When the news breaks that a high-profile boxer has been involved in domestic violence, one of the immediate questions that springs to mind is whether the boxing, the actual training, has simply taught a fighter to be aggressive, whether in or out of the ring. Personally, I think this is highly unlikely, and you would have to find numerous examples of boxers that became more aggressive outside the ring, the longer they trained. Naturally, there is some quibbling to be had over what it is to be aggressive, but I think there are other better answers here.
Boxing is intimately linked with working class backgrounds and poverty. Many boxers have learned to fight as a means to earn some serious money and escape poverty. And make no mistake, for the few that have been able to succeed as professionals, many more have remained broke and had to find alternative or additional ways to earn a living. The connection between poverty and boxing is a phenomenal case study in itself, but here are three things that I think can at some point influence a boxer in their life if they have come out of this environment.
These three things are not unique to boxers, but I think they are factors when boxers have become aggressors in domestic violence.
1) As success increases and a boxer no longer worries about food, rent, clothing, and having the time to indulge in soul enriching activities, like hobbies, they will have very vivid memories of what it was like to have none of that security. This in itself is added motivation as they continue train and behave in ways so that they do not have to return to a desolate way of life. There is nothing inherently wrong with this drive, however if the boxer experiences something that they interpret to mean their current way of life is threatened, and they might have to return to what they fought so hard to escape, they could become irrationally reactionary. Their noble drive to succeed has become polluted by irrational thoughts, and could result in an aggressive outcome.
2) If a boxer has done well in the sport and managed to pull in some money and fame, it is possible they will develop an entitlement complex. They have had to work very hard to get where they are, and subsequently if anything is experienced that is perceived to threaten this status, it’s almost like a challenge to their identity and perception of self. When those things are challenged in this way, again, it is possible to react aggressively. I don’t think a sense of entitlement is necessarily bad, because we should feel good about ourselves if we have achieved a lot in life, but it again it’s when this is over-exaggerated and irrational that problems can result.
A boxer is going to be challenged to keep those two things under control throughout their professional career, and they can be made worse by a number of reasons. If a boxer is surrounded by the wrong people, people that have a strong influence over the boxer, such as saying things akin to, “They don’t respect what you’ve been through,” “They want you to return to the ghetto,” “They think you’ve got where you are through luck and there simply wasn’t a decent opponent to take you out.” This is why, throughout the course of a boxers life, they need to be surrounded by good people. I would wager that many are, but a few are not.
3) The experience of poverty, hardship, and violence can have a profound impact on a child. It’s worth noting that a child’s brain is still developing, all the way through birth and up until the age of 25. Key areas of development, though, are taking place before puberty. Extreme stress, abuse, and trauma can have an impact on the brain’s development, and could even result in such things as stress disorders and personality disorders. How a child deals with or reacts to stress could easily be a result of how the child’s brain has developed and how they learned to respond. Stress and personality disorders are connected with violent behavior, but there is no formula for determining if they’ll develop or not. There is no equation – Poverty Aspect 1 + Poverty Aspect 2 in the presence of Poverty Condition 3 = Stress Disorder 5. Still, they are very real possibilities when a child has come out of this background. Stress disorders can result in impulse control problems, increasing the likelihood of violent outbursts, and personality disorders can result in planned violence for personal gain. Of the two, reactionary aggression is far more common.
These three “explanations” are only theories, and I would love to see more research on them, especially stress disorders. Learning violence, experiencing violence, and being unable to control aggressive impulses as a child, can easily lead to the cycle of violence, and it’s a hard cycle to break. However, I would like to stress again here, these things are not unique to boxers.
The Disciplining Effect of Boxing
I would like to take some time here to explain why boxing can actually help control aggression.
There have been numerous instances where joining a boxing gym has literally helped to keep kids off the street and out of gangs. This has the immediate affect of preventing children from being exposed to criminal violence.
Much of our behavior is determined by responding to cues – a none stop stream of cues that we interpret (on some level) and respond accordingly. When training in a gym, especially for long periods of time, the sight and presence of pads, bags, and ring, eventually start to mean this is the time for boxing/fighting. When pads are held up for you in the gym, now is the time to box. When you’re in the ring, with your gloves, and a referee, now is the time to box. As trivial as this sounds, boxers become taught to “do it” in the gym or the ring. These cues become reinforced by the fact that the gym is safer, it’s a controlled environment, and other people are (should be) looking out for you. Indeed, after a while, when a trained boxer enters a gym, just the sight and sounds are enough to get them loosening off and rearing to go. Having these alternate cues, I think, is likely to decrease the chance of throwing punches to other cues, because these other cues mean “now is not the time to box.” I think this can help keep boxers out of violent provocations outside of the gym. It’s not absolute, but it helps.
Gyms can also have a humbling affect on boxers. They become aware early on that there are others in the gym that can best them (to put it bluntly, there’s always someone who can whup your ass). As this is the case, it helps them to develop respect, which is then reciprocated. Without the support and respect of their peers, their own training is not likely to progress very far.
In the infinitely complex quagmire of human behavior, there will always be exceptions to these things, but this is why I think boxing has probably helped to reduce aggressive outcomes outside the ring, rather than encourage them. To be sure, there are people that have been beaten by boxers (Mayweather as the highest profile example), and I do not want to undermine the plight of the victim. There is no excuse for domestic violence, and I still maintain that (ideally) boxers should have a greater self awareness of the damage they can cause, which is perhaps why they should be held to a higher standard.
Domestic violence is an abhorrent endemic social problem that impacts far too many people on a daily basis. If boxing was somehow removed from the equation, the numbers would not drop. We need increased awareness, better education, better assistance, better justice, and a push for social reform to make domestic violence a thing of the past.