“Jesus Christ, has time stopped?”
“Knock off the s--t. Move, move, faster, faster!” Nate yells this, mantralike, over and over, knowing it will never happen. The profanities roll off his tongue like a litany. “Move your f--king ass! C’mon!” Maybe the verbal jabs soothe him.
They dispirit me. They’re designed to do that. I am in the ring, gasping for air while Nate holds the mitts and calls out combinations — and I lumber from corner to corner to try to stay up with him. “Quick, pistonlike!” Now he is on me for my sagging punches. The room seems to be reeling. I cannot make my legs catch up with my upper body. “How much longer?” I beseech, praying this round is coming to an end. My lungs feel like they’ll burst. I can taste vomit. “Don’t worry about time, keep moving,” Nate barks back. “Move, move, faster, faster!” And so it goes. Round after real and proverbial round.
Nate Walker ’02, who coaches Notre Dame’s boxers and runs the famed Bengal and Baraka Bouts, patrols an area in the Joyce Center called the Pit. The name fits. The place is downright purgatorial, trapped somewhere in the 1950s. It smells of sweat. It has no windows. Heavy bags sway as you move past them. It feels like stepping into a confessional. Nate has bought all the latest gadgets and gizmos to train fighters, but the place oozes tradition. Along its walls, juxtaposed with boxing gloves arrayed on pegs, are images of Bengal Bouts past, and framed write-ups with such headlines as “Guts, Leather, Catholicism.” And Nate reminds me, his penitent, that the Truth will be found in the Pit. “There are no imposters in the ring,” he tells me, adding — rather melodramatically — “You cannot hide your true self. No one can.”
I have only myself to blame for being here. A few years ago, I decided I needed to do something different with my life. Maybe I was experiencing a midlife crisis, the dreaded MLC. My mother (God rest her soul) had just passed away. My kids were flying the coop. I had put on weight. I could climb no higher in my profession. I checked every MLC box save the mistress (as if someone would have me), the toupee (I still had a full head of hair) and the red sports car (I didn’t have the money, to be honest) — and I knew it.
Maybe I needed to awaken my old athletic instincts. Perhaps I needed to challenge myself with something physical. Or did I need to recapture something of my gritty, Jersey City upbringing, a perverse form of nostalgia? The writer Tom O’Grady ’85Ph.D. reminds us that the Greek roots of that word mean “going home.” That would appear to be an MLC affliction.
Whatever the reason, I decided in my early 50s that I would try to learn to box. I had never done it before. Now I liken my time mastering this craft, and all the physical work, to a pilgrimage. I do my roadwork in the mornings, box in the afternoons and then — when Nate thinks I am ready — I fight. For real.
Cue the Rocky training montage. With Nate I work on a progression of drills to build muscle memory. We meet in the Pit, we wrap our hands, limber up with rounds of jump rope, hit the heavy bags and concentrate to make each punch pure, then step into the ring. All is done deliberately. We will work on defense, when I am not supposed to let a punch through. My job is to slip, glide past punches, parry, or put myself in a shell and take a beating on my arms. He calls one of these the three-punch drill. “Can you take three hard punches to the arms and shoulders? Let’s see.” Or he’ll want me to focus on footwork to control the center of the ring. Or we may try to keep “my hands in the box,” a small, imaginary area in front of my body that the hands must flash from and return to quickly. All the while, no matter the drill or the aim, we move. And move.
“Fifty-year-olds are not used to this sort of intensity,” I cry out from my wilderness. To no avail.
“You think this stuff is fast,” Nate asks during nearly every session. “Just wait until punches are live and when the adrenaline is pumping. Then you will know what tired means.”
Move is more than a verb with Nate. He is move. Smaller, nimbler, younger and more skilled, he leads me to corners that I rush into like a fool. He bullrushes me to make me pick up my feet and get back to a good stance. He has me fire off endless combinations while I struggle to find my footing and get my hands in a good defensive position.
“Your feet! Your feet! They are out of position. Get back to stance,” he commands. Every now and then, when I expose my ribs — and if I am slow, as is usually the case — he will lace me. “That’ll teach you. Keep the hands up!”
