Between rounds: the aesthetics and ethics of sixty seconds | A Summary

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The article “Between rounds: the aesthetics and ethics of sixty seconds” by Dr. Joseph D. Lewandowski, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Missouri, was published online in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, July 9, 2020. Below is the author’s popular summary, written exclusively for idrottsforum.org. The article is available in its entirety here.


It is widely acknowledged in boxing and combat sports more generally that fights are won not simply in the ring but also in the gym. A boxer’s monk-like devotion to six or so weeks of grueling and exacting training—repetitive bag work, intense and extended cardio (skipping rope and ‘road work’), frequent sparring sessions, commitment to severe dietary restrictions, and development of a fight plan—are preconditions for success in competitive boxing. For in boxing the fight can be—and often is—‘lost in the gym’, as the saying goes. Yet it is equally the case, though perhaps less often noticed, that boxing matches are also won or lost between rounds—in the sometimes calm but more often frantic periods during which the boxer returns to her or his corner, seeks to recover and rehydrate, is tended to physically, and engages with his cornerman/coach. In such designated intervals—sixty seconds every three minutes in professional boxing—the training and strategy of six weeks, the interaction of coach and athlete, and the ebb and flow of the fight intersect in contradictory ways that are often decisive for the outcome of the match and an athlete’s career.

Indeed, on the one hand, insofar as the goal of the fight is to win, a good cornerman/coach and his boxer/athlete must execute a fight plan, and at the same time jointly improvise and continually re-write that plan between rounds as the story of the fight unfolds in real time. In view of the physical danger and need to mentally manage fear and pain, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, more pressingly than in most other (non-combat) professional sports, winning the story of the fight is essential to victory and a successful career in professional pugilism. Yet as Mike Tyson once remarked, everyone has a plan ‘…until they get punched in the mouth’. Thus it would be more accurate to say that it is in the narrative or storyline a cornerman fashions between rounds for (and with) his boxer after the latter is punched in the mouth that the fight is often won or lost. In boxing such between round narratives, if they are to be effective in the theatrical heat of the contest, cannot simply restate the fight plan and/or describe what transpired in the previous round. More profoundly, to be effective they must often conceal, dissemble, and creatively (mis)represent with an eye toward crafting a winning narrative in the face of extreme adversity and significant physical risk.

How best to characterize this kind of athletic storytelling oriented not merely—or even primarily—toward a correct description of the facts of the match but rather a shared illusion of overcoming those facts? To borrow a conception from Friedrich Nietzsche, the ‘truths’ of those between rounds narratives are best understood as the result of a ‘moving army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms’ (ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien, Anthropomorphismen) produced by the ‘art of dissimulation’ (Verstellungskunst). Such a Nietzschean ‘aesthetic orientation’ (ästhetisches Verhalten) toward a sport such as boxing views combat as a theatrical contest to be won not merely through skill and forthrightness but also via will and dissimulation in the drama of competition.

On the other hand, and in tension with its art of dissimulation, in a combat sport such as professional boxing every second of the time between rounds is (or should be) laden with concern for the physical well-being and existence of the boxer/athlete. From a cornerman/coach’s moral orientation, that is to say, a professional boxer who has taken too many punches is in a categorically different situation from, for example, a goalkeeper who has surrendered too many goals or a baseball pitcher who has served up back-to-back home runs in the first inning. A coach’s decision to keep the latter athletes in the game is not one that is likely to put at risk their physical health or long-term well-being in any real way.

Drawing on work in the philosophy and sociology of sport, this article explores the complexities and contradictions that inform the minutes between rounds of a professional boxing match in an attempt to make explicit the aesthetics and ethics of pugilistic competition.

Copyright © Joseph D. Lewandowski 2020

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