On fear and failure: life lessons from amateur boxing
This piece was published in the Observer newspaper coinciding with the beginning of the 2019 Bengal Bouts boxing tournament at the University of Notre Dame. Now in its 89th year, the Bengal Bouts raises over $100,000 per year for education and social projects in Bangladesh run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Donate here or learn more at strongbodiesfight.org.
The bell rang, the fight was finally over. Bloodied up and nose broken, Peter was practically beaming as he stumbled to his corner. “Best thing I’ve ever done,” he said, throwing his arms around me. I removed his gear and he returned to the center of the ring. He was on the wrong side of a unanimous decision in the preliminary round of the 2009 Bengal Bouts. He didn’t care. He had transcended the win-lose binary to discover something more. Ten years later, I still draw on that fight for inspiration.
Several of my Keenan section mates had come out for the Bouts that year as senior novices. My good friend Peter Vignali was the only one who persevered through the season’s grind of high-intensity practices and punishing rounds of sparring. Four years removed from high school lacrosse, Peter landed in a tough weight class with a low seeding. He was overmatched and he knew it. It takes a special kind of courage to step into that squared-circle when you know you’re going to lose, and may very well get hurt. That’s what makes the Peter Vignalis of the world so impressive. More than the captains and champions, they represent what amateur boxing is all about.
Boxing isn’t like other sports. It activates the lizard brain; the fight-or-flight response, primal fear.
Search “boxing fear psychology” and you’ll find a wealth of interesting content. From the military academies preparing young minds to face the traumas of war to urban community centers helping kids escape drug violence, boxing transforms lives in ways that may seem absurd to the uninitiated.
It’s the discipline of calmness in the face of a threat, of endurance through physical pain. It’s learning to breathe when oxygen seems scarce, learning to see when the world seems to be spinning out of control. It’s the practiced humility to seek support from your corner while accepting responsibility for those things you must do on your own. The experience reconfigures your emotional and psychological makeup.
I know these things, in part because where Peter succeeded, I came up short.
Following the 2009 preliminaries, I advanced to the finals to meet Bobby Powers, my eventual successor as captain and president of the team.
The first round went from zero to sixty. Bobby used his wide stance and long arms to establish a perimeter. I used my speed and footwork to catch him leaning inside. The bell rang. I went to my corner. An entourage of my boxing brothers screamed advice from all directions (a well-meaning practice the team has wisely barred because it overwhelms). I tried and failed to catch my breath in what felt like only a few seconds.
The second round was a brawl — everything moving so fast it was like time stood still. I’m told it looked evenly matched. It didn’t feel that way. I could feel his perimeter increasing, my speed diminishing. He seemed like a giant. In the flury, he finally caught me hard in the jaw, knocking my mouthguard to the bloodstained mat. That had never happened to me before. The bell rang.
I didn’t feel pain. I felt like I was suffocating. A strange kind of blindness had overtaken me, like trying to decipher a chaotic canvas of abstract artwork. Autopilot steered me to my corner, where the referee Tom Suddes (our coach, my mentor) returned my mouthguard to me. I told him I couldn’t bite down on it. A lie. Yes, my jaw hurt and would so for a few weeks. But it was calm I couldn’t find; it was courage I couldn’t muster. I had lost my will. Finishing, let alone winning, seemed a distant, unimportant concept.
I withdrew. I smiled ear-to-ear to mask my brokenness as I hugged Bobby and celebrated his victory. It has never been about winning, I told myself. True. But I had never considered the possibility I wouldn’t finish. In my confidence as a top-seeded captain, I had underestimated my own weakness. Ten years later, I still grieve that decision. Friends and family have encouraged me not to be too hard on myself, but I think it's important to face the disappointment squarely, to resist rationalizing it away. The emotional pain is instructive. This is how we grow.
Two boxers, two stories, two sides of the same truth: the competition is just a construct for self-discovery and growth. By addressing fear and pain head-on, we forge into the undiscovered depths of our interior, find the outer boundaries, dig up the stakes, and plant them a little further out.
For all the champions I’ve seen raise their fists in the Bengal Bouts, it’s the Peter Vignalis of the world I admire most. I invite you to attend the Bengal Bouts this year and the Baraka Bouts in the fall. Look for those 7th and 8th seeds. That’s where you’ll find real courage, and the true spirit of amateur boxing.