Love, peace and boxing

A Friends School graduate strengthened his Inward Light through a brutal sport that taught him a lesson in suffering and barbarism.

June 06, 1999|By ROBERT GAUDET JR.

AN OXFORD University theology professor once told me that it was impossible to live according to the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. The exact phrase is something like, "Whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." Further, he tells us that if any man "take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also."

I grew up in Baltimore and Virginia trying to live the Sermon on the Mount. It was hard. I finally gave up during the past couple of years. The price was too high -- "turn the other cheek" seems like an invitation to be a doormat.

So I looked for a pragmatic way to be a Christian. I took up boxing.

I like the way the sport is a metaphor for the competition, self-interest and aggression in our society. It brings to the surface all the dark drives within me. Carl Jung thought we should be in touch with our personal "shadow." Well, boxing has brought me closer to mine.

I graduated from the Friends School of Baltimore in 1990. This year, I took a leave of absence from Stanford Law School to study theology at Oxford. I had spent a year in Israel studying comparative religion, but I wanted to revisit the subject to explore its basis for human rights.

At Friends, I was taught to think of people in terms of their Inward Light. Quakers believe that every person has a Divine Spark. I joined the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club fully aware that I would be turning away from the nonviolent philosophy of the Quakers. Yet, I also saw boxing as a move toward greater faith.

George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, would not have condoned a violent activity such as boxing. But his suffering under English legal authorities reflects the same challenges facing a boxer who is battered around the ring but maintains faith in his ability to persevere. Faith keeps the boxer and the prophet moving forward.

There were other reasons why I got into boxing.

First, I was never an athletic person, and this was a chance for me to test my physical ability. Boxing is probably the most difficult sport at Oxford. Another guy who tried out for the team told me that he turned to boxing because rugby was "too easy." But he gave up after a month. We trained six days a week. The sprints up and down Headington Hill made some people vomit.

I called them "hell runs" and rewarded myself with breakfast at McDonald's after each one ended. My first goal was merely to complete the hell runs. Some people quit. I listened to Tupac Shakur and Warren G. Their music spoke about the real struggles of real people, which, for me, was the meaning of boxing. Tupac yanked me out of the world of Oxford choral music and put me back on the streets of Baltimore.

Second, I wanted to demonstrate for myself that I could fulfill a commitment. It is easier to have ideals than to put them into practice. I wanted to learn how to make a dream come true. This seemed like the most challenging test. I had the option of getting up early to run sprints or sleeping late. Getting punched in the nose or attending a quiet concert. Keeping my diet or indulging in dessert. This was a test of my determination. I didn't want to fail. On one of my first days, the captain coolly uttered, "Keep coming back." That was all the encouragement I needed.

Third, I wanted to get into better shape. The boxers were among the most fit of the Oxford athletes. They were strong, lithe and quick. Contact was part of the game. We needed to be agile to duck punches and strong to give them.

Fourth, I wanted a challenge. I could not even conceive of the final goal, which was getting into the ring to fight other boxers. I took training one day and one obstacle at a time. Soon, I found myself fighting an inner battle to complete all the goals I had set. I got through the hell runs and made every practice, despite my academic obligation to prepare weekly tutorials on Buddhism.

My first session was against the club's most seasoned boxer. He slipped under my jab and popped me in the ribs. Then he caught me with a hook that flipped a light switch in my brain. Losing consciousness was an odd feeling, but I considered it as another challenge. Weeks later, this same boxer broke my ribs. It's what I deserved for having a sloppy guard.

At first, I wore a mask with a nose bar that protected me from direct blows. My next goal was to eliminate the nose bar. I got rid of it and wore normal headgear. I didn't enjoy the bloody noses, but they hurt less than I expected.

Fighting in a tournament was my final goal. Competitions are the fiercest challenge. At Oxford, the entire year of training is geared toward an annual tournament against Cambridge. I was not scheduled to fight. It was my first term of boxing, and I had a lot to learn. I was not very good at blocking hooks. They could put me down easily. I also was limited to a basic punch-and-jab combination. I never landed my hooks or uppercuts.

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