Life Lessons From The Boxing Ring

Back when I was a kid, I'd never have believed you if you told me that when I was 31 years old, I'd spend 3 months intensely training for, and then fighting in, some boxing matches in a ring in front of hundreds of people. But that's exactly what I did, when I took part in Fighting Fit DXB, a boxing competition that was being filmed for a reality TV show under that same name, no less (that's a Big Deal for someone who isn't a big fan of reality TV, whether that be watching it - I don't even have cable! - or the concept of being featured in it). The competition and show consisted of a series of trials that saw 50 hopefuls (that had been selected from hundreds of applications) battle it out for one of the coveted 30 spots to join one of three teams: The red, blue, and reserve teams. Over a series of three months, the teams would train with their assigned team coaches, with bi-weekly fights in the ring that would give the reserves the chance to win a spot in one of the colour teams by quite literally knocking their competition out of their place. After eight weeks from the cut to the final 30, the red and blue teams would then battle it out in a televised fight in the ring, held at night at Dubai's Emirates Golf Club, for the chance for their team to be crowned the winners. But that's another story for another day.

While this was still an amateur boxing competition, I learned a lot during those few months. About boxing technique and training (not to mention the joys and pitfalls of reality TV, albeit thankfully for a sports-focused show - I don't think I ever could have done one of those Big Brother types, absolutely not for me!), and all of the literal blood, sweat, and tears that came with. And there was a lot of that! But I also learned that, like with most sports I've undertaken, there were a lot of lessons to be learned from boxing beyond just training for fitness purposes and actually fighting in a ring, that could draw real parallels to life as a whole as well. In fact, that was one of the best takeaways I had from the entire experience - aside from discovering that I have a pretty mean right hook and a considerably hefty straight punch, I also learned a lot about myself in the process... and about life itself. While none of this is necessarily new information to boxers, fighters of any kind really, and those in the know, here are a few of those. While I have yet to decide if I'll ever take up any more fights again or not (only time, and my gut instincts, will tell!), I look forward to what else I'll discover during my ongoing boxing journey.

Photograph courtesy of Fighting Fit DXB (@fightingfitdxb), at Nomad Media TV

1. Nerves can be a good thing - whether or not they make you act like a coward, however, depends on you, and how you decide to channel them. I was nervous before all of my fights, even during sparring sometimes. At times they would be intense and last for ages, and at others, they'd be fleeting. If you feel nervous, that's a good thing - it shows you that you care. The key is in learning to manage it. You can take slow, measured, deep breaths (like my coach taught me to!) to steady your heartbeat and calm yourself back into a place where you can think rationally, then channel it into fuel for your fire. And nerves don't always mean bad nervousness and anxiety - the good kind of nerves is really just a form of anticipation. Think of it as motivation. Whether you're going in for a fight, a job interview, or a date, if you care about the outcome, it means you care enough to do your best. Let it drive you. Mental toughness is a huge factor in enabling you to win at anything in life, really - and remember, your opponent is probably just as nervous as you are.

2. Be as prepared as you can - but remember that it's impossible to be 100% prepared for every situation, whether that's in a fight or in life in general. You can plan out all of the drills, techniques and combinations that you like, and practice them until you can do them in your sleep, and analyze your opponent's movement habits until you feel like you've stalked them more than a scorned ex stalks their new significant other's new girlfriend or boyfriend's social media accounts - but you'll never really be able to predict what their next move will be, nor how you'll react to it. All you can do is practice as much as you can so that your technique is as flawless as it can be, so that you don't have to think about the technicalities when it's time to release your gut instincts. Have a game plan, and a plan B and C, then always be ready to adapt should the need strike. As Muhammad Ali once put it, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

3. Always keep a few tricks up your sleeve. Leading on from the previous point - while you can, of course, share these tricks with people you really trust to be on your side and not leak this to your opponents or use it against you somehow (in this case, your coach, but in life, that isn't always as straightforward), if you're ever stuck in a situation where you feel backed into a corner, metaphorical or otherwise, knowing that you've got a few wild cards in your back pocket will help your confidence immensely.

