Thursday, May 27, 2010

Is Western Boxing An "Art"?

The last post on the influence of Western boxing on Asian martial arts brought these responses:

samuel.x.killer said...
big fan of the blog, but i humbly disagree that western boxing lacks philosophy. "fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee" may be one of the most zen lines about combat i know. i would be interested if there are other boxing quotes which exemplify universal aspects of martial arts


JAB said...
Pu En Fu, Hu Xi Lin's Shuai Chiao coach, studied with professional boxers that were part of an Italian delegation that came over in the 40's or 50's to Beijing. Pu Laoshi stated many a time how good their boxing was, how tough they were, and he became a student and studied boxing with them. Combined with his already legendary throwing skills this made him a often sought out trainer!
As for boxing not being an "art." You have not been exposed to good solid boxing then mi amigo. I look at what influence Cus D'Amato(?) had on Tyson, and what could have been if he had lived longer. He took a punk idiot and made him somebody with hardwork ethic and discipline. That in itself is an art form!

My response:

Samuel and Jake;
I guess I've gone over and over this before, but I consider boxing and wrestling (and the misnamed "mixed martial arts") combat sports. Don't get me wrong, I have a great appreciation for both and have practiced both. I wrestled in High school for four years.
There is technique, self-improvement, conditioning and self-defense in boxing and wrestling.
But there is NO underlying philosophy such as Zen aspects in Japanese arts, Taoist or Buddhist aspects in Chinese arts, calligraphy as practiced by martial masters, etc.
There is also no aspect of health improvement (other than raw conditioning) such as Chi development or meditation. In fact, boxing can even damage our bodies (My friend Brian boxed with some pros and loved it. He had to quit because he developed skull fractures in his cheekbone) and wrestlers have even died trying to make weight classes.
Now, I suppose all those arts can be practiced without any thought to those underlying philosophies. Then I would consider them combat skills like boxing and wrestling.
Combined with philosophy, they become an art.
-Just my opinion.

Let the shitstorm begin...


Charles James said...

Hi, DR and Friends:

As to "art form?" it should be understood that any form of activity is considered an art form if practiced diligently, frequently, and with both heart and intent.

Even when you are not mentally focused on it as an art form the mere practice makes it so if the benefits are felt.

Felt in physical and spiritual. Boxing provides this just as the practice of writing, football, basketball, and many others.

Just because it doesn't fit the "Asian" interpretation of art form as we understand it does not mean it ain't so...


Sean C. Ledig said...

Great answer, Charles.

Bill Mehlman said...

Regarding the "benefits" of boxing: I had a classmate in college, a good all-around athlete, who liked to box. He wanted to go to medical school, but when he filled out his applications his faculty advisor blew a fuse because he had put down "boxing" among his extracurricular activities. He had my friend come back the next day, and showed him some brain scans of boxers, and the damage that had been done. And then he told him to rewrite his applications, and that if he ever heard my friend was boxing he'd see that he never got into medical school anywhere.
So I don't see the "benefits" of boxing, as opposed to any of the internal arts.
My friend didn't either. Stopped boxing, went to a topnotch medical school, and became a neurologist!

samuel.x.killer said...


Thanks for opening up the discussion and thanks to the others for adding to it. I understand the misgivings and while I wouldn't call boxing an internal art, it definitely should be called a striking one.

The comment about brain damage excludes the fact that not all boxers get into the ring. Boxing is taught at my dojang as auxiliary to TKD. Practice is done on bags or shadow boxing and two people never go at each other, I imagine because of the health risks. While unfortunately this limits the effectiveness of the training in practice, ultimately I think it is beneficial. While only the reverse punch crosses over between the two, the footwork has been very helpful for sparring.

For philosophy, I gave Ali as an example but perhaps the better one would be Pinky in ROCKY - he is a sensei as much as Mr. Miyagi. Additionally, while boxing may not have "forms" it does have combinations, which in repeated practice I find a similar meditative mindset as a form. Finally, if the ultimate purpose of a martial art is to teach self-defense, boxing certainly can be used on the street. Like any art, it should not be studied to the exclusion of others, but as I see it as an upper body striking art it cannot hurt to be incorporated to the inclusion of others as the Chinese on the southern coast seemingly recognized with wing chun.

Thanks again

nemovic said...

Lets try not to mystify the asian martial arts, their purpose is (was?) self-defense. Only if you can defend yourself you can begin the process of self-improvement, because only then you can act as an autonomous subject.

Western boxing came not out of nowhere, its roots must be traced to ancient greek pangration (the basic stance in bure knuckle boxing, ving chun and ancient boxing, seen on ancient greek paintings is very similar)....many argue that allong with the influence greek philosophy had on buddhism (greaco-buddhism theory), the troops of alexander the great spread pangration (that was practised also in forms (kata))in india.

Although I am greek I think this theory goes to far.

My guess is that the movements in martial arts derive from weapons and not the other way around, so boxing, ving tsun and pangration are related to to medium sized knives, like the roman gladio or the swords in ving tchun.

I would call boxing an art, but a lost one since nobody can teach it the old way since it became sport.

Very nice blog, please keep posting

Dojo Rat said...

Very cool--
I had no idea of the Greco-
Buddhist connection.

Stay tuned, I have a follow-up planed

Kostas Tountas said...

From what I have read, nemovic is correct in pointing out that there were Hellenic (Greek) influences on buddhism (see this link here)

By the way, on a completely unrelated issue, Dojo Rat, did you ever have that Grand Opening for that Saloon you were building ?

daniele.perkele said...

I totally agree with DR. Check the definition of art in your dictionary: it always involves beauty and meaning/content/philosophy. Sorry but boxing doesn't look beautiful to me, nor does swelling an opponent's face with punches contain much meaning or philosophy...

Sean C. Ledig said...

DR, look what you started!!! (LOL)

Seriously, I just want to make a couple of comments.

Re: Bill Mehlman - your story shows the prejudice against boxing and boxers. I'm sure football has a high percentage of brain trauma as well, but I doubt that any medical school would turn down someone because he played high school or college football. In fact, I knew several doctors who did play football in college.

Re: Daniele - beauty is in the eye of the beholder. An all-out fight between two or more people of ANY style would have the same characteristics you attribute to a boxing match.

By your logic, none of the martial arts could be considered an art.

I remember speaking with someone who went to Chen Village in China to learn Taijiquan. He told me "If you go to Chen Village thinking you'll get some gentle exercise, don't be surprised if you come back needing knee surgery."

I've seen video of the training at Chen Village and let me tell you something, they do more than just practice pretty forms. There's also grappling practice which many times results in joint dislocations. There's also full-contact fighting with boxing gloves and the resultant broken noses and even concussions.

And Nemovic, Charles and Samuel, I just wanna say a big "Amen Brothers." My boxing training has helped make me better at the various Asian martial arts I practice and saved my ass a number of times during my misspent teenage years.

Sean C. Ledig said...

One last comment - to me, the thing that makes boxing so effective is that it prepares the student for being able to take and dish out punishment. The average strip mall McDojang does not teach either quality very well.

The sad truth is that today it is quite possible to earn a black belt without ever hitting anyone or anything and without ever having been hit.

I have a friend here in Tampa who holds a Yi-Dan under a reputable 7th dan in Tae Kwon Do. Yet my friend cannot punch a standard heavy bag without having his wrist collapse under the impact.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - I have little doubt that I could beat 95, maybe 99 percent of the black belts out there in a street fight. It's not because I'm so good at what I do or because I'm some great master. I've known some true masters and grandmasters and I don't come close to being in that category.

No, it's because when I train, I actually hit things, like my wooden dummy, used tires and my heavy bag. That kind of training helps me to learn how to dish it out and how to take it. It prepares you both physically and psychologically for the worst.

