Is it safe to box in your forties? Are you likely to be injured? Should you even consider boxing if you have small children at home?
That’s me, still boxing at 47.
I started boxing at 42, I have a husband and three kids at home, and looking back, I’m slightly amazed that I never had these questions back when I started. But in those days I had other, more pressing issues. I’d never done anything like boxing (or anything else) for myself before. I was miserable and depressed. I didn’t think my marriage was going to survive. I frankly didn’t care what happened in the ring; I was just blindly hoping for something to relieve the darkness.
Boxing pulled me out of the abyss, and taught me how to fight for myself and the things I wanted. If you’ve read The Badass Manifesto (which you can get for free at this link), you’ve heard a bit more of that story.
But as I grew more proficient in boxing (and life) and started to spar regularly, people began to pose these questions to me.
They’re good questions from people who mean well, and some of them come from people who are not (or haven’t been) boxers themselves. But they ALSO come from boxers, like the awesome Glowing Edge reader who sent this email (I’ve edited it slightly):
I started MMA and kickboxing a year ago when I was 40. Been largely enjoying it and making good progress. I spar and grapple so it’s not pure ring work and punching but I do a fair share of boxing and boxing training.
I’ve definitely been tagged a few times. Nothing knee wobbling and no concussions but stunned a few times and a swollen nose once. And I can give it right back.
So, I’m not really scared about getting tagged, but after training I have a lot of thoughts, like, I’m 41 years old. I have small children at home. Do I need to be getting hit in the head at all? With all of the stuff in the news about concussions/suicide/etc. is even this very modest amount of boxing a risk? I need my brain at this point more than my fists. I talked to my doctor and she said she isn’t too worried if I’m not doing frequent, full contact boxing but I thought I’d see what your thoughts are.
I don’t see myself competing in the future unless it’s in jiu jitsu where you can compete as a “senior.” However, I like to put the skills I have into practice. I’m in the best shape and the least stressed out I’ve ever been so I’m hesitant to limit myself to just the bag but I also want to be smart.
First of all, how fantastic to hear about someone taking up a fight sport and getting in such great shape. And clearly doing well and enjoying themselves! Also, he got checked out by a doctor, who gave him a reasonably cautious but optimistic go-ahead (I’ll talk about frequency of sparring below). That’s win #2, because not all doctors will genuinely support someone who boxes; some are very frowny-scowly. And finally, the good news is that it IS possible to compete in a “senior” division in boxing, just like in jiu jitsu. See below…
I’ll get there, I promise! But let me see if I can answer a few of the most frequently asked questions first.
1. Can you box in your 40s?
Sure you can. Plenty of us do. You can even compete in boxing in your 40s on an official amateur or a professional level.
Even if you don’t get in the ring for sparring or competition, you can get a phenomenal all-body workout with boxing and get into the best shape of your entire life. But you probably already knew this. I think the real question comes next.
2. Do you have to get hit in boxing, or can you box without that?
You CAN box with NO body contact.
You will hit things, but you don’t have to BE hit. You can do all the fitness training that goes with boxing, even hitting the heavy bag, speed bag, and mitts, without ever getting punched in the face (or body) at all. For people who have concerns about safety, there you go. Non-contact boxing is going to be the safest path for you.
3. Are you going to get injured if you box?
Boxing is like any sport; you can, and probably will sustain some sort of minor injuries.
All of my non-contact boxing injuries were the kind I could have gotten simply going to a gym to work out. Beyond the normal aches and pains, the torn rotator cuff (which I got doing unassisted pull-ups, and I don’t do those any more) was the worst.
Cesar Hernandez and Jose Santiago, both fighting over 40.
If you do spar or compete, you may get a black eye, or a bloody nose. The more serious injuries tend to happen to new boxers who are not as skilled and a lot more scared than an experienced boxer.
My worst injury in the ring was as a newbie — I got a broken rib, and that bastard hurt. Took me about 3 months to get over that one, but I haven’t been seriously injured since.
So. Minor shit, yeah. Big stuff? No. And I try to spar about once a week, and compete every year.
4. What about hard punches to the face and head? Aren’t they dangerous?
They certainly can be. That’s why boxers (at any age)
And yes, there are lots of conversations in the media (even from President Obama, at this year’s Superbowl) and among scientists and pension boards about whether or not repeated concussions from boxing, football, and soccer are causing dementia, Parkinson’s, and a host of other problems. MMA head injuries are under the media microscope as well. All of those should be considered by someone who wants to get in the ring.
Have I thought about all this? Of course. But I also work pretty hard to mitigate the risks. And I haven’t been doing this since I was a teenager, so I’m not going to have the same number of years of it piling up like a young fighter might.
5. But professional boxers don’t wear headgear during their fights…
That’s true, and pro boxing definitely takes a harder toll on the body than amateur boxing, which requires competitors to wear headgear.
However, pro boxers don’t spend the majority of their time fighting at full power without headgear.