We spar on a regular basis at a friend’s gym. One time, Nate belted me with a right. As we were leaving, he said, “Holy s--t! Look in the mirror.”
He laughed when I saw the huge mouse under my eye.
“Your wife will be pissed with me!”
He was right, and he was wrong. She was pissed. But at me, not him.
Nate ends each session with what he calls a pressure bag. This pillowlike circular mass absorbs energy — of the punches and of me. Circling the ring, ever circling, I throw combinations at the bag while Nate barks in my ear, bringing me to total exhaustion. “Empty the tank! Empty the tank!” he exhorts. By the time he says this, I am already out of gas.
He utters his favorite word again and again. Boxing teaches “humility,” he tells me, as if I have to hear it. Oh, how he relishes that word. He offers it as if handing me a hairshirt. I counter with my favorite word for the human condition, especially at middle age: “humiliation.” For that is the feeling the sweet science usually conjures for me. Boxing does not affirm or empower or do anything buzzwordy, but quite the opposite. It empties, like the pressure bag.
Why would I ever do this? If I am honest, I have been searching for something more than just managing an MLC. For starters, I am not the sort to “experience” — what an ugly, therapeutic word — such a thing. I may be many things, but a narcissist is not one of them.
I didn’t really want to admit it, but maybe I am trying to find God. And this seemed to be the only way I had left.
I had tried other ways. None worked. Truth was, I wasn’t sure if I believed in God. I was not exactly an unbeliever. Christ Almighty, certainly not an agnostic. I was akin to the playwright Eugene O’Neill, who once called himself a “Catholic atheist,” and who reveled in his unbelief but — try as he might — could not escape his Catholicism. I was something different: an atheist Catholic. For me, whether or not I believe makes no difference. I could be un-Catholic no more than I could make my eyes something other than blue, whatever views on God I hold.
Boxing is almost incarnational. It asks us to get in touch with the self, to transcend the senses, to empty out through pain. The suffering is purposeful — which may explain why writers are attracted to it.
I was born to it. The son of Irish immigrants, I was schooled by Dominican nuns, then Jesuits, then went to Notre Dame for Catholic finishing school. I am a historian, so I understand the faith as well as some theologians, both what it is and what it purports to be. And I grew up in that period when the old was being ushered out and the new was coming in. I regarded the new as self-absorbed. I clung to the old. The worldview, the idea of brokenness implicit in it, fits me like a glove. I love ritual, especially the older kind.
I’ve just never quite sorted out the God bit. I did not, do not and will not have a spiritual bone in my body, despite my religious sensibilities. I have sensed something that should be God in the absences or holes in my life. What is missing, I ask myself. Maybe God, I answer. But what the hell do I know? Something in me — the MLC? Mortality? — was whispering that I would be wise somehow to find him. Midlife, for whatever reason, stirred me to begin looking, even if I was unsure about what I was looking for.
Well, boxing gets me as close to God as I am likely to get. It speaks to so many of my interests and sensibilities. And it wasn’t just the physical and old-school aspects of the sport that drew me.
In the winter session of January 2021, that period of time during COVID-19 between the two semesters, Nate and I taught a course on the history of boxing. Notre Dame is a great place to teach Boxing in America. Did you know the Hesburgh Library contains one of the world’s great collections of boxiana? Or that the Bengal and Baraka Bouts are more popular than ever before? Or that, most recently through Nate’s work, Notre Dame’s boxers have built schools for the poor around the world?
Many Notre Dame students love boxing. And ours loved the class. I attended to the past. Nate — who offers his student charges compassion and tough love, minus the cursing — showed how the craft of boxing itself developed over time. We had our students read all sorts of wonderful things. Boxing produces the best sports writing, maybe some of the best writing period. Our reading list included a meditation by the novelist Joyce Carol Oates where she suggests that boxing is essentially Catholic. Think of the almost apostolic succession of champions — John L. Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali — with some minor fighter-popes in between. And that’s just the heavyweights. Oates says the sport offers a history, a “continuous homage to a gallery of heroes — or are they saints?”
