Athletes, coaches showcase respect in combat sports ahead of iconic boxer Muhammad Ali’s 80th birthday on Jan. 17

Austin Guo

Boxer and junior aastha Sharma begins every match and sparring session she participates in by bumping gloves with her opponent or partner as a sign of respect.

“What I love is before a match or sparring session begins, what you do to start is tapping the other person’s fist,” Sharma said. “You tap their fist to let your partner know you’re ready to begin and they let you know they’re ready to begin.”

This gesture of respect with an opponent may seem slightly out of place, especially in combat sports, where many of the most popular athletes have cultivated their image and popularity through brashness and trash-talk. Fighters like Conor McGregor and Muhammad Ali, whose 80th birthday was on Monday, have both become icons of their sports through not only their exceptional skill, but also the withering trash-talk they’ve directed at opponents throughout their careers. However, according to Alex Zavaleta, taekwondo teacher and senior, there is actually much more respect in combat sports than many see. 

Zavaleta said, “A lot of people think it’s just anger-based where people are just beasts and savages on the inside, but (fighting) is more of a display of respect for one another because you’re putting yourself in that position to allow yourself to be hurt and allow yourself to hurt someone else. It’s a very big showing of mutual respect. Although both of you will be hurt, it will only be to benefit you as an experience to build camaraderie.” 

In fact, Zavaleta said trash-talk is completely absent from taekwondo competitions.

Zavaleta said, “There is no disrespect. That’s just something that’s predetermined. It’s completely frowned upon to do that because there is that mutual respect. You’re putting your body through that and the other person is putting their body through that. So why trash talk?”

Because of the risk posed by fighting in boxing, Sharma said respect also exists between sparring partners in a gym, with each fighter considering and respecting the other’s skill level and goals.

“Normally, my coach finds someone who is at an upper level and I spar with them once in a while. It’s good for them to learn their defense and of course they go easier on me because I’m a beginner,” Sharma said. “There’s definitely some respect between you and your combat partner. Whenever we’re sparring, my partner always takes into consideration what level I’m at and how much I know. I take into consideration what they’re looking for as my sparring partner.”

Zavaleta said he reinforces respect among his students during taekwondo classes through polite gestures.

“With respect, I have them bow to each other and call each other ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ These kids are in third grade and they’re saying ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Yes, ma’am’ to each other and that’s not something you see much,” Zavaleta said.

Even in professional boxing, where boxers often publicly exchange disrespectful remarks before, during and sometimes after fights, that mutual respect exists. Suzana Rodriguez-Griffin, boxing coach at SRG Boxing n Personal Training, said boxers often acknowledge the heart and skill of their opponents after fights, using the example of the Nov. 6, 2021 boxing match between Canelo Alvarez and Caleb Plant.

“In the prelude to the fight in the press conference when Plant said something about his mom, that’s when you see the shoving. That’s where that hype before a fight is good for ticket sales. That’s the business side of the thing,” Rodriguez-Griffin said. “But at the end of the fight, when Canelo won, he gave props to his opponent Caleb Plant and said ‘I have a lot of respect for him as a fighter,’  … (Alvarez) gave him props because he did acknowledge the fact that Caleb Plant had skills. He went 11 rounds with him.”

Boxing trainer Suzana Rodriguez-Griffin (right) speaks to a boxer between rounds at a boxing match. Rodriguez-Griffin said she personally does not trash talk when boxing others, as to her, trash talk is besides the point of boxing. (Suzana Rodriguez-Griffin Submitted Photo)

Rodriguez-Griffin said the role of respect vs. trash-talk in combat often depends on the personal beliefs, goals, and culture of the fighter, contrasting Alvarez with Jake Paul, a YouTube personality and boxer.

“(Alvarez) did not put a semicolon to that and tell Plant, ‘But you’re crazy thinking you’re going to whoop my butt because you knew better than that.’ He could have added that jerk action to it but he did not. I think it really depends on how you were raised,” Rodriguez-Griffin said. “(Jake Paul) would have put that semicolon in there and he would have added more fuel to the flame than what was necessary. But they’re also different ages and have different intentions. Jake Paul is looking for more attention on social media, so for him, that semicolon is absolutely what he’s going to throw out because he wants more followers.”

Personally, Rodriguez-Griffin said she in general avoids disrespecting her opponents through trash-talk simply because she sees it as unnecessary.

“I am 37 years old and for me, talk is just talk. I have no plans to trash-talk my opponent because at the end of the day, none of those words mean anything except for what happens inside of those ropes. You could be somebody completely different the day before your fight, but what happens in those moments of your fight is all that matters the most.”

Overall, Zavaleta said he regards trash-talk as not only unnecessary, but ultimately counterproductive in combat sports compared to respect.

Zavaleta said, “If you are putting down someone else for their abilities, that’s the line (between confidence and arrogance). You can be confident all you want. You can exude this confidence however you like. But as soon as you start harming others’ self-esteem or others’ self-perception, that’s when it becomes an issue. Not only are you harming their self-worth, but you’re also preventing them from building a relationship with the martial art.”