A day after the Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim fell to the canvas with fatal head injuries, sportswriter Leigh Montville imagined his epitaph:
Duk Koo Kim (1959-1982). He gave his life to provide some entertainment on a dull Saturday afternoon in November.
-- The Boston Globe, Nov. 15, 1982
It was a cruel but accurate comment on the state of professional fighting, of paid entertainers' taking unconscionable risks to please the crowd.
This was by no means the first atrocity of contemporary pugilism; no sane person can ignore the need for far-reaching reform. But what, exactly, should we do?
Although the temptation to ban boxing is strong ("Beating Their Brains Out," editorial, Dec. 10), it is ill advised to do so. The American Medical Association's recommendation to abolish boxing is a symptom of the emotional climate that surrounds the discussion. Objective scientific analysis yields to a notion that boxing is a brutal sport that has no place in a humane civilization. But there is evidence that boxing has had and can have a beneficial role in civilized society.
The orginators of Olympic sport, the ancient Greeks, show us some cogent reasons for the continuation of boxing. As a Greek writer named Lucian put it: "During peacetime we find that youths trained in combat sport are far better than others, because they do not pursue shameful goals, and idleness does not turn them towards arrogance."
Boxing provided an outlet for passions and aggression intolerable in civic life. The Athenian who assaulted another person, free or slave, faced sanctions ranging from lawsuit to the death penalty -- it was seen as a crime against the city, a sign that the assailant nurtured arrogant and tyrannical attitudes toward his fellows. The Greeks were aware of the paradox that their violent sports offered in a society so opposed to random violence, but their notion of social hygiene found this a healthy and constructive way to direct aggression.
The Greeks valued and instilled toughness, tolerance for discomfort and competitiveness, while maintaining a strong sense of the common good. They also made military defense the sacred obligation of all citizens, the noble and wealthy included, and readily underwent the harshness of their sports in order to be physically and emotionally ready for crisis. The men who boxed and the men who watched in ancient Greece did not show the sharp social differences familiar in the modern boxing hall -- where the privileged watch the underprivileged fight -- and the ancient winner received honor and wealth for showing skill in an activity that his society generally esteemed and cultivated.
Greek society deserves criticism for its nonchalant attitudes about serious injuries and death in the sport. Instead of padded gloves, Greek boxers wore strips of leather, at times with thick cutting edges. One ancient pugilist summarized his career saying, "a boxer's victory is gained in blood."
Modern man is under no obligation to revere classical antiquity, and its callous attitude toward sporting casualties is completely unacceptable. But the Greeks were most certainly not savages, and the worth they discovered in boxing should steer us toward reforming, not banning it.
We have the technical sophistication and, one hopes, the will that the Greeks lacked to determine reasonable safety standards. With better padded gloves, substantially shorter fights, headgear and on-going medical monitoring we can eliminate much of the danger. We can have boxing's character-building benefits, its advantages as a safe outlet for aggression, without its cruel costs.