Boxing is almost incarnational. It asks us to get in touch with the self, to transcend the senses, to empty out through pain. The suffering is purposeful — which may explain why writers are attracted to it. The rituals, the rhythms, the saints, the sinners, the tradition, the apostles, the narrative of suffering and possible atonement — the ways we have construed the sport — speak to my past and how I see the world. “If the boxing ring is an altar,” as Oates believes, “it is not an altar of sacrifice solely but one of consecration and redemption.”
Boxing means privation. It’s a monklike endeavor. You strip away everything you know to face your adversary and yourself. It is, Oates tells us, something far more significant than a sport. It imitates life, or maybe life imitates it. It is made for Good Friday. Ritual underscores all. Rounds, rules, conventions. Judgment is rendered. The fighter endures the agony before the bell rings, walks into the ring alone to endure punishment, struggles toward some sort of atonement before the eyes of all, just like Christ on Calvary.
We had students watch movies, and the theme of suffering arises again and again. Think of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Raging Bull. The scene in which the ropes drip blood, and others that show images of blood and water, evoke Calvary and the Eucharist. Or watch Requiem for a Heavyweight with Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney and Anthony Quinn. Quinn’s character abases himself at the end, walking into the ring on his own to save his manager, a man who does not deserve salvation. Rocky? The movie opens with the washed-up lout Rocky Balboa in the Resurrection Fight Club, boxing beneath a painting of a risen Christ. Rocky loses in the end. Million Dollar Baby shows us a has-been and a never-was who together are focused on redemption but lose in the most unfair way.
Cinderella Man stands as a lone exception, and for that reason it cannot hold a candle to the others. In the Ron Howard film, James J. Braddock overcomes long odds to win the heavyweight title. He triumphs over injury, age, a seemingly unbeatable opponent, even the Great Depression. Talk about a fable. In boxing, as in real life, you don’t win in the end in the conventional sense — a fact that does not make good boxing movies tragic. It just makes them true. Redemption might not come, but it always shadows the narrative of decline and fall. The shadowing graces the fall; the striving — even in the face of the inevitable, or better, because of the inevitable — gives a divine spark and nobility to the futility and absurdity of the human condition.
I could go on and on, because boxing does the Stations of the Cross so well. It tries to sanctify sacrifice and ritualize humiliation, even if it makes us linger there rather than on the themes of Easter.
The fight game is tailor-made for an old-school O’Neill-like Catholic. No yoga, no get-in-touch-with-your-feelings in the ring. “We don’t go for that s--t,” Nate pronounces. Others seem to agree. A.J. Liebling, a fabulous writer for The New Yorker who loved boxing, wrote that in the ring “you never learn anything until you’re tired.” The suffering has meaning. It contains lessons. Necessary ones. As Liebling put it, “A boxer solidly constructed, intelligently directed and soundly motivated is bound to go a long way.” But no matter what, he or she enters an arena “where illusions are few.” All fears, flaws and inadequacies are ruthlessly exposed. Shall we hold hands?
Nate is not into hand-holding or philosophical flights — he works through the physical and the senses — though everything he says has a deeply theological ring to it. He works his trinity of the hands, feet and head, all operating in unison, binding all movement between the three. “Keep them together! Use them as one,” he preaches. On the days when he is at his most unsympathetic and cruel, I liken him to the wrathful first person of the Trinity, the God-the-Father of the Old Testament, albeit it one who yells “f--k” a lot more than the Creator did or does. With Nate, you pay for your sins. He offers unvarnished truth. I learn that I am broken and fallen. St. Augustine would be home with Nate in the Pit.
I’ll tell you what Augustine would not go for, or Nate for that matter: Mixed Martial Arts. An apostle of that sport named Josh Rosenblatt loves MMA because it “liberates” the self. It frees. “To fight,” as he put it, “would be to feel life fully.” MMA is a free-form form of violence. Its practitioners adopt and adapt any and all fighting forms.
MMA, Nate strikes back, is an affront to boxing. The boxer has to “deepen the craft” because of the constraints it imposes on the fighter. Excellence requires focus, time and care. MMA strikes him as a “spaghetti on the wall” sort of fighting.
MMA proponents counter that boxers like Nate (or saints like Augustine) could never appreciate “the liberating genius of mixed martial arts.” MMA fighters “create their own particular language by choosing the traditions that best amplify their strengths and disguise their weaknesses.” Their sport, they say, offers the highest goods for an “enlightened” age and people: choice and autonomy.
