I’m pretty sure I was fascinated by boxing through Muhammad Ali. He moved like no one I’ve ever seen, gracefully hopping around the ring, feinting in and out like a fencer, and sometimes clapping gloves together like he was clapping. “Dancing,” Ali called it.
I studied a traditional martial art for most of my youth. My parents were gracious enough to allow me to turn our tiny garage into a gym of sorts, where I had bolted to the wall a huge, heavy sack (the bolt creaked if the sack was hit or kicked too hard), a speed bag on the opposite wall, and a floor-to-ceiling sphere in the center of the room, lacking a floor connection, swinging around like a black pendulum.
I would also continue to train outside of the garage and my martial arts classes. For years I have especially loved shadow boxing; That’s where I see the beauty of boxing and dancing the most. I often practice sidesteps, spins, crouches, blocks and parries, rolls and counters, mostly trying to mimic what I’ve seen boxers do rather than something I’ve been taught. (Similar to the character Powder from Arcane, who watches her sister throw quick combos and then tries to awkwardly mimic her moves.)
I’ve never been to a boxing gym to train before, but if I did it would probably be a situation like a scene in Billy Elliott (a film about dancing as a way of self-expression, both critics and directors have noted) , where Billy is primarily interested in jumping around the ring and is promptly knocked out by his opponent. Bruce Lee – who loved boxing and was a cha-cha champion in Hong Kong – spoke about how martial arts is also essentially about self-expression and I think that’s what I’m starting to feel about shadow boxing.
Why have I never stepped in the ring? Mostly due to the terrible case of brain damage inherent in the sport. People were killed in the ring. It’s a fact that makes boxing difficult to just watch or write about. Writer Davis Miller, whose thoughts on the sport seem to resemble my own (and who found his own form of self-expression through martial arts and boxing), stopped writing articles fully celebrating boxing shortly after observing how Sugar Ray Leonard was hit near the end of his career and seeing how indifferent other people seemed to be about it.
My relationship with boxing is therefore complicated, but the danger issue mentioned above is obviously not an issue when it comes to boxing in video games. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent playing the Fight Night games, going through the career modes over and over again while trying to explore my aesthetic ideal of defense. One thing that has always bothered me and other players was the approach to footwork; The characters almost always moved as if speed and grace were forbidden. While I loved the upper body flexibility that one could display, walking around the ring felt oddly awkward given the dexterity of Ali, Willie Pep (whose motto was essentially hit and run), and Pernell Whitaker remembered.
As many know, the Fight Night series hasn’t spawned a new game in years – a recent report suggests a new one is coming, but it’s still in the very early stages. (Another big boxing game on the horizon, eSports Boxing Club, doesn’t have a release date yet.) I assumed that the next time I enjoyed a boxing game, it would be one of these two upcoming works. However, there’s a saying in boxing – the punch you don’t see coming hits you hardest. In my case, this happened when my uncle kindly loaned me some VR gear and I tried out the boxing game The Thrill of the Fight on it. This is how it feels:
I stand in the corner of the ring and look at my red gloves. My opponent (computer controlled) is waiting in his own corner and the referee gives a few quick instructions while I walk around stretching my arms a bit, turning my head and making sure the VR headset is on properly. The bell rings. I’m not dragging myself around the ring as an avatar controlled with an analog stick; I can hop and shuffle my feet, scurry in and out. I move how I want as long as I stay within the boundaries I set for the game. Sometimes I mimic Vasiliy Lomachenko (who took dance classes to help him with his boxing footwork) by using his trick to slide down the opponent’s side and hit him from a different angle. Other times I’ll use a right hand lead before firing to the side like Roy Jones Jr. I’ll block incoming punches with crossed arms like George Foreman or just drop my hands and lean away from attacks like Prince Naseem. I enjoy crouching quickly under my opponent’s punches, like Whitaker, before turning away and getting out of range with a few jabs. I always alternate between orthodox (left foot forward) and southpaw (right foot forward). Sometimes when I’ve had a tough bout, I’ll stumble to my (real) chair and sit down for the minute rest, like a boxer on his stool, and I can feel my heart pounding and sweat forming on my die Forehead. By the time I’m done playing for the night, I’ll have thrown at least five hundred shots if the game’s stats are right.
I’m up against a computer opponent significantly taller than me and my usual cross arm blocks don’t work well – I keep getting hit by hard hooks. I start dancing, dropping my hands, jumping around, leaning left and right, and suddenly I’m not getting hit anymore. The opponent seems confused and I land my own accurate punches. It’s a great feeling, but after a short while I get tired and have to keep still, breathing heavily. The opponent puts pressure on me again and knocks me down (represented in-game by suddenly turning black before I automatically stand up). At the end of the game, the referee announces that it’s a draw, even though I’ve overtaken the opponent by a wide margin. It’s frustrating to be moving and banging and sweating for just under ten minutes and being thwarted by a moment. It’s true, but when it occurs in reality, it can be more heartbreaking than a minor irritation. Herol Graham (he did it so defensively Chris Eubank decided he would never fight him) won a World Championship match until he was caught with a shot and knocked out. He never managed to become world champion, but people still fondly remember him for his agile movements in the ring.
I never thought virtual reality would give me the ability to use my danceable fake boxing in a game, the kind of style that’s not really possible in something like Fight Night. It has made me reconsider my reluctance to get into VR gaming as a whole due to the dazzling potential for self-expression that technology can offer gamers. I used to wonder if I would ever find a game with mechanics that could use the kind of combat style I love. Ultimately, the answer is that the game just had to give me the freedom to try and express myself.