Shortly after the alleged perpetrators of the boston marathon bombing were identified as two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, images appeared in the media of the elder brother sparring at the high-regarded fight gym Wai Kru. Thereafter Tamerlan has been repeatedly and falsely identified in the media as having trained in MMA.
There is an unfortunate pattern in the media of identifying anyone who runs afoul of the law as a mixed martial arts "cagefighter" if they have had as little as a single amateur fight. People who have completed a single road race are not indentified as a runner, but journalists cannot overcome the lurid pull of identifying a suspect in a crime as a menacing cagefighter.
In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he was solely a boxer, and went to Wai Kru infrequently to spar.
Tsarnaev trained as an amateur boxer competing for Sommervile Boxing Club, winning the New England Golden Gloves in 2009 and 2010, and representing the region at the nationals in 2009 at 201 lbs. He had expressed aspirations of turning pro.
Tsarnaev winning the 2010 New England Golden Gloves.
It would not be unfair for Tamerlan to be identified as a boxer in the media. However, to infer or suggest that boxing played a role his crimes is ludicrous. CNN for example irresponsively speculated that his participation in amateur boxing may have played a role in his despicable and cowardly crimes, despite no evidence that amateur boxing does in fact cause brain damage, or, of course, that Tsarnaev suffered any.
In fact, Tamerlan's apparent radicalization times precisely and no coincidentally with his leaving boxing.
Tsarnaev went back to Wai Kru for the first time in years just weeks before the bombing, and his behavior was so bizarre, so unlike the required the comportment in a fight gym, that he was thrown out.
It should be noted as well that Tsarnaev was ejected from his Cambridge, Massachusetts mosque three months ago for irreligeous behavior.
Fighting reveals in ways no other human activity can who you really are.
"I die shitting in my pants like everybody else," MMA legend Renzo Gracie explains, adding "...but knowing who I was, knowing truly who I was." And that is one of the keys to a life lived properly - know who you are, and know what you are doing.
Noted boxing trainer Eddie Bishop was familiar with Tsarnaev from his participation in the Golden Gloves, and describes him as having a big punch, but added that if he couldn't take his opponent out, he crumbled, "because he didn't have any heart."
That is who he was, repulsive, evil, and a coward.
As Sacha Feinman explains in a compellng piece in the LA Times, boxing isn't to blame.
As details have begun to flow about the lives of the Tsarnaev brothers, the media and the public have seized on some obvious bullet points: that the perpetrators were Muslims; that they were of Chechen descent; that they seemed alienated. There's one detail about the life of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, though, that I hope doesn't get blamed for his later actions.
Tamerlan trained as a boxer, sometimes at a local fight gym called Wai Kru. I trained at Wai Kru too.
I started in boxing and mixed martial arts years ago, and have spent countless hours at gyms in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Washington, New York and in Boston, where I'm a grad student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I know there are people who see this kind of organized fighting as barbaric and senselessly violent.
But time and again I have come into contact with former convicts and juvenile delinquents who say that if it weren't for the home provided by the gym, and the self-discipline it teaches, they would be incapable of staying on the right side of the law.
I've come to see training in combat sports as a form of therapy, wherein people who are deeply and particularly damaged find effective treatment. Fighters internalize with their own bodies the consequences of trauma, violence and pain; they train with friends and teammates whom they care deeply about, realizing in the process that destructive tendencies have a tangible impact on good people.
What is more, fighting is one of the few slices of life that is actually fair. The only hierarchy in the gym is one of proven talent. The color of your skin, the vowels in your last name, your parent's wealth, or the prestige of your alma mater don't register in the gym. All that matters is that you are willing to engage in physical and difficult work while pushing yourself and your fellow fighters in a positive and healthy manner.
The fight gym is a democratic environment where unexpected friendships are grounded in a shared and important experience. They are the exact spaces where a confused son of immigrant parents might voluntarily wander in, looking for company in a world that feels unjustly harsh and hostile. A gym, when run correctly, is not a place one goes to inflict or receive pain and suffering. It is rather a place to discover companionship in an organized environment. A good gym is a simulated pressure valve, a place for people to discover that they possess the ability to cope with stress and to learn how to use grit and determination to turn even the worst situations into opportunities.
I'm not the only one who believes this. In London, a former professional fighter, Usman Raja, uses combat sports as a means to rehabilitate former Islamic radicals, breaking his students out of their destructive ideologies and rebuilding them as responsible and competent members of society. His program is showing promising enough results that Britain's Probation Service's Central Extremism Unit, the arm of the government charged with supervising former terrorist convicts, now works directly with Raja.
Combat gyms are not symptoms of a problem; rather, they are a powerful tool for diagnosing and treating a social disease. So as every detail of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's short life is analyzed over the coming weeks, don't presume that his boxing contributed to the acts of violence he is suspected of committing. In fact, I think it's possible that if he'd spent more time at Wai Kru, any violent acts he may have committed might not have happened at all.
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Anyone with information about the brothers is encouraged to call the Boston Police Department’s tip line: 1-800-494-TIPS or the bombing task force tip line at 617-223-6610. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org
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