Looking at the faces of these neophyte pugilists, I am struck by how young they appear. Did I look so young and unscarred half a century ago when I tried my hand at the "sweet science", as it is sometimes called by devotees?
These youths must be newcomers, for none has the standard flattened nose, or scar tissue around the left eye, the mark of the left jab. I wonder why they put on the boxing gloves, which hurt more than a bare fist. Was it for status among their peers? A few, I guess, have dreams of fame and money, flashing lights and screaming crowds, long-legged blondes on each arm. The chances of reaching that pinnacle are about the same as hitting Lotto, or being in a plane crash. The majority takes it up to teach themselves to fight. Being able to fight was a virtue in America from colonial times when we had no laws except the self-imposed.
When a youth takes up some form of karate, he also acquires a philosophical view of the whole world. When a youth puts on gloves and climbs between the ropes, he is declaring himself willing to take punches bounced into his mouth and punches smashed into his face, so the blood is in his mouth and going down his throat.
When I watch people training for karate, they are going for shadowboxed moves punctuated by grunts, grimaces and guttural snarls. They go through the ritual dance steps. And with highly stylized movements they go through the repertoire of blows and fists and bombs. Karate gives its students a swagger of confidence unmatched by its realities. You don't really learn how to fight.
Boxing, on the other hand, will teach you two things useful in a brawl.
In karate matches there is all kind of ritual bowing before and after. After an exchange of a few seconds the referee stops it, and they bow again.
In a boxing ring the first rule is "protect yourself at all times", and try to knock the opponent into bad health. Karate will provide a sense of confidence, but it will not really teach anyone how to fight, which at bottom has no rules. At the very least, boxing prepares you to take a punch - and how to punch, and in one out of hundreds will be found the rare individual capable of going into the pros.
The boxer is prepared to take punches smashing his teeth against a hard rubber mouthpiece, or sinking into his solar plexus and knocking out the air in his lungs. Few things are as scary as not being able to suck in air. It always hurts, but you lose your fear of being hit.
Karate might implant a certain confident manner. I mean, after all, I've got a belt even if I never hit anyone with serious intention. The boxer will not "box" in a brawl. He will try to put his fist down his opponent's throat. He will keep his head together and his fists pumping.
As I look at these faces it is hard for me to believe that they have had many fights in or out of the ring. They are innocent, boys, waiting to become men. But still unscarred by life.
Edward Bunker, Los Angeles, September 2003