Were boxing to find its counterpart in philosophy it might very well find it in the pages of the Aristotle’s Ethics. In this work, Aristotle argues that excellence isn’t the product of divine legislation, but rather a process that reaches its full development through striving. In Aristotle’s words, “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
It’s this emphasis on aspiration and repetition that resonates within the sport. To achieve excellence in boxing requires that an aspirant set a fixed gaze on his goals. The sport provides innumerable examples of fighters who averted their gaze with disastrous consequences. Repetition is also one of the sport’s dominant memes. The regiment of training, the palaver of promotional activities, the strategies for inflicting punishment, even the anatomical targets for damage—boxing seems like a system of repetition permitting just enough room for unpredictability to remain compelling.
And there is excellence too. But what does it consist of?
It says here that excellence in boxing—in so much as it is a habit, not an act—is determined by more than a fighter’s professional ledger. There is an element of professionalism that speaks to a fighter’s excellence. This professionalism is a complex concept. It includes training with the rigour and diligence required to forge iron, giving a sincere account of oneself in the ring, and meeting promotional responsibilities in earnest.
There’s a reasonable counter to this claim. It’s difficult to argue that ring dominance isn’t alone enough for excellence—this is the fundamental dialogue of the sport, the dominant idiom. To deny an excellent fighter the adjective because of a lack of professionalism seems disproportionately punitive.
These criticisms will be addressed quickly before proceeding. First, the concept of excellence here expounded is one that incorporates more than just ring accomplishments. Whether this is appropriate or not is to be determined by the reader. This concept provides equal opportunity for praise and criticism of a fighter, it merely ups the stakes. Second, as criticism of fighters often takes professionalism—and thereby this concept of excellence—into account, this treatment is only bringing to surface embedded criteria.
In a sport where contests are waged with only two outcomes considered, and where the disparity between abilities can be disturbingly vast, expecting to escape with one’s record unblemished is unrealistic. But boxing tends to forgive the professional his defeats, however crushing, if they’re honourable. This glimmer of amnesty is proof that excellence in boxing is determined by more than victory alone, as a defeat—even multiple defeats—can’t undo a career of noble comportment. Defeat itself can be borne with excellence.
Gamboa’s career thus far had evidenced the trademarks of excellence—he had habituated to its demands. Having openly sought, and been granted, a seemingly insurmountable challenge, Gamboa momentarily arrested a collective imagination and gave his detractors pause. Once Gamboa – Rios was announced there was very little he could do to sully his reputation. In facing Rios, Gamboa would ostensibly try and bridge a weight disparity spanning four divisions: Gamboa, able to make the featherweight limit would be facing a man in Rios, who is a welterweight by fight time. This is tantamount to entering a race and giving a head start to a man who matches your pace.
But it’s precisely because the task is so daunting that defeat is forgivable, even expected. Were Gamboa to conduct himself as a professional and lose to Rios, he might conceivably still make a claim to excellence rivalling any victory on his record. Conversely, the absence of professionalism exhibited in his current truancy and reluctance to follow through on his grand aspirations could temporarily anathematize him. If Gamboa scuttles one of the most intriguing fights in a long time, it will require a rather severe ablution to clean his tarnished reputation.
There’s still time for Gamboa to mitigate this situation. If he fully discloses the details that have ground the fight to a halt perhaps increased public understanding would spare him the proverbial stocks. The details regarding the negotiation of this fight are turbid, though it’s since come to light that Gamboa never signed a contract. He’s justified in his hesitation to the extent that the fight was met with disbelief. It’s hard to envision a scenario where Gamboa wins. It’s fairly easy however, to conjure up the sight of him receiving a potentially irreparable beating. That Top Rank booked a venue, scheduled press conferences, and added $100,000 bonus could be a strong-arm tactic. These steps could’ve been taken to force Gamboa’s hand, to bully him into a fight he had only expressed an interest in, while eluding blame on the grounds of good faith. At 30, Gamboa has yet to develop into an attraction, and Top Rank may have been provided with the best cash-out alternative for parting ways with the Cuban fighter (though he supposedly has three fights left in his deal). And while it’s interesting to think about fighters living the Aristotelian ideal, it isn’t technically demanded of them. Gamboa will be the one living with the consequences of his actions, and if he would rather tarnish his reputation than potentially truncate his career, that’s entirely his decision to make.
Success against a formidable schedule—like a victory over Adrien Broner at lightweight—should do much to undo the resentment over the Rios debacle. This isn’t the death knell of his credibility, but it looks bad. As it stands, Gamboa has been given what he asked for, which is a rarity in boxing. Until the details that soured him on the fight are disclosed Gamboa will be expected to be a professional and honour that opportunity. Hopefully this is merely a single act, and not a habit.