Boxing – the sporting meta-metaphor

19 May 2016 | By Sign Salad

We are all in for a busy summer. A summer of competitors, up against the ropes, letting their guard down, and looking to land a knock out punch. A summer of victors, saved by the bell, and vanquished foes punch-drunk and out for the count.

We are all in for a busy summer of boxing.

boxing fresco

Fresco depicting boxing, c.1650 BCE

Beating seven bells out of our fellow man has been the primary occupation of humankind from long before the sport of boxing was codified, but, as a descendent of primitive combat, boxing perhaps best represents the true nature of the human competitive spirit. Boxing seems to have an unusual amount of cultural traction, boxing films are the only sports based films to have been awarded the Oscar for Best Picture for instance, (doing so twice with Rocky in 1976, and Million Dollar Baby in 2004). While figures like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, dominated the 20th century sporting landscape. These examples are insignificant however, in the light of the far subtler way that boxing has suffused itself throughout contemporary popular culture. Politics, sport, competition. All these fields can be, and are unified under the metaphor of boxing, and this summer as they vie for your attention, the gloves are off.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that various ‘conceptual metaphors’ shape the way we perceive the world, and subtly effect our behaviour. One example of this is the way in which we consider finance spatially, for instance:

“Prices are rising

The economy is shrinking

Inflation has reached a twelve year high

 These metaphorical expressions encourage us to think of money as something to be accumulated, a collection to be built and guarded jealously. The money itself has spatial value, beyond simply being an empty symbol exchanged for goods.

Similarly, the metaphor ‘Life is a Journey’ occurs in many works of art, from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and Homer’s Odyssey, to Winger’s Headed for a Heartbreak, and the 2004 teen comedy Eurotrip.

How then, does boxing work as such a metaphor? Let us consider a few examples:

Liverpool let their guard down and Dortmund struck

The gloves are off in this campaign

Andy Murray is really on the ropes in this match

Maria Sharapova tries to fight her corner

Arsenal look out for the count

The red team have thrown in the towel

This is squaring up to be one hell of a match

Leicester are saved by the bell

Barcelona are the real heavy weights of the competition

Spurs are looking to land a knock out blow

Jessica Ennis-Hill has taken it on the chin

They’re looking to land one more telling blow

Stuart weighed in with his opinion

Two great counterpunching sides for this contest

That’s a real low blow for her campaign

As we can see, both the offensive and defensive principles of boxing are utilised as general metaphors for corresponding strategies in sports, debate, and competitive endeavour. Additionally a number of specific items of boxing equipment (bells, gloves, ropes, belt etc.) are referenced and their roles used to explain similar non-boxing situations. It is clear that the historic nature of boxing, along with its simple two party set up has made it an ideal vehicle for the explanation of more complex phenomena occurring in more involved and novel sporting and competitive contexts.


In this sense, boxing serves as a general ‘master metaphor’ for competitive endeavour, that is deeply embedded in the discourse surrounding various sports and political debates. What’s more, the use of boxing as a master metaphor imparts a number of subtly violent connotations on to these endeavours. Consider for example the way in which we talk of a victor ‘beating’ an opponent.

The verb ‘to beat’ is derived from the Old English “beatan”, literally meaning to “inflict blows upon”, or “thrash”. In this way the violent and warlike tendencies of mankind historically are subtly maintained through our language use, in a number of seemingly innocent competitive contexts.

The use of boxing as a metaphor for competition is not in and of itself problematic, but if a brand engages with sport in a certain context, the violence implicit in the language can come to the fore, potentially leading to negative connotations for the brand in question. For this reason, it is always worth taking a closer look at the metaphors we use in our daily lives, they may have more associations, and carry hidden meanings, beyond those we intend.

If you can think of any more examples of boxing metaphors in sport, let us know in the comments section below.


  1. Mark Johnson
    Posted 20 May 2016 at 9.42 am | Permalink

    Nice to see you quoting another of my works Alex. Though I can barely recall writing it!

  2. Posted 26 September 2016 at 1.58 am | Permalink

    On a spectrum nascent in contrary positions expressed in convivial argument, through competition and sport, right through to the blood-letting of belligerent pugilism (or for that matter – armed conflict), it should be no surprise that base violence weaves its way into popular and commercial narratives at all scales. That it exists there, or that it is in use (both formally and informally) as a source for metaphors and idioms, is fairly well established.

    If the concepts of dissonance, discord, conflict and subsequent victory (i.e. success) are of any actual, practicable use or benefit in the construction and communication of effective vocabularies and conceptual or visual spaces through which to influence or sway opinion, it is likely that the deployed narratives should have to mirror or at least reference conflict and struggle in some way. It may not be that a carefully crafted script or storyboard should have to directly capture and reflect the literal progress of conflict or competition through to resolution, nor that the simplest or most direct language or metaphor should necessarily always be used with which to build target affinity to cultural or social norms of struggle, achievement and happy denouement.

    Indirect and subtle vocabularies of influence may themselves be constrained by the perceived or actual limitations or biases of a target audience (which itself represents a conflict for the creative agency to successfully resolve). Metaphor can work on multiple levels simultaneously and in the context of larger projects it would be beneficial to run synchronous, parallel threads of metaphorical conflict, solution, resolution. Threads of narrative activity or influence can be run at varying degrees of sophistication and directed towards an array of subjective “receptors” and cultural or clique dynamics of target audiences.

    Simply put: create a narrative dissonance, provide a way to resolve this dissonance, insert the subjective agent (target audience) at the nexus of choice, provide a friendly prodding towards what is the preferred resolution for the client-base. Further advice may include phrasing choices as literal questions; potentially unpalatable choices are made more attactive when at least an illusion of self-determination is provided. The use of physical references to struggle or conflict exist on a continuum which include the psychological affectations of comedy, subtle matters of colour or spatial dimensionality and their innate psychological impact(s), tonal discord and the associated logics of musical progression, and (among many others) representations of or allusions to brute physical conflict.

    Regards & Shadow-boxing from the Antipodes,

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