If you don't have both qualities in good supply, you won't last long when the worst happens.

JAB said...

LOL! Got news for you brother, the Chinese fit their fighting arts to their philosophies. Originally there were three fists in Xing Yi, but that did not fit the five elements so two more were added.
Traditionally there were three palm changes, single, double, smooth body palm... did not fit the philosophies of the I Ching, so they added 5 more to make eight.

Qi is a Chinese word for energy. Energy is in every living thing regardless of that things awareness, nor how any of us define it. Trust me... boxers have PLENTY of qi when they hit!

Meditation is a religious, personal endeavor. To link it to "art" is not contextual.

Of course this is all subjective. Is boxing dangerous... of course it is! Does not negate the art does it? All MARTIAL arts are inherently dangerous if practiced properly. We minimize risks, but they still exist.

To watch the greats like Ali, Fraser, Louis, Foreman, Mayweather, pacman..... to watch them move, strike, slip, step is simply beautiful IMO! The athleticism and ability to perform a skill with such intent and focus is not an art form? By your definition no Olympic sport is an art, BJJ is not an art, pretty much everything that does not have an asian-mystic-metaphysic-religious slant on it is not an art according to your definition. Hell even art is not art in most cases according to your definition!


Dojo Rat said...

Ha, ha...
Cheers Jake, you are frontloading my follow-up, in which I attempt not to contradict myself too much!
Coming up...

Dojo Rat said...

Thank you very much for the Hellenic/Buddhist link, I think I will work that into future discussions.
--And, get ready for some new pictures of our Saloon when we have our big spring party around the second week in June!

Martial Development said...

I don't see the debate about Western boxing here. It seems to be more about the importance of full-contact training.

Everyone knows that taking hard punches to the head causes brain damage. Some people think that is an acceptable trade-off, and that there is no way to become a good fighter (or "self-defender" if you prefer) without it. This is the boxers' perspective.

If we define art in opposition to pragmatism, then we might conclude that to de-emphasize full-contact work is to cultivate an artistic sensibility. I must disagree. I would draw a distinction between art and decadence, but even more importantly, between self-preservation and "self-defense." One cannot improve their health by disregarding their health.

(And of course, real fighting is done with a weapon, not with padded mitts in a ring.)

j said...

I think it's a good idea to make a distinction between something that is primarily a Combat Sport and something that is a Martial Art.

Although there are places where they both cross over and interact, they should be looked at as apples and oranges.

I'd say that there is no equivalent of Asian Martial Art in the American society that I was raised in.

Our sports fulfill what Asian martial arts fulfilled in Asian society before the 1980's or so when sports entered the scene in China.

There weren't really widespread sports in China until recently, CMA filled that role.

They are functionally equivalent but not the same.

Like religion, Christianity and Buddhism are both religions, they fulfill the same roles in society. But the religions themselves are quite different with different goals, methods, etc.

Western Sports are as deep and rich and wonderful as Asian Martial Arts. But they are not the same and both come with way different cultural assumptions, training methods and worldviews.

Both are fun! And both are great. Saying they are different doesn't demean either of them.

There was a time when Chinese were ashamed of their CMA and took to Western sports to "modernize". Whereas there was a time when Americans were wild for Judo and Karate and left our combat sports behind. Both cases were a mistake and a more balanced approach of appreciating both makes more sense to me.

MMA is a semantic mistake in my opinion, it should probably be called NHB or something like that, as it has very little to do with Asian martial arts. But then again, things get very tricky and complicated! Tai Chi is not a combat sport, but perhaps Judo is? My definition is far from perfect.

Good topic to discuss and think about!

Jess O

boxinglover9 said...

OT: You can check out Manny Pacquiao doing his intensive training and other interesting Pacquiao videos at the official Manny Pacquiao Youtube channel. It's super cool!