Boxers? They revere “fighters long dead,” Rosenblatt laments. He finds “as much lore and tradition and mythmaking in a boxing gym as there is in a Catholic church.” The sport is “sick with tradition and history.” MMA, by contrast, escapes the “nightmare of history. Its very nature is liberation.” Fighting in such a way is “a religion of the self.”
Boxing does not liberate but restrains. And that in a nutshell is why I need boxing and love the idea of it.
Boxing recognizes our nature and binds it up in ritual. The very notion of a ring suggests fury will be contained. It cannot and will not run amok. All is timed; anything out of bounds will not be countenanced. Boxing will admit we are violent, but insists violence cannot and will not rule. It will be constrained just as we must be restrained. We must follow prescribed rules. Boxing asks us to demonstrate courage and confront with honor. It demands dedication. It does not offer Shangri-La, the idea that if only we remove restraints we will flourish and become whole. Instead, it proposes the opposite: Only through restraints may we flourish.
Maybe I love boxing because it is so unfashionable and suits my contrarian sensibilities. We are as obsessed today with safety as we are with autonomy. Witness the perennial critiques of the barbarity of boxing: It injures. Haven’t we as a culture moved beyond such spectacle and violence? It leaves those who refuse to leave the fight game senseless. Look at what it did to Muhammad Ali.
I say, yes, look. With eyes wide open. Ali took risks, mortal risks. And he achieved something few of us ever will: greatness. We could live risk-free existences. We could deny our mortality and the darkness within, but we can never rise to be anything more substantial than we are. Boxing admits our brokenness, our flaws, and asks us to strive through them. It asks us to weigh the risks involved to learn deeper truths about the human condition and about ourselves. The idea that we can avoid who and what we are is a myth — a comforting one for us today, but a myth nonetheless. We are both angels and demons. Boxing invites us into the ring to confront this drama that is life anew. There the cosmic stories of creation and death play out not just before our eyes but through our bodies. Boxing is memento mori in action. As Nate says, for a boxer “there are no back doors” — in the ring or in life, even if we tell ourselves otherwise.
I am struck by the power of narrative as I think back on my experience so far. I am, of course, in the business of narrative. I teach and write history for a living. But the stories that come back to me from my time in the ring bring me relentlessly to the Passion. Boxing helps us adhere meaning to life. The one narrative I had at my disposal to understand what I was doing in the ring — fall, death and the hope of redemption — was powerful. It relied on the realities that life inflicts on all us mortals: suffering, diminishment, humiliation, fear and, yes, hope. And it gave these meaning.
I have not learned anything new. I have not discovered anything about myself. I certainly have not become a good boxer. Truth is, I never will be. But I have begun to see that what I knew all along rang with Truth. I understand.
Have I found God? Jesus, I don’t know.
I do not know about God, and that absence or hole has neither been filled nor become sharper along its edges. But I know now that the stories I have been told since my grammar school days hold water. This is a baby step, but it may be a critical one. Maybe.
Still, that “maybe” nags at me. Maybe all along I have been boxing God. And maybe I have proven more proficient at that than in my sparring with Nate. My worldview has kept me away from the corners, just as it has kept my eyes fixed on Good Friday and brokenness. I have fended deftly and offered no openings, just as I have blocked joy and grace from entering in. I do not allow myself to be vulnerable. I am, after all, a boxer. My defenses are superb.
Boxing this way has gotten me far, but maybe I am missing something I cannot provide. The narrative I cling to, one that allows me to make sense of this world, might have limitations I am just beginning to recognize. I am wearing down. Lord knows, I don’t move as well as I used to. Years of fighting off my back foot, albeit expertly, have taken their toll. Maybe I am ready to learn.
And so Nate keeps haranguing me — “Hands, feet and head, damnit! Stay in balance!” — as I lumber around the unsafe space of the ring, wondering if God will appear when the round ends and time seems to stop.
Patrick Griffin is the Madden-Hennebry Professor of History and the director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame. He competed — for real — at the Gleason’s Gym 2019 World Masters Tournament in New York City.