The Art of Boxing: The Masterpiece

The Arts

Boxer at Rest detailed view The Met The Mantle


A pacifist at heart, I tend to shy away from violent sports: mixed martial arts is a complete turnoff for me and boxing ranks only slightly higher. And knowing that with each blow a man's mind is made less capable, even American football bothers me. I can't stand to watch humans attempt to destroy each other for sport. So why am I even bothering with writing about the Art of Boxing? For one, I thought approaching the sport through an artistic path would help me learn to appreciate one of humanity's oldest sports (so far, no dice). Also, the amount of art with boxing themes is finite—there is a lot of work out there, for sure, but the scope is much more narrow than studying, say, themes with religion, war, fashion, etc. In short: the Art of Boxing is a manageable challenge.


When I started this series, I certainly didn't expect to be blown away by any work of art related to boxing, let alone a bronze statue over 2,000 years old. But it happened. The Boxer at Rest, an exceptional bronze statue most likely from the late fourth century BCE to the second century BCE, was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art June 1 - July 15, 2013. This weary pugilist—I can't resist—knocked me out.


The Boxer at Rest is depicted sitting on a boulder, having just finished a bout. Something makes him turn his head—an adoring fan, perhaps, calling his name. Nearly naked, the boxer wears only gloves and a type of athletic jock that was both protective and decorative.

Boxer at Rest The Met The Mantle

A remarkable photograph accompanying the exhibition shows the boxer as it was found. Buried sans boulder or pedestal, the boxer rests on his rump and waits. According to literature provided by The Met, "the Boxer at Rest was excavated in Rome in 1885 on the south slope of the Quirnal Hill near the ancient Baths of Constantine, where it was probably displayed. The statue was intentionally buried in late antiquity, possibly to preserve it against the barbarian invasions that ravaged Rome in the fifth century AD."

Boxer at Rest archeological find The Met The Mantle

The details make this art work a masterpiece. Just look at all of the many various wounds to his beaten head. The artist used copper inlays to indicate blood, which you can see on his forehead, nose, cheeks, ear, and lips. His nose has been broken. The ear is cauliflowered (see top image for a better view) and his lips are cracked (the bottom one swollen). Clearly this athlete has just completed a match.


A close-up of the boxer's gloves, which are really just straps of wound leather. The detail is stunning. Again, copper inlays indicate drawn blood. "A boxer's victory is gained in blood," said one ancient observer. For a wonderfully deep breakdown of the evolution of boxing gloves in the ancient world, check out this article in the Journal of Combative Sport.

Boxer at Rest closeup of hands

The boxer, even at rest, is tense. The man is a lean, mean, punching machine. You can practically see his core expand and contract as he attempts to catch his breath. 


It could very well be that the Boxer at Rest was a lucky talisman for boxers entering the ring. Here we can see the top of his foot and his toes are worn, likely from frequent touching.

Boxer at Rest detail of foot The Met The Mantle




Dazed and confused after having spent so much time with the Boxer at Rest, I headed deep into the bowels of The Met to take in some unrelated art. Or so I thought. Around one random corner I came across a small statue with a very similar pose:The Freedman sculptureThis piece was inspired by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Like the Boxer at Rest, The Freedman is nearly nude and extremely muscular. The broken shackles are even similar, at least at the wrists, to the boxer's gloves. Above all, what is obvious is that classic pose is a classic pose, be it a boxer from ancient Rome or 1860s America. 



This is the fourth in a series on the "art of boxing."

Art of Boxing, Museum