In His Image

By Mohummad Humza Elahi on March 30, 2014
In His Image
There is only one quality that straddles the fine line between advantage and disadvantage.

It’s not the blood that flows or the tears shed in loss; it’s a microcosm of our nature to achieve and overcome in the most visceral way possible…

Boxing is a sport whose outcomes rest on the ability of a fighter to find the smallest of discernible advantages over their opponents. These advantages can be physical; muscles that can twitch quicker or reflexes that anticipate faster, but more often than not, it is the intangible advantages that govern the end. Boxing is a marriage of complex stratagems, tactical superiority and physical prowess and any flaw or miscalculation is ruthlessly punished.

But can some qualities be considered both an advantage and disadvantage? Personally, there is only one quality in my mind that precariously straddles the fine line between two. Religion.

As it pertains to its presence in boxing, religion can be seen as the guiding force to victory or the obstacle that tempers ferocity and for a fighter that balance is in constant flux, should they be of a particular religious persuasion. On a higher level, religion permeated throughout people’s lives to the point that it wasn’t much of an issue, but as the times have changed and the world has become more secularized, the voice of religion has become relatively louder and thus it appears to have gained more importance in the preparation for bouts and in some cases, believed to directly influence the final outcome.

But for all the professions of faith, how permissible is boxing, a sport where the infliction of physical damage is one of the primary objectives, amongst the Abrahamic faiths, the largest grouping of religions in the world? Judaism and Christianity vie for the richest history in the sport whereas Islam is the brash upstart of the three. The irreligious along with Hinduism and Sikhism have yet to overtly challenge for one of the top three spots but that landscape could change dramatically over the next few decades, particularly if the UK’s Christian adherents continue to decline and atheism/agnosticism filters down from the intellectual class to the working class. To discuss how class and boxing collide in the UK is a whole other topic of discussion.

It seems that the Abrahamic faiths vary in their degree of condemnation in participating in any sport or activity that result in the infliction of harm onto another person or animal; although the reasons given tend towards the tendency to be hit in the head or face. Islam is the clearest on this particular issue as the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said “When any one of you fights with his brother, he should avoid his face for Allah created Adam in His own image.” That’s very explicit and for this reason forms the basis of arguments against the permissibility of boxing in Islam. The counter argument is of course, “what if one just focuses on Golovkin-esque thunderbolts to the liver? If hitting the face isn’t allowed, are the solar plexus and floating ribs fair game for a beating?” One may take the injunction literally, or one may interpret further or dig deeper into the issue. Evidently, there hasn’t been any real questioning from Muslims about how Muhammad Ali, Prince Naseem Hamed, Bernard Hopkins, Amir Khan or Matthew Saad Muhammad reconciled their positions. Their belief may drive them rather than deter them, certainly in Saad Muhammad’s case; it enabled him to transcend adversity both inside and outside the ring.

Of course, religion is intertwined with personal experience and if circumstances can cause someone to turn towards it, they can also cause them to turn away from it, as is the case with Dov-Ber Rosofsky, better known as Barney Ross. Although Ross’ father exhorted to him that fighting and violence was for the “goyim” as Barney was on course to follow him into becoming a rabbi and Talmudic scholar, the old man’s tragic death caused the younger Ross to find solace on the streets of Chicago rather than the synagogue. Ross was the rarest of breeds; a courageous do-or-die warrior who refused to go down, gloves being optional. From ring general to war veteran, how much of Ross’ Jewish heritage was blended with his exploits is only a question he could ever answer, but if those wizened rabbis searched through scripture for the exception to the labyrinthine rules of the Talmud, Ross was it. A belief of some kind may be better than no belief at all; had he been Christian, he may have been beatified for his punishment at the hands of Henry Armstrong. Although other Jewish fighters fought under the light of David’s Star, Ross chose “My Yiddishe Momme” instead, furthering the complex relationship he had with his religion. (You can re-read Norman Marcus’ excellent article on Ross and Yuri Foreman here).

If Islam has Muhammad Ali and Judaism has Benny Leonard, Christianity has probably the hardest task in choosing its number one draft pick; Irish? Italian? American? Latino? Filipino? For me, there are only two who one could say without a shadow of a doubt that their faiths are overt driving forces for them and what they carry into the ring; Andre Ward and Manny Pacquiao. The breadth of sects within Christianity means that there isn’t really any conclusive consensus on boxing’s permissibility; if one takes seriously Christ’s message of love and forgiveness, hitting someone repeatedly in the face is clearly at odds with that. For the majority, being a Christian is almost incidental, for example, if you’re Irish or Latino. Being Catholic in those countries is almost de facto, but I’ve excluded that to focus on those who have chosen to be Christian and I’m drawn to Ward as the example of what that could possible mean. Andre Ward is an exemplary athlete; Olympic pedigree, humble, articulate, intelligent with an innate understanding of boxing’s intricacies. Boring? Not for a purist, as his ability to control, nullify and eliminate is unparalleled. As a church-goer, accusations levelled at Ward for not being a media caricature in order to sell fights are slightly baffling; damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But taking a cursory glance at The Well Church’s website and their statement of beliefs, their tone, to me at least, is one of anti-violence, possibly explaining his below average KO record. I think boxing is a means to an end for Ward; once retired (I can’t see him fighting past 33-34), he can happily take his seat in the commentary box and the platform at the pulpit. The fans may say he’s too good for his peers, the cynics may say he’s too Christian to kill them quickly, but for me, I’d like to hear how he reconciles his profession of choice with his profession of faith (I know that’s from Catholicism but it’s a damn good line!).

I deliberately didn’t expand further on the relationship between Islam and boxing, primarily as it was the original focus of this article and I didn’t want it to come across as a proselytizing piece about the superiority of the faith over others and how we can claim the best boxers as a result of it. For me, doing research for this one bore welcome fruits and insights. What I’ve discovered is that whether a boxer is religious or irreligious, what’s required is a faith in something. Fighters cannot be rational, logic cannot be the basis of strategy and let’s face it, you have to be slightly insane to get in a ring and fight with someone, for love or money. 

Reflecting through a personal lens about religion and a sport that seems the complete antithesis of some if its tenets, I can’t help but feel that both seem made for each other. It’s not the blood that flows or the tears shed in loss; it’s a microcosm of our nature to achieve and overcome in the most visceral way possible, our nature to adapt and survive, cultivating a malleability whilst remaining essentially the same, much like religion has. 

And it’s here that the best example should be drawn from in the form of Barry McGuigan; a man who managed to unite a fractured community in search of meaning under a common slogan, “Leave the fighting to McGuigan.” It was religion (and politics) that created the wound but it was boxing that became the salve; proving that the vibrancy of the human spirit can be found in any place where the people need to believe in something. 

Follow Mohummad Humza Elahi on Twitter@mhelahi

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. The Fight Film Collector 01:35pm, 04/02/2014

    A very interesting and well written essay.  The three primary drivers of the boxing spirit are Economics (poverty and a way out of it), followed by Culture (a heritage of intense competition either in conflict or for the sake of advancement) and then Community (a group who identifies closely with and takes special pride in boxing).  Put those three together and you have the best and longest running legacies in boxing – African-Americans, Irish, English and Latinos, with Eastern Europeans recently gaining prominence. The wide spectrum of religious faiths runs through all those communities, but religion as a factor in boxing is secondary, and as a component in victory is subjective.  Many boxers are no doubt devoted to their particular faith, but the record suggests that God judges on a fight by fight basis.

  2. Don 11:31pm, 04/01/2014

    The question here I think would be is violence in sports evil?

  3. AKT 12:56am, 04/01/2014

    Now that is funny with a capital F! - ‘That’s very explicit and for this reason forms the basis of arguments against the permissibility of boxing in Islam. The counter argument is of course, “what if one just focuses on Golovkin-esque thunderbolts to the liver? If hitting the face isn’t allowed, are the solar plexus and floating ribs fair game for a beating?” ‘

  4. Eric 08:20am, 03/31/2014

    Saad Muhammad was one of my favorite fighters back in the day. What a warrior. Seems like after Saad, it was mandatory if you won the light heavy title to change your name. teehee. Eddie Gregory would become Mustafa Muhammad, and Dwight Braxton would become Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Michael Spinks was the one to buck the trend. From what I’ve read about Spinks and his brother, both were pretty religious. Of course Neon Leon wasn’t much for being a “strict” Christian given his fondness for the party lifestyle, but then again, Ali certainly wasn’t a saint either. I guess a boxing ring is no different than the battlefield or a street fight in that your survival instinct kicks in when in the heat of battle. However, the difference with boxing is that with most of these fighters it isn’t something personal, it is just a sport or a job to do.

  5. Mohummad Humza Elahi 07:37am, 03/31/2014

    Hey Eric - I guess that’s the point I wanted to make, particularly with Christian fighters, I wanted to pick someone who was a born-again, like Ward, Ross’ actively chose to disregard his Jewish faith to an extent and both Ali and Saad Muhammad made a choice to become Muslim.  But how much of that blends to what they do in the ring?  Having made a conscious choice, does boxing fit with that new narrative?  Pacquiao, for instance, has been criticized for being too compassionate, that’s a great example of how there can be tension between the two.  And since a good number of fighters are or have been religious to a degree (again, socio-economic factors come into play), I thought it would be an interesting topic to write about.

  6. Eric 07:25am, 03/31/2014

    How many Jews in Israel “choose” their religion? How many people in Iran or Iraq “choose” their religion? Sure their are a scant few Christians in places like Lebanon or Palestine, but ALL “Arabic/Persian” countries are overwhelmingly Muslim. Probably only a scant number of Christians in Israel also.

  7. Eric 07:01am, 03/31/2014

    Certainly Big George Foreman is the most notable “Christian” fighter. Others who at least practiced the “Christian” faith whether they lived by the highest standards or not would be too numerous to mention. Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield, Rocky Marciano, Mike Weaver, and scores of others might not have led the lives of Mother Teresa, but they were of the Christian faith.

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