4. If you ever feel backed into a corner, don't just give up and stand there taking it forever otherwise you'll get pounded - you'll have nowhere else to go. Take note of the situation, react as quickly and calmly as you can, then take a sideways step to get out as fast as you can. Sure, you can try to fight your way out of it and succeed, but it's a lot harder to do it that way - not to mention it wastes a lot more energy than you need to that can exhaust you for when you need to come back fighting later on. It makes a lot more sense to opt for a lateral move that'll get you out of that corner as quickly, smoothly, and painlessly as you can, so that you can have a fresh perspective from which to launch your next move.

5. To fight with grace, keep your conflicts internal. If you're going to mouth off about your opponents before you ever face off, and talk big when you don't quite know what you're in for yet, the only thing you'll win is feeling like a prize idiot if you do get smacked down in front of those crowds that you worked so hard to show off in front of beforehand. The more public you make your drama, the more lights will shine on you if you're centre stage when you fall.

6. Your emotions are always best served when you're able to be in control of them. I've always stood by the idea that while a good amount of friendly rage can be healthy in fueling the aggression that you can need for a fight, it needs to be controlled in order for you to be able to win. When you're stoking it with unbridled rage and emotion, you'll wind up expending so much more energy than you need to and feel drained, when that energy could be better used to actually make your move - not to mention it can cloud your judgment so you won't always be able to think as quickly or as rationally as you might otherwise, potentially resulting in mistakes of misled passion, which you'll later realize can cost you more than you anticipated at the time. It's a sport not a street fight after all, and if you can, you're probably better off leaving your emotions outside of the ring.

7. Respect your opponents. Whether that's a person standing opposite you waiting to punch you in the face, or someone going up against you to seize something else that you really want, if you don't respect the fact that they might have their own skills, abilities and qualities that may or may not be better than yours but are certainly different, then you're more likely to underestimate them so they stand a better chance of beating you in a nasty surprise move that'll leave you feeling like you've had the rug pulled out from under your feet.

8. Don't only look at what's directly in front of you all the time - sure, that can be your main focus and has to be a lot of the time, but don't lose your wider perspective while doing so. Try and maintain that greater field of peripheral vision as much as you can, so you can see the bigger picture. It'll help give you clues as to what might be coming, so that you can more effectively plan your next move, rather than only reacting to what's happening right now. And in that same vein, always stick then move. If you linger around for too long after you've landed a good punch, they'll come to their senses and get you back while you stand there gloating or basking in that. As soon as you've landed it and made sure that it was effective, then step aside and keep moving.

9. Work smarter, not just harder. Working hard is great, sure - and if you can land heavier punches, then absolutely do so. But just trying to continually push forward to bash someone senseless isn't going to get you as far as if you move around a little more cleverly, in a way that'll result in more effective moves while not wasting energy that you don't have to, so that you can save that and use it elsewhere, be that to keep you going for longer, or to have that last gasp of power still in you when you might need it the most.

10. Don't just react - take action. One of the first things my coach taught me was that whoever lands the first punch in the ring is most likely to win, not because of some strange science but simply due to the fact that it'll show your opponent who's boss and that you mean business, and that you're not afraid. While, of course, if you're being attacked, you'll want to react and to do so quickly and powerfully, you don't want to always just stand there and wait for that to happen and simply only ever react. Causing the action rather than just reacting to it all of the time can leave you a lot more successful overall.

11. You might not be able to control the situation, but you can control how you react to it. This is one of my favourite philosophies about life general. In the same way that you can't control the weather, sometimes things just take a turn wherein no matter how hard you might try, you won't be able to change the situation. Assess it to be sure, then once you're certain that is the case, stop trying to fight it - the only thing you'll be able to change is your reaction.

12. Stay balanced. Aside from the fact that a lot of boxing - and yes, life itself - is actually about having good footwork and knowing when and where to take the next step (and how lightly or heavily you should tread), having a good stance that keeps you balance makes for a solid foundation that will stay strong no matter what tries to bowl you over.

13. It's good to learn how to take a hit. Yes, it will be unpleasant, it will sting, and it can hurt quite a lot depending on how hard the blow is - but whether that's a physical blow or an emotional, mental, financial, or metaphorical kind of hit, learning how to handle let-downs, rejections, and similar scenarios are an important part of building character that will teach you how to come back stronger and armed with knowledge that can help you bounce back stronger each time it ever happens again. It'll also hopefully to teach you how to find it within yourself to actually do that, rather than just sitting around crying about it and/or giving up.

14. Listen to your corner. No matter how independent, strong, confident, skilled, or self-sufficient you are, support is important. It's what will give you that last push you need to keep going, or stand back up again, when you're feeling weak, or broken, or doubting yourself. It will help you see things from a different perspective, and help to keep you grounded when you might otherwise lose that ability on your own, be that due to fear or focus. Think of it as the hand that's reached out to help get you back on your feet again when you've fallen - sure, you might be able to stand up on your own, but whether it's the placebo effect of knowing that it's there for you to lean on, or if you just need that little extra level to grasp on to, it'll help you to pull yourself back up.

15. Remember that no matter how many people are there to help you, once you step into a fight, you're ultimately there alone. Even if you have a solid relationship with your coach, your team, and your cheer squad, much like life, boxing can be quite a lonely sport no matter what kinds of crowds you might have around you. You have to be prepared to fight your battles yourself - other people can help you, support you, prepare you, cheer for you, but at the end of the day, you're the one who has to put the gloves on and get in there and stand up for yourself.

16. It's ok to fall - what's important is that you get up again. And as quickly as you can, lest you get beaten down more, or knocked out!. As Rocky Balboa put it, "Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!" The man may be a fictional character, but he certainly knows his s***.

17. Forget about the crowds. They're always going to be fickle with who is winning and losing at that moment in time. All that matters is what's happening with you, right there in that ring - and the only thing you need to listen to is the words from your corner, and what's coming from your heart.

18. Heart matters. You don't need to be the biggest, the best, the most skilled, the richest, or the one who has been doing the longest. Passion is a huge part of everything, and much like Rocky Balboa always insisted, the fighter with their heart driving them is much more likely to win because when it's genuine, it doesn't give out. Remember that, and the fact that your core is the most vulnerable - it can be easy to forget about it, but a strong core is what will keep you solid through every other move, and if you don't build that, that's where they'll be able to knock the wind out of you. At the end of the day, winners are usually the ones who want it the most, because they're the ones that never give up.

19. Sometimes it might be just one round, and other times it might be 20. You will never know until you're there, and it's actually happening. But it's those last ten seconds that can make all the difference - whether it's in the ring, up a mountain, in a race, in your career, or in life in general, the one who is willing to go the extra mile and last just that tiny bit longer than the rest is much more likely to be the last one standing.

20. When fighting the good fight feels fruitless or like a frustratingly harder road (especially when your opponents all seem to be using cheap tricks to get ahead while you feel like you're left eating their dust), you can choose to fight dirty, but that doesn't mean you're going to win in the end. Fight clean, no matter what, because there will always be someone watching - and if they're any sort of referee worth their salt, they'll deduct points for those dirty moves. Maintain your form, stick to your principles, and always keep your hands up!

21. Champions are not born - they're made. Everyone has to start from somewhere. One of my favourite things about boxing gyms is that they're usually gritty, without all of the fancy bells and whistles, and people are just there for the bread and butter of the sport: To train, to learn, and to grow, no matter what level you're at. And everyone, no matter how good or bad they are, has to constantly challenge themselves and put some muscle into that hustle in order to improve. The big lights and fancy matches with silky hooded robes, peppy announcers and smart-mouthed commentators, badass walk-in songs and dramatic fight names are just the endgame - but the daily life is spent inside that simple, sweaty gym, putting in the hours. Persevere, be committed, be patient, and be disciplined. And always stay humble.

22. To be successful, you're going to have to make some sacrifices. There will be blood, sweat, and tears, and probably a lot of it. There might be bruises, and injuries, and at times, it's going to get ugly. But things that are worth having don't often come easy, and it's up to you to decide if they're worth fighting for or not, be that winning a boxing match, a business deal, first place in a race, or the person of your dreams.

23. If you go in with the right attitude, it doesn't really matter who is crowned the winner at the end - if you're in it for the right reasons, with the right motivation, and go in and give it your all knowing that you did your absolute best, you'll always come out feeling like a winner no matter what the end result is. And if you don't, you're the one who will always have to live with the knowledge that you could have done better - after all, you can't lie to yourself after all, no matter how hard you try! - and that's what will eat you up from the inside out in the long run, not whose hand is raised up by the referee at the end.

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