Dojo Rat's recent musings over Western boxing's influence on Asian martial arts got me thinking about some of history's greatest pugilists. DR claims that boxing doesn't really qualify as an art form, due to its lacking of a philosophical base. I tend to agree. You won't find a dojo kun hanging on the wall in a boxing gym, nobody bows before stepping into the ring, and respect is earned or imparted simply through fighting. Indeed, fighter is a common expression used to describe a practitioner of the "Sweet Science." I have to be honest, if I had to pick a winner in a street match between a run-of-the-mill martial arts exponent and an equivalent boxer, I'd go with the latter.
Boxing though has had its share of "bums". Equally, as historian Patrick McCarthy recently pointed out , there are karateka that come from "genuine" backgrounds and who can't punch their way out of a paper bag. Great boxers are defined by great opponents, but also by their temperament, in and out of the ring. A few of boxing's former world champions come to mind that had characteristics congruous to the model of a traditional martial artist.
Featherweights as a rule of thumb don't have the mass appeal of the big bread winners - the heavyweights. Pep - a World War II era boxer - is regarded as the greatest 126-pounder of all time for his elusiveness. Really, if you think about it, the whole idea in the martial arts isn't hitting, it's about not getting hit, which was Pep's ace in the hole. Pep actually won a round on points once without throwing a single punch ! Head feints, foot work and lateral movement (can you say tai sabaki?) kept most of Pep's 241(!) opponents at bay. If anyone mastered the art of defense, it was Pep.
Earlier I mentioned respect, and none earned it more than Arguello, in part, because he knew how to give respect. Always a consummate gentleman, Arguello would actually wish his opponent luck before a bout and never partook in the usual alpha-male hype and posturing found in sports figures today. Although intellectual, well-mannered and sincere, Arguello was truly a warrior who possessed devastating knockout power. After he retired from boxing in the 80s he became a soldier fighting government oppression in his native Nicaragua. Now that's a warrior.
Ali (b. Cassius Clay) was generally seen as a buffoon when he first hit the boxing scene in the early 60s. Part bullying loudmouth, part lunatic, Ali for sure would've failed an interview with a master had he been vying for discipleship in a traditional dojo. But his brand of strategic pre-fight verbal jabbing and psychological warfare would've made Musashi proud. In spite of his rantings out of the ring, Ali could walk his talk. He had remarkable speed for a heavyweight ("I'm so fast, when I turn out the lights to go to sleep, I'm in bed before the room gets dark") and had enormous reserves of toughness (he once fought most of a bout with a broken jaw). He was a master strategist in the ring, at times allowing a bigger and more formidable opponent to "punch themselves out." His "dancing" foot movement is reputed to have been copied by Bruce Lee. In 1976, Ali fought Japanese grappler Antonio Inoki to a 15-round draw in a prototype to what we now call Mixed Martial Arts.
The real difference between boxing and martial arts is longevity. Professional fighters must retire, and they usually don't retire well. Martial artists don't get older, they just get better.