“I was jiggling my shoulders as I shadowboxed, trying to get that rhythm flowing through my arms and legs… in the minutes before I would box, I was searching for that rhythm. In some of the bootleg shows there had been a band playing between the bouts, and that music would be blaring as I came into the ring. I always wished they had continued to play while I was boxing. I think I would’ve boxed better.
Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.
Your rhythm should set the pace of the fight. If it does, then you penetrate your opponent’s rhythm. You make him fight your fight, and that’s what boxing is all about. In the dressing room that night I could feel my rhythm beginning to move through me, and it assured me that everything would be alright.”
Sugar Ray Robinson, reflecting in his autobiography Sugar Ray. Pictured above: Robinson walking on Ali’s right.
You’ll also find this quote in Robert O’Meally’s The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, which features the following observation from Max Roach stuck right in front of it.
Interviewer: Do you think boxing is comparable to music?
Max Roach: I think it is a definitive skill that’s been raised to the level of an art form by black fighters. It’s not just beating somebody, but is as highly-developed as fencing or tennis. Rhythm has something to do with timing.
Where, when, and how to slip punches is all rhythmic. Setting up somebody is done rhythmically. I know quite a few boxers who make a point of having something to do with a percussion instrument. Sugar Ray Robinson and Johnny Bratton both played the drums. Quite a few fighters got involved in music so they could develop the kind of coordination that was required. Dancing has a lot to do with good boxing too because it’s very rhythmic. The same is true of baseball, and you could see it in Jim Brown’s running when he was playing football. The way he could slip tacklers came from a keen rhythmic sense, as did the knowledge of when to take a breath and when to make a phrase, so to speak.
Photo credit: Neil Leifer