On Boxing and the Benefits of Sucking

You don’t only have to do the things you’re good at. Russell Grant explores the benefits of sucking in his latest column.



I am not a fighter, nor am I a believer in strict dichotomies. I’m about 5’10”, 90kgs in the shade, and would probably get whallopped in a real fight. That’s not why I took up boxing, though. I don’t necessarily want to be a better fighter; or be able to defend myself if the need ever arose. Nor did I take it up in an effort to become fit – not that all of these things aren’t great added bonuses, and I certainly think of them fondly from time to time. No, the real reason I took up boxing is because it was something I had never dreamed of doing before. It was something I knew I would probably be hopeless at, and there is something strangely liberating about being completely hopeless. It takes the pressure off; it allows you to completely consume your mind with simple tasks. The correct technique for throwing a punch, for instance. Something as base and primal as throwing a punch actually takes a fair amount of bodily coordination to do effectively. It starts with your feet, and extends to your hips, through your shoulders and out through your fist. It’s a holistic motion that requires a great deal of concentration. There is also no real end to be achieved by it (unless of course, you are in an actual fight, in which case the end is to render your opponent unconscious). For me, at least, the simple execution of the movement is the end in itself; like art or pure mathematics.


The above paragraph actually contains two benefits to boxing that I will attempt to expand upon: the first being that I am completely hopeless, and the second is the absolutely primal nature of it. I’ll begin with the first.


I’ve always had a belief that it’s important, especially as we get older, to do things that you will probably suck at. When we’re kids we’re constantly learning about the world and about our abilities and limits. We’re trying a whole bunch of stuff for the first time. Some of these things we’re good at, and others less so. As we get older, we start to actively pursue the things we’re good at in favour of the things we’re not so good at. We quickly put ourselves into any number of boxes and distance ourselves from the ones we don’t think we fit into. We do this to avoid the humiliation of sucking. Thus, getting older puts a lot of pressure on us to find things we’re good at and to stick to those things. We start to categorise people. We start to differentiate between logical and creative people. Artists and athletes. People who are good at math, and people who are shit at math. Like I said in the beginning, I’m not a fan of strict dichotomies. I think it’s unfortunate that due to the immense pressure put on us to be good at something that we forget what it’s like to just do things and enjoy them. When we’re really young, and we’re having a go at this whole life thing for the first time, we don’t give a fuck whether we’re good at the thing or not. We just do it ‘cause it’s a jol. We paint the shit out of our house with the tree in the garden and our mom and dad or just our dad or just our mom or both moms or whatever the fuck and we don’t think twice about whether this shit’s gonna get critted on the internet or whether we’ve been true to the aesthetic of our time or anything like that. We paint that fucker and we’re so stoked with ourselves just for painting it. As we get older though we start coming into contact with other, shitty, kids who start to tell us that our paintings are actually shit. And then we come into contact with high school teachers who tell us we can only pick a few things to do in high school and it’s better if you do the things you’re good at because matriculating with high marks is a good thing. And then we finish school and capitalism comes along and tells us we have to make money in order to survive and you can make more money doing something that you’re good at so you better do that (hell really is other people). At some point, we lose that feeling of just being a baby in a sand pit making horseshit sand castles that we, and we alone, think are awesome.


I think I was lucky growing up because my parents had a policy about not forcing us (my sisters and I) down any one path. We were more or less free to pick the subjects or the sports we wanted and be done with it. For instance, for some reason, I was really good at accounting in high school. I have no idea why, but I could put in next to no effort and still manage to get a good mark. When it came time to choose our matric packages or whatever they’re called, my teachers all wanted me to do accounting, and I could think of nothing worse. Absolutely nothing about accounting excited me. I was kinda interested in science, though, even though my marks definitely weren’t as good as they were for accounting. But fuck it, science made me happier than accounting, so I went with it. My parents didn’t object, and so off I went on my science-y journey. I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ve always been that person who’s been cool with doing something even if I’m totally shit at it just because I enjoy it.


So, back to boxing. Boxing, and combat sports in general, are things I’ve always kinda been fascinated with, but which I knew I would never be able to do well. I’m not really an athlete. I mean, I can play a decent game of footie, snowboard proficiently, and my backhand is nothing to scoff at, but I’ve never been the kind of person you would say is naturally inclined to sports. Neither am I the kind of person to get into fights. But still, boxing fascinated me. I was curious about what it must be like to pit yourself against another human in a clash of strength and speed. Where to make a mistake meant to suffer pain. I wanted to know what that must be like at an experiential level. And so I went with it and joined a class. Now I know what that all feels like, and as it turns out, I’m not actually that bad at it. But that doesn’t matter. I had a natural curiosity about a thing and I did the thing just like the sand castle kid does his sand castles: with a reckless and joyful fuck you to the shitty kids, the teachers, and capitalism.


I know that there are a bunch of articles out there about the mental benefits of learning new things (like staving off alzheimers), and while that’s pretty cool, I’m not really concerned about that here. What I really want is for people to get back in touch with their inner sand castle bastard and just do the damn thing that you’ve been thinking about doing but don’t because you’re scared of sucking. There is so much freedom in sucking. Doing something for the first time and knowing you’re going to be shit at it is the best feeling ever, because there is zero pressure. You have nothing to prove, and that fact alone should give us massive reprieve from a world filled with Nazis, un-nuanced gender politics, unaffordable housing and listeria. Maybe it’s kind of like how sometimes powerful exec types get into BDSM because in the normal course of the day they have to be strong and dominant and confident and the feeling of being completely dominated and subjected to the will of another is liberating and arousing (this obviously isn’t the only reason people get into BDSM. The kink community is a wonderfully rich and diverse one and people who get into it for the above reason are but a percentage of that community). If that’s the case then hell yeah. I’ve never been into BDSM but my friends who are, reckon it’s a right good time and, so long as it’s consensual and safe, a perfectly healthy and legitimate way of living of your life.


The second thing that I find very dope about boxing is the fact that it is just such a primal activity. Some years ago I became quite enthusiastic about weightlifting. You read that right. I went to gym every day, wore the tank tops and short shorts, grunted maniacally with each passing rep, and flexed my burgeoning biceps in the mirror with glee. (I should also make a point here to stress that it’s OK to do things you enjoy which are outside of what your “scene” might tell you is OK. Sure, there are a lot of assholes at the gym, but being at the gym doesn’t make you an asshole by default. You can totally be the cute AF gender-queer Antifa feminist and also be swole as fuck. Complexity, people.) I was on a quest to get fit, but what I eventually found was that the repetitive and concrete nature of the challenges I faced was soothing. Much of the time, the things we’re attempting to achieve come with a series of intangible or inscrutable goals. Am I getting anywhere with my photography career? Who the fuck knows, to be honest. The same goes for my writing career. I know where I want to be but sometimes the steps involved in getting there can be maddeningly opaque. Not so with lifting weights. They have clearly printed numbers on the sides and every time I walked in there I knew that I wanted to pick up or push a weight that had a higher number on it. That way I knew I was making progress. The same thing applies to boxing. Each time I go for a class I wanna skip for longer, punch harder, not get hit in the face as many times. These are small, tangible things that are easily measurable and that, to me, is so refreshing. I can lose myself, for an hour at a time, once a week, trying to accomplish small, easily quantifiable goals, and that shit doesn’t always happen when I’m sitting down to write or taking photos of someone.


I get that not everyone reading this has the same curiosity about combat sports like I had. The point is not so much to advocate boxing, but to advocate doing something that you’ve always wanted to do but that you are scared to do because you are scared of sucking at it, or something that you don’t think fits in with what your peer group thinks is OK. I’m trying to advocate for embracing the feeling of sucking at a thing, because it is actually quite a cool feeling. I know a lot of us millenials (and even a few baby boomers and some of the new people in that generation we don’t really have a name for yet) feel that the world can be a little bit like a rabbit warren where we cruise around all day looking for avos to eat but never know if we’re gonna hit a luck some day and find an avo tree or even a way out of the warren, and while it’s probably true that our lives are totally meaningless and we’re likely never to find an avo tree or even an exit to the warren, what we certainly don’t need is more chicken wire holding us back from exploring potentially cooler parts of the maze.

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