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VR allows the dancing side of boxing to come to life

A workout with The Thrill of the Fight.

I’m fairly sure I became fascinated with boxing due to Muhammad Ali. He moved like no one I’ve ever seen, skipping gracefully around the ring, darting in and out with feints like a fencer, sometimes slapping gloves together as if clapping. ‘Dancing’, is what Ali called it.

I studied a traditional martial art through most of my youth. My parents were obliging enough to allow me to turn our tiny garage into a sort of gym, where I had a huge heavy bag bolted to the wall (the bolt would creak when the bag was punched or kicked too hard), a speed bag on the opposite wall, and a floor-to-ceiling ball in the middle of the room that was missing the floor connection, and so just swung around like a black pendulum.

Even outside the garage and my martial arts classes I would continue to practice. For years now I have especially loved shadowboxing; that’s where I most perceive the beauty of boxing, the dancing. I often practice sidesteps, pivots, ducking, blocking and parrying, rolling and countering, most of which is me trying to mimic what I’ve seen boxers do rather than something that I was taught. (Akin to the character Powder from Arcane, watching her sister throw fast combinations and then trying to awkwardly emulate her movements.)

Cover image for YouTube videoFight Night Champion Trailer #2
Fight Night Champion

I’ve never actually been to a boxing gym before to try training, but if I did, it would probably be a situation like a scene in Billy Elliott (a film about dancing as a route to self-expression, as both critics and the director have noted), where Billy is mainly interested in bounding around the ring and is promptly knocked down by his opponent. Bruce Lee — who loved boxing, and was a cha-cha champion in Hong Kong — spoke about martial arts as being essentially about self-expression too, and I think this is what I begin to feel when shadowboxing.

Why did I never step into the ring? Mostly due to the awful case of brain damage that is inherent to the sport. People have been killed in the ring. It’s a fact that makes it difficult just to watch or write about boxing. The writer Davis Miller, whose thoughts on the sport seem similar to my own (and who found his own form of self-expression through martial arts and boxing), stopped writing articles that celebrated boxing entirely not long after watching Sugar Ray Leonard being battered near the end of his career, and seeing how uncaring other people seemed about it.

My relationship with boxing is thus a complicated one, but the aforementioned issue of danger is obviously not a concern when it comes to boxing in videogames. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent playing the Fight Night games, going through the career modes over and over, all the while trying to explore my aesthetic ideal of defence. One thing that always bothered me and other players, though, was the approach to footwork; the characters almost always moved as if speed and grace were outlawed. While I loved the upper body flexibility you could show off, stepping around the ring felt curiously awkward when recalling the deftness of Ali, Willie Pep (whose motto was essentially to hit and run away), and Pernell Whitaker.

As many know, the Fight Night series hasn’t produced a new game in years — a recent report implies that a new one is coming, but is still at a very early stage. (Another big boxing game on the horizon, eSports Boxing Club, still doesn’t have a release date.) I assumed that the next time I enjoyed a boxing game, it would be one of these two upcoming works. There is a saying in boxing, though — the punch you don’t see coming hits you the hardest. In my case this happened when my uncle kindly lent me VR equipment and I tried out the boxing game on it named The Thrill of the Fight. This is how it feels:

Cover image for YouTube videoThe Thrill of the Fight | Oculus Quest + Rift Platform
The Thrill of the Fight.

I’m standing in the corner of the ring, looking down at my red gloves. My opponent (computer controlled) is waiting in his own corner, and the referee gives a few brief instructions as I walk around, stretching my arms a little, shifting my head from side to side, making sure that the VR headset is strapped on correctly. The bell rings. I’m not stuck trudging around the ring as an avatar controlled with an analog stick; I can skip, and shuffle my feet, dart in and out. I move however I want, as long as I stay within the boundary that I’ve set up for the game. Sometimes I emulate Vasiliy Lomachenko (who had dance classes to help with his boxing footwork) by using his trick of sliding around the opponent’s side and hitting them from a different angle. At other times I use a right hand lead before darting away to the side, like Roy Jones Jr. I’ll block incoming punches with crossed arms like George Foreman, or simply drop my hands and lean away from attacks like Prince Naseem. I enjoy quickly squatting under my opponent’s punches like Whitaker, before pivoting away and getting out of range with a few jabs. I’ll always switch stances, between orthodox (left foot forward) and southpaw (right foot forward). Sometimes when I’ve had an exhausting round I’ll stumble to my (real) chair and sit down for the one minute break, just as a boxer would on their stool, and I’ll feel my heart thrumming and sweat forming on my forehead. When I finish playing for the night I’ll have thrown at least five hundred punches, if the stats on the game are correct.

I come up against one computer opponent that is significantly bigger than I am, and my usual cross arm blocks aren’t working well — I keep getting hit with hard hooks. I start my dancing, dropping my hands, springing around, leaning left and right, and suddenly I’m not getting hit anymore. The opponent seems confused, and I’m landing my own accurate flurries. It’s a great feeling, but after only a little while I tire and have to stay still again, breathing hard. The opponent pressures me again and knocks me down (represented in the game with things suddenly going black, before I automatically get up). At the end of the match, the referee announces it’s a draw, despite me outlanding the opponent by a large amount. It’s frustrating, moving and punching and sweating for just under ten minutes and be foiled by one moment. It’s true to reality, but when it occurs in reality it can be heartbreaking rather than a small irritation. Herol Graham (so defensively accomplished that Chris Eubank decided he would never fight him) was winning a world championship match until he was caught with one shot and knocked out. He was never able to become a world champion, but people still remember him fondly for his agile moves in the ring.

I never predicted that virtual reality would give me the chance to use my dancey, faux boxing in a game, the kind of style that can’t really be done in something like Fight Night. It’s made me reconsider my reluctance to get into VR games as a whole, due to the dazzling potential for self-expression that the technology can give players. I used to wonder if I would ever find a game with mechanics that could tap into the kind of fighting style that I love; the answer, ultimately, is that the game just needed to give me the freedom to try and express it myself.