It is not infrequent that a fighter will talk about “going to war” in the ring, often against an especially challenging opponent. Marvin Hagler wore a cap emblazoned with WAR in preparation for his unforgettable bout with Tommy Hearns. More often than not at the final bell mutual respect reigns in the ring. Retired amateur and professional fighters, once removed from competitive boxing, share a universal brotherhood that transcends age, language and origins - boxing leaving upon them an indelible mark. Hagler confessed that if his head was cut open, inside would be a boxing glove. Such was his dedication to the sport of boxing. Such are the complexities of honor among boxers.
Facing an opponent in the ring, of course, is not the same as facing an enemy in combat. It may, however, be one of the closest introductions, sans weaponry, to the personal challenge of combat. People play tennis and baseball. Nobody plays boxing.
From the Great War era:
Major “Wild Bill” Donovan, battalion commander in the New York 69th Regiment, enlisted early in the practice of one-on-one non-lethal combat to toughen his charges.
… he divided his battalion into two teams of five hundred men each. He had them strip off their shirts and attack each other. “I am having the men go through this thing shirtless, so that they will get accustomed to the impact of flesh against flesh. There is lots of that ahead.
Donovan soon refined his training techniques by employing the sweet science, ordering 200 pairs of boxing gloves for his command.
Our men are going to learn that it’s possible to fight after it begins to hurt. We want every man to be able to stand up and take punishment like a real fighter … (from UnCrowned Champions pp. 69-70)
Boxing’s service to military honor has not been superficial but fundamental.
“Our Military needs to never forget the Honor concept of being inside the squared circle. Boxing elevates ones Confidence, Courage, and Self Esteem, like nothing else.”
(Brian Garry, US Coast Guard; Florida Boxing Hall of Fame 2009 (referee)
In the ring, facing a fellow soldier, the mutual respect of pugilism is taken to a deeper level.
Semper Fi: from the Latin semper fidelis, meaning aways faithful, always loyal.
“You’re not showing off. And it’s not like you’re brave, because you’re not volunteering. It’s; ‘Fields, get your gear on’. When you box it may be as an individual but believe me, you were representing your whole group, your squad or your company. And you were boxing against a fellow marine, so the love and respect was all there. To those watching it was an event. They don’t think about the hours we spent together training. The kinship and the respect that we grew for each other was just further enhanced.You talk about two fighters respecting one another, we were trained to save each other’s life. And of course the biggest thing was the honor. To this day you never say you’re an ex-Marine, you’re a former Marine. It becomes a way of life.”
(Dr. Alan Fields, Lance Corporal USMC 1956-59 FBHOF Class of 2009 Ring Physician)
Though not without a dash of interservice rivalry.
“Sometimes the smokers would not just be among the marines. We’re on a ship with the navy. It was a smoker on top of the cargo hatch. The big cargo hatches would be the ring. We would have people sitting in the corners - we wouldn’t put up ropes. It’s so funny. If you fought against a sailor, then all of that in the back of your mind that you’re fighting a brother, that was lost.” (ibid. Fields)
Honor in war and honor in the ring is one of the sinews joining boxing and the military, not because they are identical in their application, but rather that they both address mastering fear in a high-risk environment.
While there is honor in the ring, it is honed closest to the bone on the battlefield. The nearer the risk of death, the greater honor is valued, the deeper its meaning.
“My experience with honor began with my time in the Army. I was a combat engineer and commander of a M48 Armored Vehicle (for bridging and mine clearing) that we called an AVLM. Although told our chances of survival were slim to none, riding the beast was a great honor - the Brigade’s armored task force was waiting for us to open the breach. I was in the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, one of the most decorated divisions in the US army. What honor meant to me was serving in something greater then myself.”
(Sgt. Ryan Sammons, Desert Storm)
S.L.A. Marshall writes of what honor means to men in combat:
“personal honor is the one thing valued more than life itself by the majority of men.” (Men Against Fire p.149)
Taking heroic action in harm’s way in the face of the enemy is the basic criteria for the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. In addressing why men facing mortal danger decide to fight, Morris Janowitz writes:
“Honor is the basis of its belief system.” (The Professional Soldier)
Honor in the military, though omnipresent, has its permutations both through the ranks, as well as throughout its history. In the British army in the Napoleonic age, honor was held as essential in the officer corps.
