The Mental and Emotional Struggles of Professional Boxing – Taking A Punch

By Matt Ford - 05/02/2023 - No comments

We are fans of a great sport. We love to watch two people match physical, mental, and emotional abilities. There is no greater test in any sport than the acceptance of a fight and lacing up the gloves. Inside the ring is where you lose yourself and find yourself.

Most of us as fans have never been in a professional match, or even a sparring session. Sure, we might have put on some gloves, hit the heavy bag, and maybe even a speed bag or two. For most of us, we don’t really know what it’s like to have to prepare for weeks on end every day, knowing that at the end of a long training regimen, we will be literally laying it all out for six, eight, ten, or even twelve rounds. Even the most veteran fighters of this sport must face themselves with every walk to the ring. What must go through their minds standing in the ring waiting for the announcer to finish his business so he can begin his own? All the preparation he’s gone through to arrive at this moment. His opponent is less than 10 yards away. Ding! Now it begins.

For most of us, when we are about to get into a fight, it’s because we’ve found ourselves in a situation that we didn’t intend to be in. Sometimes it’s brought about by our own actions, and sometimes through misunderstandings as a result of something unintended. We generally have less than a second to make a decision about our course of action. On most occasions, the “fight or flight” instincts make the decision for us. We usually have no time to think about being afraid of what’s coming. Sometimes we fight out of anger, sometimes self-defense, and every so often, we’re just the victim of someone else’s misguided actions. For a professional fighter, none of these, and at the same time, all of these apply. For the duration of a fight, a boxer can find himself going through every one of the emotions that accompany the aforementioned situations. At this point, the professional has his training to fall back on and guide him through what most of us have to rely on instinct to do. His fears are sometimes realized, and sometimes he helps someone else to realize theirs.

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Make no mistake about it, his brain has the same makeup as yours. Though his mentality about his situation is self-imposed, he still must deal with the fear of failure that pays the highest price. What if I get hit first? What if I don’t see it coming? What if I find myself regaining consciousness on the floor? All of these things are running through his mind until he takes a punch.

When a fighter takes a punch, that’s when it becomes real. Some boxers don’t start fighting until they get hit. Antonio Margarito thrived on trading punches with his opponent. He needs to know he’s in a fight to fight back. Where most of us would try to avoid the pain, some fighters need it to feel alive. I watched a fight with Chris Areola a couple of years back where it looked like he was intentionally allowing himself to take partial punches. In the post-fight interview, he stated, “I was trying to feel his power.” What? Why would any sane person want to do that?

The mere thought of a man that size trying to take my head off is enough for me to want to get out of the way. Stand there and take it? No thanks. There is something very special about a fighter that can “take a punch.” Most fight fans are fans of the fighters that can do two things better than their opponents. Those two things are take a punch and give one. We love to see two people standing toe to toe giving their all until one has nothing left to give. Taking a punch is an art that most of us never have to realize on a personal level. What actually has to happen for a fighter to realize that he can “take a punch” is something that most of us never have to go through.

Imagine that you have been preparing in the gym to get to the final result of fighting a guy you’ve probably never even met. You are warming up in the dressing room to make your way out to meet your foe in a place where there will be nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. You’re going to do this because you agreed long ago that this was a chosen path. The bell sounds, and the first round begins.

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You walk out to meet your opponent and circle one another. You’re measuring all that you’ve learned to get here. Fight or flight is no longer an option because all of this is self-inflicted. Your mind is racing, you’re looking for options. What do I do first? Do I move in behind the best jab I can throw? What will his reaction be? Then, Wham! Your decision has just been made for you by the guy standing across from you. In this moment, two things have happened.

First, you now find yourself in a fight and must react. Second, and most important, you’ve just found out if you can take a punch. In that moment, you know immediately if you’ve made the right decision for yourself in all that you did to get to this point. If you’ve made the right decision, you will react, you duck and move. Somehow you’ll find a way to fight back and get the better of your opponent. You’ll rely on all your skill and physical abilities to outmaneuver and outthink the guy you’re fighting. On the other hand, if you’ve made all the wrong decisions for the right reasons, you’ll know, and it will become apparent to you and everyone watching that this is clearly not for you. You’ll find yourself overmatched, and perhaps all of your fears leading up to this have just been realized.

Your brain is looking for a place to use the “flight” reaction, but there’s nowhere to go. Several of Mike Tyson’s early opponents looked as if they were certainly not in there voluntarily, but at that moment, they got to find out who they were and if they had what it took to stand in there. There’s something very genuine about a fighter that can take one to give one. He’s stating to his opponent that he thinks he’s better in all aspects of the two fighters’ abilities. He’s saying, “I can take yours, but let’s see if you can take mine!” Yes, I believe there’s something inherently special about a fighter that can “take a punch.”