Punching from the Shadows: Reflections on Boxing and Failure

Glen Sharp. Punching from the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. 2018


"No man is obliged to do as much as he can," wrote Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). 

Would this lack of obligation extend to personal failure and its subsequent challenge to succeed?  For onetime professional boxer Glen Sharp, it does not.  In his book Punching from the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer, the experience of failure takes the form of an existential burden: ever present, front and center, looming.

Failure haunts: it threatens with the last word.  "I didn't want my tombstone to read: 'Here lies a 1-2 fighter,'" writes Sharp (248).

The author is clearly taken — if not overtaken — by the concept of failure.  The word is used seven times in the first two and a half pages of the book and inspires both uncommon candor and sustained reflection from Sharp.  In the following, he summarizes his boxing career — for which it took years of preparation:

I was a whining, pathetic excuse for a man, so ashamed of myself, humiliated by my 1-2 record, embarrassed that I did not measure up to a man like Yaqui Lopez, or other local fighters I knew in Sacramento, thinking of myself as the Willy Loman of boxing. (214)

"If at first you don't succeed..."  How familiar we are with the nobility of effort and its portent of success.  Just try again, right?  Inventor Thomas Edison reminded us of the merits of experimentation: "I have not failed.  I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work."  Arguably America's greatest college basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, "Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be."

But basketball isn't boxing; few endeavors in life compare to pugilism's organized violence.  According to one source, between the years 1890 and 2011, more than  1,800 boxers died in the ring or due to the damage suffered in a specific bout.  If we were to track the collateral damage boxers suffer — say, from a detached retina or dementia-related issues — one would be hard pressed to think of a more dangerous sport than boxing.  Former heavyweight contender Randall "Tex" Cobb once remarked: "If you screw up in tennis, it's 15-love.  If you screw up in boxing, it's your a--.  Even the author is prompted to offer:

People play baseball and basketball and football, but nobody plays boxing. You never hear trainers telling their boxers to 'have fun out there.' (53)

The change Coach Wooden calls for, here in the case of a fighter's decision to throw in the towel or retire altogether — could well be life-saving and health-promoting.  Still, Sharp was to box on, fully cognizant:

The late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once described professional boxing as the 'red light district of sports,' and I was attracted to that light. I was drawn to it in the same way a moth is drawn to the flame. (20)

And the reader senses this.  Early on in the book, we are able to applaud the author's progression, from mistakenly equating the lack of achievement in the squared circle to some greater existential or moral failure.  Success would be had — just elsewhere:   

I needed to find a way for the failure to become only a part of a larger story and not be the center of the story that everything revolves around. (225)

Sharp would move on from his limited ring success (he decided against a comeback at the age of 32) but not boxing entirely: "everyone who ever becomes involved with boxing knows, it is hard to get out of your system" (226).  And easy to romanticize.  Sharp's gloss of boxing is more of an ode to its ambience than a clear lens on the brutality that occurs in the match itself.  His lyrical contrasts of boxing with existential philosophy (61), music (65), venue (46–47), painting, singing, and poetry (96) reveal as much.  He still coaches today, holding on to the curious fascination from his youth:

I had been subscribing to Sports Illustrated since the sixth grade, and one of my favorite issues had a photo of Chuck Wepner on the cover.  Wepner had fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title, and when I shared with my girlfriend the picture she said she didn't want me to look like that.  I argued that Wepner looked pretty good for having received close to three hundred facial stitches over the course of a fifty-fight career, but she disagreed with me. (16)

Boxing is a fascination roundly shared.  The half-billion-dollar slugfest that was the 2017 Mayweather-McGregor fight is only one example of its popularity.  But with respect to the nineteenth-century British historian Pierce Egan and his coinage of the term "Sweet Science," boxing is neither.  Nor is it an art.  Sharp even acknowledges: "I remember when Rony Lyle fought George Foreman in 1976, and the commentator Howard Cosell kept saying, 'there's no art here...'" (33).

There is an aesthetic at work in Sharp's writing, as he expertly frames the tension that most of us experience throughout life, between dreaming and doing, wanting and having, succeeding and not.  There is also much wisdom to be found in this bold autobiography: the entirety of Sharp's work serves as homage to the Socratic imperative of "know thyself."  And yet, there's always the clash between knowledge and longing: dreams die hard.

How fitting that the author begins his book with a quote from George Eliot (1819–1880): "It is never too late to be what you might have been."  Not true: Youth and possibility run their course.  Still, a book like Punching from the Shadows makes living with past failure less onerous as it dares us to succeed in the present.

Tim Weldon teaches philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill.