“Two of our officers’, wrote George Albemarle of the 14th regiment at Waterloo, ‘were not on terms; when the one saw the other behaving gallantly, he ran up to him and cried, ‘Shake hands and forgive all that has passed; you’re a noble fellow.”
“Honor was paramount, and it was by establishing one’s honorableness with one’s fellow officers that leadership was exerted indirectly over the common soldiers.”
Which could prove decisive in combat.
“Napoleon had sent forward each of his formations in turn. They had been well led; many of the British speak in admiration of the French officers’ bravery. But they had not been able to carry their men with them the final step. Each formation in turn had swung about and gone back down the hill. When at last there were no more formations to come forward, the British stood on the line Wellington had marked out for them, planted fast by the hold officers had over themselves and so over their men. Honor had triumphed.” (John Keegan, The Face of Battle)
When that code of honor was broken, the repercussions were devastating. Portarlington, commander of the 23rd at Waterloo, spent the night before the battle enjoying the pleasures of Brussels. He returned to his regiment too late - it was by then heavily engaged in the fighting.
‘… in a frenzy of shame (he) joined in a charge by the 18th Hussars, in which he lost his horse. Numbers of excuses were made for him - that he had been ‘dangerously ill with spasms and a violent bowel attack’, that he had been ‘prevented from joining his regiment in time to command it’ - but gossip could not be stilled and he was obliged to resign his colonelcy in September 1815. Pathetically, he repurchased a commission as an ensign but the army would not forget and he died, unmarried, penniless and broken in spirit, in a London slum in 1845.’ (ibid. Keegan)
It was no coincidence that England, in their struggles with France, enjoyed its Golden Age of Bareknuckle Boxing during the Napoleonic Wars.
Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The farther from the point of the spear, the greater the political rhetoric. Janowitz writes:
“the political interests of the typical officer have been intermittent at best. Only at the higher ranks and among its elite members is there a more sustained concern with the political purpose of the military establishment.”
The reverse is equally true.
“You are given orders for operations: night patrols, night ambush, interdiction; troop insertions, jungle prep and troop cover, etc. Our five guys were dedicated to not looking for trouble, but to defend ourselves and the operation if we were ambushed and under fire.”
(Chuck Hasson, Boat Operator, USN Mobile Riverine Force, Mekong Delta 1969-70; Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame 2013 - historian)
Nor does technological innovation replace martial spirit expressed as honor.
“A note of smugness was not missing from the remark all too frequently heard during WW2: ‘We go at this thing just like it was a great engineering job.’ What was usually overlooked was that to the men who were present at the pay off, it wasn’t an engineering job ….” (ibid. Men Against Fire)
For those commanding …
“… the distinction between the military manager and the heroic leader can easily be misunderstood. Military managers - in the ground, air and naval forces - are aware that they direct combat organizations. They consider themselves to be brave men, prepared to face danger. But they are mainly concerned with the most rational and economic ways of winning wars or avoiding them. They are less concerned with war as a way of life.”
and for those commanded -
“Heroic leaders, in turn, claim that they have the proper formula for the conduct of war. They would deny that they are anti-technological. But for them the heroic traditions of fighting men, which can only be preserved by military honor, military tradition, and the military way of life, are crucial.” (ibid. Janowitz p.35)
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow
(Eldorado Edgar Allan Poe, Sgt. Major of Artillery, US Army; West Point Cadet, 1830)
For the Fallen
Boxing has served both the living and the dead. Throughout history the military has paid tribute to the fallen with games held in their honor.
- In 1919, following four years of total war, the victors held an Olympics in Paris to honor those lost. It was the greatest all-military sporting competition in history. Boxing led in popularity among all sports.
- Alexander the Great, following his victory over Darius, ordered his own version of the Greek Olympics, played out on the sands of a conquered Persia.
