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Thursday, July 20, 2023

Focused for Battle: What Boxers Think during the Referee's Instructions

The fighters stride towards each other for the final time before the opening bell. The anticipation in the crowd becomes palpable. The long-awaited fight is moments away. The referee reminds the combatants to listen to the official's commands and to protect themselves at all times, and perhaps bellows a catchphrase afterwards. But the boxers ignore any cry of "Let's get it on," "What I say you must obey," or "I'm fair but I'm firm."

Rare is the boxer that disagrees with ex-fighter Tony Milch, who says, "I am hearing the referee but not really listening." Unless, that is, they side with another former fighter Dustin Fleischer (6-0), who admits, "I really didn't even hear the referee. I was just thinking about destroying my opponent."

With all eyes on the two fighters staring at each other in center ring for one last time before the first round, the boxers typically turn inward.

Active fighter Cletus Seldin (26-1) says, "I'm just telling myself how hard I worked and to stick to the game plan." He tells himself, "No matter what, don't stop. When the bell rings, be relentless."

Former world champion Yuri Foreman (35-4) tells himself, "This is it!" The ordained rabbi says a little prayer. He takes the four or five steps back to his corner and reminds himself, "Just be myself."

As with Seldin and Foreman, recently retired puncher Shawn Sarembock (8-0-1) acknowledges this is the culmination of all his hard work. He is thinking, "Let's go! It's go time! Or any derivative of that. Time to put up. Time to switch on."

"We're all flooded with thoughts throughout the day," explains Nancy Harazduk, the Director of the Mind-Body Medicine Program at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. "These boxers are controlling their thoughts in a positive way. They aren't allowing their thoughts to control them."

Of the moments when the referee is giving the final instructions, undefeated pro David Alaverdian
(8-0-1) explains, "My mind is blank." Milch (14-2) describes something similar, "My mind is clear. I'm looking at the opponent, preparing myself mentally to be clear and focused for battle and all the training that has gone into it."

Retired fighter Merhav Mohar (16-2) says, "Being present, without any distracting thoughts is a true measure of professionalism, and takes a lot of practice."

Harazduk says these fighters- by having a clear mind and being present- are in an alpha state. "An alpha state is when your brain waves slow down. Your thoughts recede to the background, and you're not aware of any incoming thoughts. These boxers are 'in the zone' so to speak."

Prospect Odelia Ben Ephraim (4-2) gives a play-by-play of how she enters an alpha state, "The last moments before a fight, I think about what my coach told me during the warm-up. I focus on his words and I feel very calm and focused. I repeat the words in my head again and again.

"When I enter the ring I don't actually have concrete thoughts," she says. "I'm very focused, and I concentrate on my breathing. I think about all the stress and pressure that goes down during the last hours before a fight, until the last moment. When the referee gives instructions, there's just a big calm in my head, the calm before the storm!"

For Dmitriy Salita (35-2), a retired boxer who is now a successful promoter, what he was thinking depended on his physical condition. "Ideally, you're thinking about the next five seconds. You recognize voices from the gym you're accustomed to. You tell yourself, 'Time to take care of business.'" Salita says.

But when he over-trained, Salita admits, "My mind runs. I think, 'Many people are watching me. Did this guy get a seat?'" Those same thoughts also make Salita a good promoter.

Ultimately, when the referee gives the final instructions, it's a chance for the fighters to control their thoughts and enter into the zone. It marks the line that divides the pre-fight activities from battle.

Part of standing in center ring just before the fight involves the final stare-down. The boxers interviewed had very different interpretations of the importance of the practice. Although at times it seemed as if they were directly responding to one another, the boxers interviewed were not told what others had said.

Yuri Foreman says he doesn't try to stare down an opponent. He has blurred vision while looking at his opponent and just stays in his own head.

Odelia Ben Ephraim explains, "I always make eye contact with my opponent, and I focus on not looking down, the eye of the tiger!" She feels it's important to look the opponent in the eye out of respect and to honor tradition. "It's like looking in a mirror. My opponent and I had the same preparation, the same struggles getting ready for this fight- more or less of course. But it takes the same courage to step up into the ring for both of us, and for me, looking into her eyes is a sign of respect. It's also an old boxing tradition, and it's the moment when the fight starts for real."

Merhav Mohar always aimed to intimidate his opponents. He contends, "From my experience, those last moments before the fight in center ring, I would stare down my opponent as hard as possible, and if he would break eye contact to look at the referee or his instructions, I would take that as a sign of my victory. I know what’s a low blow and to obey the referee, so there was no need to focus on him or what he says. I would look for any weakness or doubt my opponent would show."

David Alaverdian, who was interviewed many months before Mohar, vehemently disagrees. Alaverdian stares at his opponent, but he's not consciously trying to look him in the eye. He's not trying to intimidate his opponent. He argues "I don't believe in that. Some people think if the other guy looks down, you broke him. That's bullshit."

Shawn Sarembock feels attempting to intimidate the opponent is important. Sarembock also uses the stare-down for strategic purposes. "I give them a once-over to see where the cup is, so I know where I can work the body, " he says. "I also check to see if the opponent's body is soft."

Dmitriy Salita and Cletus Seldin had the exact same reason to reach the exact opposite conclusion.  Salita says, "People judged me and felt I was an easy fight based on the way I looked. I did try to stare down my opponent. The stare-down is important."

Conversely, Seldin explains, "I never once thought 'Let's win the fight off intimidation.' I always pictured them thinking, 'There's no way I'm losing to a white Jewish kid from Long Island,' so to me it never felt worth trying."

There's no right or wrong answer. Whether there's any value in trying to intimidate the opponent is simply a matter of opinion. Ultimately, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If fighters believe the stare-down is unimportant, it won't matter to them. For fighters who give the stare-down significance, it can serve as an extra source of confidence, assuming the interaction goes the fighter's way. Regardless, there is no one way to become focused for battle.

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