They spend MOST of their time training, lifting weights, doing intervals, and working the bags and mitts like everyone else. They spar more when getting ready for a fight, but even so, they don’t go out every single week (like football players do) and put themselves into the highest risk situations. They might fight a few times per year, even as many as 10 times a year in the elite circles. But the majority of boxers aren’t doing that.
6. Is boxing worse for injuries than other sports?
I might put competitive fighting (including MMA and all of the martial arts) in the top 10 of most dangerous sports, along with football, soccer, rugby, and cheerleading, but I don’t have any kind of science or data behind that.
But what about base jumping, free climbing, bull riding, motocross, pro surfing, scuba diving, street luge, BMX riding, heli-skiing, hockey, lacrosse, mountaineering, NASCAR, and other dangerous sports?
Here’s a 2010 graphic done by a life insurance company (!) on the world’s most dangerous sports. Boxing doesn’t even make the list, probably because it doesn’t usually cause the kind of “instant” injuries a single mistake in one of those other sports can.
I do know that you can be mildly or devastatingly injured in any sport. You can build up cumulative damage over a period of years in any sport. It’s worth considering, but I’ve found that boxing is also worth doing.
7. Is it irresponsible to box if you have kids at home who need you?
Before I started boxing, my three sons had a mother who did everything for them and nothing for herself, and they had parents with a failing marriage. I don’t know if they knew how unhappy and depressed I was, but I know it’s very different for them now.
Since I started boxing, they’ve learned to do their own laundry, make their own meals, and they are expected to pitch in around the house. They have a mother who is tough and courageous. They have parents with a solid marriage and joy in life.
It’s clear to me which one is the better model.
I understand the people who worry about head injuries. I think that’s a reasonable concern, but I don’t see a lot of that in boxing, except at the long-term professional level.
Boxing teaches you to care for your physical, spiritual, and emotional health. It teaches discipline, respect, and balance. And fight sports are practiced in very controlled arenas, with coaches and teammates and specialized gear.
These all feel like very important life gifts and opportunities to have.
8. Should I let my daughter see her father fighting?
There are other parents who are not sure how they feel about their sons and (particularly) daughters seeing Mom or Dad punching and getting punched in the ring.
I think this is about personal preference, although I can tell you that I wish I’d discovered boxing LONG before I was in my 40s. But I had no idea women even boxed, and I’d certainly never learned anything about the real skills, training, and care that goes into learning to fight.
My sons aren’t particularly interested in boxing (not having grown up with it), but if you ask them they’ll tell you it’s kinda cool that their mom fights. They would be willing to come see me fight (and I’d love to have them), but I usually have to travel and can’t afford for all of us to go.
When people say “But you don’t want your children to see you getting beat up!” I always smile at the assumption that I’m getting “beat up” in the ring. Maybe other people are getting “beat up” by me, I’d love to say, but I know what they mean.
I hit, and I get hit, but I’m also okay. I like my sparring partners: we laugh, groan, grunt, and sweat together. We try to talk over our mouthguards. We get yelled at by our coaches. We work on specific tactics and shots. We nod and acknowledge particularly skilled moves.
Some days I suck, or perform poorly, or am utterly outmatched. Some days I’m teaching and supporting newer fighters. But it’s not typically an atmosphere of anger or ugliness.
I’d be fine with my daughter watching, if I had one.
9. Should I consider competitive boxing if I’m over 40?
USA Boxing, which governs amateur competition in the United States, puts all boxers over the age of 35 into the Masters category. It differs from the younger age groups in that Masters boxers are required to have a few more medical checks, like an EKG every 5 years. And in addition to the normal weight regulations, Masters boxers can not have an official match with anyone who is more than 10 years older or younger than they are.
So of course you can consider competitive boxing if you’re over 40. And for some of us, that’s the first time in our lives we actually do consider it!
10. How many fights can an over-40 boxer expect to get?
There aren’t nearly as many Masters fighters as there are in the under-35 bracket, as you might guess. I haven’t tracked the men, but most years in my state (NC) there have been between one and three registered female Master boxers. I usually know who they are. I’d guess there are at least five or six times that many male Master fighters.
So there aren’t as many opportunities to get matches, but if you have the money and can travel, Gleason’s Gym in NY holds annual Masters tournaments and Ringside also has a Masters tourney every year.
It’s not impossible to get fights in your local area (I’ve done it), but often you have to find and get someone to travel to your location. Corporate boxing groups like Atlanta Corporate Fight Night, are a newer thing in the US, and also offer opportunities for 40 and up boxers.
Coming Next: Best Advice for Over 40 Boxers
When I raised the issue of fighting after 40 on the Facebook page for The Glowing Edge, I got some great responses from boxers about what to think about, ways boxing is different for us, and what factors are the most different. Since this one got a bit long, my next post will cover some of those items, so check back soon.
Meanwhile, I hope you’ll leave a comment below with your own questions and thoughts on the matter! Stay strong and keep swinging…
Image credits — Top: Johnathan Friedan; middle: Eric Langley Photography