- In the Iliad, Achilles’ closest brother-in-arms, Patroclus, was killed in battle. Achilles called for funeral games - Homer’s commentary does the honors:
Then Achilles made his way through crowds of troops
and set out prizes next for the bruising boxing-match.
He fetched and tethered a heavy-duty mule to the ring,
six years old, unbroken - the hardest kind to break -
and offered the loser a cup with double handles.
He rose up and challenged all the Archives:
“Son of Atreus - all you Achaean men-at-arms!
We invite two men - our best - to compete for these.
And a powerful, huge man loomed up at once,
Panopeus’ son Epeus, the famous boxing champion.
So what if I’m not a world-class man of war?
How can a man be first in all events?
I warn you soldiers - so help me it’s the truth -
I’ll crush you with body-blows, I’ll crack your ribs to splinters!
You keep your family mourners near to cart you off -
once my fists have worked you down to pulp!”
Dead silence. So the armies met his challenge.
Only Euryalus rose to take him on, heroic volunteer,
bred of Talaus’ blood and son of King Mecisteus
who went to Thebes in the old days, when Oedipus fell,
and there at his funeral games defeated all the Thebans.
The spearman Diomedes served as the man’s second,
goading him on, intent to see him win.
First he clinched him round with the boxer’s belt
then taking rawhide thongs, cut from a field-ox,
wrapped his knuckles well.
Both champions, belted tight,
stepped into the ring, squared off at each other and let loose,
trading jabs with their clenched fists then slugged it out -
flurries of jolting punches, terrific grinding of jaws,
sweat rivering, bodies glistening - suddenly Euryalus
glanced for an opening, dropped his guard and Epeus hurled
his smashing roundhouse hook to the head - a knockout blow!
He could keep his feet no longer, knees caved in on the spot …
So he left his feet
and down he went - out cold - but big-hearted Epeus
hoisted him in his arms and stood him upright.
A band of loyal followers rushed to help him,
led him out of the ring, his feet dragging,
head lolling to one side, spitting clots of blood …
still senseless after they propped him in their corner,
and they had to fetch the two-eared cup themselves.
(The Iliad, as translated by Robert Fagles)
A sight for the ages: soldiers watching soldiers box on a beach before Troy.
Today West Point mandates that each plebe complete a semester of boxing training, a continuation of a century-long tradition, shared by both the air force and the naval academies. No better martial means have been found to prepare future warriors for combat.
We want to expose them to fear and stress and teach them a confidence to respond. We’d rather teach that at the academy than in Iraq or Afghanistan.
(Lt. Col. Nicholas Gist, director of physical education at West Point)
Honor is one of the seven Army Values taught in Basic Combat Training. It is the one value that encompasses the other six and is defined as “carrying out, acting, and living the values of respect, duty, loyalty, selfless service, integrity and personal courage.”
Chief Warrant Officer Steven Badgley, a combat veteran with a lengthy personal involvement in armed service boxing, translates those values into the ring:
“It is hard to define any level of the Army values as Honor as Honor is defined as ALL of the Army values. (I still carry the Army values card that was issued in basic in my wallet). Boxing highlights all seven of the values.
Loyalty - This will build faith in your unit (team) and other Soldiers. You know that they are working, trying hard, sucking with you and it will build trust that they can be counted on.
Duty - You fulfill your obligations by preparing, training, and stepping into the ring; your team is counting on you!
Respect - This is paramount in military and boxing, you are going to fight but you have the utmost respect and that respect will remain no matter the outcome.
Selfless service - Losing or quitting is not an option. People are counting on you. You must step in and you must finish.
Integrity - Fight clean and do your best (even if taking a fall is unwelcoming)
Personal courage - That is self explanatory.”
“I think this is tremendously important to help the young Soldiers realize who they are and what they are capable of. In this day, most people grow up and have never been in a fight or even punched their entire life. To make this happen in a disciplined and controlled environment can make these young warriors see life in a different way and ensure they are prepared for the potential violence of their job. That is a bonus to the integration of the Army values that come from this sport. In a generation that has become the “everybody gets a trophy” generation the sport of boxing puts people on the spot and generally makes them strive to their full potential.”
In a Fighting Heart.