Glen Sharp. Punching from the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. 2018


"No man is obliged to do as much as he can," wrote Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). 

Would this lack of obligation extend to personal failure and its subsequent challenge to succeed?  For onetime professional boxer Glen Sharp, it does not.  In his book Punching from the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer, the experience of failure takes the form of an existential burden: ever present, front and center, looming.

Failure haunts: it threatens with the last word.  "I didn't want my tombstone to read: 'Here lies a 1-2 fighter,'" writes Sharp (248).

The author is clearly taken — if not overtaken — by the concept of failure.  The word is used seven times in the first two and a half pages of the book and inspires both uncommon candor and sustained reflection from Sharp.  In the following, he summarizes his boxing career — for which it took years of preparation:

I was a whining, pathetic excuse for a man, so ashamed of myself, humiliated by my 1-2 record, embarrassed that I did not measure up to a man like Yaqui Lopez, or other local fighters I knew in Sacramento, thinking of myself as the Willy Loman of boxing. (214)

"If at first you don't succeed..."  How familiar we are with the nobility of effort and its portent of success.  Just try again, right?  Inventor Thomas Edison reminded us of the merits of experimentation: "I have not failed.  I have just found 10,000 ways that don't work."  Arguably America's greatest college basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, "Failure isn't fatal, but failure to change might be."

But basketball isn't boxing; few endeavors in life compare to pugilism's organized violence.  According to one source, between the years 1890 and 2011, more than  1,800 boxers died in the ring or due to the damage suffered in a specific bout.  If we were to track the collateral damage boxers suffer — say, from a detached retina or dementia-related issues — one would be hard pressed to think of a more dangerous sport than boxing.  Former heavyweight contender Randall "Tex" Cobb once remarked: "If you screw up in tennis, it's 15-love.  If you screw up in boxing, it's your a--.  Even the author is prompted to offer:

People play baseball and basketball and football, but nobody plays boxing. You never hear trainers telling their boxers to 'have fun out there.' (53)

The change Coach Wooden calls for, here in the case of a fighter's decision to throw in the towel or retire altogether — could well be life-saving and health-promoting.  Still, Sharp was to box on, fully cognizant:

The late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once described professional boxing as the 'red light district of sports,' and I was attracted to that light. I was drawn to it in the same way a moth is drawn to the flame. (20)

And the reader senses this.  Early on in the book, we are able to applaud the author's progression, from mistakenly equating the lack of achievement in the squared circle to some greater existential or moral failure.  Success would be had — just elsewhere:   

I needed to find a way for the failure to become only a part of a larger story and not be the center of the story that everything revolves around. (225)

Sharp would move on from his limited ring success (he decided against a comeback at the age of 32) but not boxing entirely: "everyone who ever becomes involved with boxing knows, it is hard to get out of your system" (226).  And easy to romanticize.  Sharp's gloss of boxing is more of an ode to its ambience than a clear lens on the brutality that occurs in the match itself.  His lyrical contrasts of boxing with existential philosophy (61), music (65), venue (46–47), painting, singing, and poetry (96) reveal as much.  He still coaches today, holding on to the curious fascination from his youth:

I had been subscribing to Sports Illustrated since the sixth grade, and one of my favorite issues had a photo of Chuck Wepner on the cover.  Wepner had fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title, and when I shared with my girlfriend the picture she said she didn't want me to look like that.  I argued that Wepner looked pretty good for having received close to three hundred facial stitches over the course of a fifty-fight career, but she disagreed with me. (16)

Boxing is a fascination roundly shared.  The half-billion-dollar slugfest that was the 2017 Mayweather-McGregor fight is only one example of its popularity.  But with respect to the nineteenth-century British historian Pierce Egan and his coinage of the term "Sweet Science," boxing is neither.  Nor is it an art.  Sharp even acknowledges: "I remember when Rony Lyle fought George Foreman in 1976, and the commentator Howard Cosell kept saying, 'there's no art here...'" (33).

There is an aesthetic at work in Sharp's writing, as he expertly frames the tension that most of us experience throughout life, between dreaming and doing, wanting and having, succeeding and not.  There is also much wisdom to be found in this bold autobiography: the entirety of Sharp's work serves as homage to the Socratic imperative of "know thyself."  And yet, there's always the clash between knowledge and longing: dreams die hard.

How fitting that the author begins his book with a quote from George Eliot (1819–1880): "It is never too late to be what you might have been."  Not true: Youth and possibility run their course.  Still, a book like Punching from the Shadows makes living with past failure less onerous as it dares us to succeed in the present.

Tim Weldon teaches philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill.