Some sports are more aesthetically pleasing to watch and play than others. Baseball has always invoked a sense of nostalgia in its participants and viewers. The freshly cut grass, the sharp crack of a wooden bat making clean contact with a horsehide ball, and the crowd’s murmur that is only interrupted by concession vendors and reactions to the game itself invoke a sense that all is right with the world. Soccer is called the beautiful game, and at its zenith, it showcases perfectly timed movements and patterns of play leading to goals by maestros named Messi, Ronaldo, and Pele. Likewise, athletes who play basketball, golf, gymnastics, and a host of others all, in some way, display a beauty intrinsic to their chosen sport. Boxing is different.

Whereas the sight of a manicured soccer field or the polished hardwood of a basketball court invokes a sense of beauty, the spit and blood-adorned canvas of a boxing ring inspires visions of a gladiator arena. A fighter who moves gracefully in the first round of a fight will often be left with a disfigured face by the twelfth. Even in victory, the winning fighter must suffer some form of punishment during the course of the fight. Despite the sometimes extreme trials of boxing, testing one’s fortitude, training, discipline, and pursuit of glory draws fighters into the ring. The essential quality of boxing which attracts athletes and spectators alike is not the display of sheer athleticism by a pair of pugilists. It is the perseverance of the fighters who were forged in the crucible of a gym. People love boxing because each fight displays the culmination of a refining process by the fighters. In this way, the sport of boxing offers a unique analog to the Christian understanding of sanctification.

In the opening chapter of his epistle, the apostle James describes the process and expected results of a life of sanctification. James explains in chapters 1-4 that believers should take joy in external trials because they bring about perseverance, and perseverance will bring his audience to a faith that is mature and complete. In verses 13-15, he commands Christians to fight the temptation to give into their “own evil desire.”[1] He assures the hearers of his letter that if they ask God for wisdom, God will supply them generously.[2] “This wisdom produces stability, endurance, and character, culminating in the crown of life.”[3] However, the believer must ask sincerely or risk being tossed about in a sea of doubt. This process of being refined into the image of an ideal in the pursuit of glory is familiar to all serious athletes and, in my experience, especially boxers. What follows is an exegesis of selections of James 1 from the perspective of a fighter to show that the sport of boxing offers what Os Guinness calls a signal of transcendence – hints that ordinary things like the sport of boxing can reveal there is more to reality than just atoms and energy.[4]

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”[5]

A boxing gym is a cauldron of competing sounds and smells. The high-speed rat-a-tat sound of a fighter working a speed bag contends with the bouncing sound of fast-moving feet on the springy floor of the ring. Leather gloves make a slapping sound when they connect with the leather headgear of a sparring partner or any number of leather-clad punching bags that serve as a gym’s chief decoration. Jump ropes tap the floor and cut through the air at such a rapid pace it sounds as if there are drones orbiting inside the gym. Fighters loudly exhale with each punch while they box an imaginary opponent in front of a mirror. All of these noises are the soundtrack for the day’s workout that might represent the most physically challenging experience of the average person’s life, but is just one of a thousand such days for a fighter. Each workout is a spiritual discipline, forming him into a more complete version of himself. Each sound symbolizes the purification of the boxer. They are an audible representation of the trials that are producing complete and mature fighters.

Inside every boxing gym, a group of characters seems to live inside the ring. They might have an occasional sanctioned bout, but most of their connection to the sport is their role in sifting up-and-coming fighters. Before they raised a title belt above their heads, every world champion first had to beat Steve, Orlando, Sam, Porter, etc. These men serve as the first great challenge in the career of a hot prospect. If a prospect can beat the 45-year-old southpaw that always seems to stay energized, they are ready to face stiffer competition. Of course, only some prospects survive the repeated encounters with the gym rats with their desire to keep boxing intact. For the trainers of talented young prospects, the gym rats serve as a trial by fire to confirm their fighter loves boxing enough to persevere through the mental and physical toll of training. After all, boxing is not a weekend sport one does with his buddies. There are gyms worldwide that have athletes with the talent to become world champions but will only make it if they love coming to the gym every day. Fighters become champions, in part, because they recognize the necessity of their daily trials and take joy in the transformation they bring about.

“. . . but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”[6]

Of course, a fighter’s pursuit of glory also requires tremendous moral discipline. There is an interesting difference between the trials James instructs his readers to take joy in verses 2-4 and those he references in verses 14-15. The Christian ought not to take joy in dealing with the consequences of his sinful desires. Sin is to be banished. If not, James says our evil desires may turn to sin and sin to spiritual and possibly physical death. The formula James describes is one that boxers know well. The history of boxing is littered with stories of men who did not work to eliminate the patterns of moral failings. Whether a fighter threw a fight to win a bet, had his trainer put stimulants in his water bottle, or compromised his training through drugs and alcohol, the results are always the same. They have cheated the sport. Whatever glory awaited them is gone.

For example, Antonio Margarito was a world champion at super welterweight with a reputation for an all-action style and ability to absorb heavy punches from his opponents.[7] He was not known as an exceptionally hard puncher but often knocked opponents out in later rounds due to his durability and high punch volume. In 2008 he stopped Miguel Cotto, one of the great fighters of his generation, in the eleventh round after losing most of the early rounds. By the end of the fight, Cotto’s face looked like a cougar had mauled it. In his next fight, Margarito’s trainer was caught using a hardening substance in his hand wraps, which would have added tremendous force to Margarito’s punches. His opponent objected, and Margarito’s trainer applied new hand wraps. Equipped with legally wrapped hands, Margarito was unable to hurt his opponent Sugar Shane Mosley. Unafraid of his punching power, Mosley knocked Margarito out in the ninth round. Immediately following the fight, Margarito and his trainer Javier Capetillo had their licenses suspended for a year. After his reinstatement, Margarito was savagely beaten by Manny Pacquiao, and Miguel Cotto knocked him out in a rematch. Those fights resulted in permanent eye damage for Margarito. In the final accounting of Margarito’s career, all his wins before the Mosley fight were called into question. None more so than his victory over the vaunted Cotto. He is now known as a cheater and has permanent eye damage.

