing into territory where a fighter has never been before and might not want to be.
Courage is Muhammad Ali taking hard fights that he didn't have to take, fighting anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Courage is Larry Holmes climbing off the canvas after being knocked woozy by Earnie Shavers and risking more brutal blows.
"Courage," Joe Frazier says, "is how bad you want it."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org