There is something disconcerting about a case like Margarito’s. Immediately following his win over Cotto, Margarito was unanimously hailed as representing what boxing ought to be. A young guy from Tijuana, Mexico, who was not supremely talented, but worked hard, gave his life to the sport and became a world champion. Instead, he will be forever known as a cautionary tale — an apostate of boxing. Margarito’s fate as a boxer is a mere facsimile of the real spiritual battle James illustrates, but it represents the battle and its consequences well enough. We all face the temptation to give in to temptation every day. It is a fight that will never cease during this life. How heartbreaking it is to watch a friend, sibling, child, etc., walk into the abyss of self-gratification. They no longer pursue Glory as an end in itself. Instead, they settle for the momentary satisfaction of a cheap win and lose all that would come in the process. When James calls his audience to ask God for wisdom, it is precisely because, without the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we will not be able to navigate the trials and temptations of life.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”[8]

World championship-caliber fighters do not train alone. They enlist coaches who have spent many years, sometimes decades, developing boxers. The best fighters rely on the best trainers to guide them through the refining process. Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard employed the legendary Angelo Dundee as their trainer. Dundee was in Ali’s corner for all but two of his fights. Dundee reigned supreme in an era of boxing that required fighters to fight the very best of their weight classes continuously. In one of the greatest fights ever, Dundee guided Leonard to victory over the Hitman Tommy Hearns in a fourteen-round shootout. Throughout the fight, Dundee engaged in a high-speed chess match with Hearns’ trainer, the great Emmanual Steward. Dundee instructed Leonard to change his style and strategy many times throughout the fight to counter the supremely talented and dangerous Hitman. Still, at the end of the twelfth round, Leonard was losing by a wide margin when he returned to his corner. As Leonard sat down, Dundee stepped through the ropes, gave Sugar Ray a shot of water, and shouted, “You’re blowing it, son! You’re blowing it! You gotta fire. You’re not firing. You’ve got nine minutes.”[9] The message was clear. Commit with a single mind to throwing more punches over the final three rounds or lose the world title. Leonard responded with gusto. Rather than moving to avoid the big right hand of Hearns, Leonard stood right in front of Hearns and threw punch after punch with complete abandon. Finally, he caught the Hitman with a clean shot and dropped him twice in the thirteenth before finishing him off in the fourteenth.

James encourages believers in verse 5 that if any Christian lacks wisdom, they should “ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”[10] The Christian is instructed to expect that God will provide all the wisdom needed for whatever is required if they ask with an undivided spirit. Moo points out that “arguably the most important theme in James is his concern that Christians display spiritual integrity: singleness of intent combined with blamelessness in actions.”[11] It is the singleness of intent that James calls us to in verses 5-8. Expecting that whatever God has called His people to, He will provide all the wisdom required, provided we ask. What made Leonard versus Hearns such a great fight was both men’s willingness to totally commit to the game plans of their trainers. Leonard won because he understood that despite the potential cost of executing Dundee’s instructions, following them was the only way he would claim victory. Watching an exhausted Leonard saunter out of his corner with one eye nearly swollen shut, instructions in hand, and fire dozens of punches with abandon to win the fight gives the slightest glimpse of what the glory to come might be like.

“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”[12]

Sanctification is inseparable from the glory the prizefighter chases. Muhammad Ali once said, “The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”[13] It is often difficult to see past the daily trials and our personal sin battles. We have all been through seasons of life that are discouraging as there seems to be a long string of personal struggles. Yet, James encourages Christians everywhere and for all time to find joy in our struggles with the hope of having our names called as worthy and a crown placed on our heads by the one who made it so. Boxing provides a limited but honest portrait of the mental, physical, and spiritual battle all people face. When the bell rings and the fighters come out to start trading blows, the crowd knows that the combatants have overcome tremendous adversity to step through the ropes. That they have overcome so much hardship is what makes boxing so compelling. To those who have eyes to see, it points to a future when we who follow Christ will be without sin, perfectly reflecting the nature of our Creator. Until then, “the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.”[14] Will you step through the ropes and follow the master Trainer to eternal glory?


Citation Information

Matthew Hill, “Counterpunching Trials With Joy: Boxing As A Unique Parallel To Christian Sanctification,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 235-244.


Endnotes

[1] Jas. 1:14 (NIV).

[2] Jas. 1:5 (NIV).

[3] Constantine R. Campbell and Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the New Testament as Christian Scripture: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 324.

[4] Os Guinness, Signals of Transcendence: Listening to the Promptings of Life (Downers Grove: IVP, 2023).

[5] Jas. 1:2-4 (NIV).

[6] Jas. 1:14-15 (NIV).

[7] Super welterweight is a maximum weight of 154 pounds.

[8] Jas. 1:5-6 (NIV).

[9] Sugar Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns I | ON THIS DAY FREE FIGHT, YouTube (YouTube, 2021), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ-7SIpdgfI. By nine minutes, Dundee meant Leonard had three rounds left in the fight.

[10] Jas. 1:5 (NIV).

[11] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids; Apollos, 2000), 59, Logos Bible Software.

[12] Jas. 1:12 (NIV).

[13] Darren Rovell, “Muhammad Ali’s 10 Best Quotes,” ESPN, June 3, 2016, https://www.espn.com/boxing/story/_/id/15930888/muhammad-ali-10-best-quotes.

[14] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 45.