KO'ing & Killing: The Parallels of Boxing and Comedy
Today’s guest post is brought to you by a good friend of mine, Cam F. Awesome. Yes, that is his legal name. Cam heavyweight boxer, public speaker, comedian, and vegan. He is the most decorated American Heavyweight Boxer of all time (4x USA National Champion, 3X National Golden Glove Champion, 3X National PAL Champion, 5X Ringside World Champion, and 2012 and 2016 Olympic Trials Champion). In this post, he talks about the similarities between boxing and comedy. Follow him on twitter @CamFAwesome and visit his site http://www.celebritysportsspeaker.com/.
People are usually perplexed when they find out that I am a boxer, comedian, and keynote speaker. I don’t claim to be one of the best in the world at 2/3 of those things, but I strive to be. I have aspirations of my accomplishment as a speaker and a comedian overshadowing my decorated boxing career.
I don’t hold myself in the one-dimensional box that many people put a boxer in to. I will not limit the challenges I face to societal expectation. It’s odd for some to think of boxing as an art. “I’m an artist, the ring’s canvas is my canvas”-2010 Cam.
I believe that keynote speaking is storytelling with a positive perspective and comedy is storytelling with a humorous perspective. They have more in common with boxing than one might think. I can go with the cliche ‘punches and punchlines’ deal, but I can’t claim to be entertaining and then throw that hack out there. I’m better than that. Or at least I’d like to think so.
Even comedians that do self-deprecating jokes must tell them with a certain level of confidence so they get laughs instead of that sound a crowd makes when they feel bad for the comic. You cannot timidly get on a stage. You need to capture a crowd within the first 30 seconds.
If you don’t, it’s almost impossible to leave victorious. If a crowd smells fear, you cannot control them. A comedian must take the crowd into a specific direction before landing a punchline of misdirection. Do this many times in a set and you’ll “Kill”
A boxer must be confident enough to know they can win, but not confident enough to think they could without being 100% prepared. You cannot timidly get in a ring.
You need to get respect from your opponent within the first 30 seconds. If you don’t, it’s almost impossible to leave a victorious. There’s nothing like the smell of fear in boxing. Your opponent can’t smell fear on you. Fear to a boxer is like blood to a shark. If he smells fear, you can’t win.
Boxing is a chess game of movements. If I can make you move to your left, I know what punches your body is capable of throwing while moving to your left. I will execute my movements to neutralize your movements and with that, I can control you. It’s the punch that you don’t see coming that hurts you. This punch is usually the “Knockout punch”.
I’ve learned through trial and error that you must be able to read a crowd. The problem is, the crowd in every show is different, but there are consistent signs.
I know that if I’m in a white rural town in the Midwest, I likely can’t get away with religious jokes. If I’m performing in front of a crowd of business folks mostly over 40, they won’t catch references to the teen pop culture of Snapchat jokes. If I’m performing in SLC, Utah, I’ll keep my Wu-Tang jokes out of the set list. You can walk the line at first with confidence to see what you can get away with but not until after you land a good joke.
PLACEMENT OF EFFORT
You have to land a joke in the very beginning to win the crowd over in the first 30 seconds, but can’t blow your load in the very beginning. The general rule is to start with your second best joke and end with your best joke, what goes in the middle is important, but not as much as the start and the finish.
In boxing, to win a round, you must start strong and also end the round strong. What happens in the middle is important, but not as important as what goes on at the beginning and end. The timing and placement of effort is important in both.
In boxing, the more you do the same constant movement, the more developed is your muscle memory. This is important because you’re required to make quick movements in response to your opponents subtle movements. You practice these movements via shadow boxing and sparring.
In comedy, the more you tell that same joke, the more unexpected occurrences you’re prepared for. When someone in the audience yells something out you’ve heard before, you already know the best response. And once you throw that response out there with great comeback timing, the crowd appreciates this. Unfortunately, “shadow joking” isn’t a thing. Open mics are comedy’s version of sparring.
PREPARING FOR THE REAL THING
Open mics are especially difficult because they are usually done at hole-in-the-wall bars in front of comedians who don’t care about listening to your set. They are just having a drink and waiting for their turn to perform.
Weirdly, the worse the room, the deeper it makes you dig to pull off a good set. If you do a show at a bar having an open mic, most of the patrons are there to talk and drink and no one will pay you much mind. At best, you’re background noise. At worst, you’re an annoyance. If you can pull out a good set at one of these spots, it makes it easier for you at an actual comedy show with a crowd who came to laugh.
Boxing is similar to this, in that the harder the person you spar to prepare, the more you learn and the deeper you have to dig to get a performance your proud of. If you’re sparring guys with less experience than you, you won’t learn much. For big championship fights, coaches will bring in top guys from all over the country to spar. Most of the time they choose sparring partners with the same fighting style as their opponent.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH BETTER
In boxing, you want to surround yourself with boxers that are either better than you, more experienced than you, stronger than you, or work harder than you. This pushes you to be better to keep up with them. Accountability is a big part of the craft. No one wants to be the weakest boxer in the group. It’s a constant competitive push against your peers.
In comedy, you need to hang out with comedians who are wittier, funnier and work harder than you. This accountability pushes you to become a better comedian. No one wants to be the dude with the least jokes or stage time. It’s a constant competitive push with your peers. As the cliché goes, “Steel sharpens steel”.
WORKING ON THE SAME WEAPON
You can box for 20 years and still have room to improve your jab. It can always be faster, more explosive, and more accurate. It’s a very much needed monotony that can drive you crazy. It’s boring repeating the same thing but it gets closer to perfection. The closer to perfection it gets, the more magical it becomes.
The same goes with stand up. You repeat the same joke over and over at shows and it will always get better. You’ll add things and take things away, always improving the original. What may start as a good 15-minute joke ends up being a great 90-second joke.
Once you strip it down and perform it over and over, you find a tagline to add and it grows to a 5-minute joke. Or it may become a completely different joke going in a different direction after 50 times performing it on stage and at open mics.
Returning to popular cliché, Bruce Lee once said, “Add what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own”.
THE WORST CASE SCENARIO
It’s no question what the worst case scenario is in boxing. We train to do it to an opponent. We also train for our opponent to not do it to use. The place for this to happen to prepare for it is sparring but it occasionally happens when you’re under those lights and in front of a crowd.
You get hit with that shot you don’t see and you’re waking up in the locker room. It’s a badge of honor in MMA but it’s shameful in boxing. Being knocked out is the worst case scenario.
Today is different than years ago. Today if you get knocked out, you may go viral before you even fully regain consciousness. You could easily be made some sort of clever meme. The only thing that can make the situation better is to re-enter the ring and knock someone else out.
It’s tough to climb back through those ropes with the confidence you need to win, not letting your opponent smell fear after being escorted out from the bottom of the ropes like a WWE wrestler. When you do enter the ring, you have to do so with confidence and not let the crowd smell fear.
The worst case scenario in comedy is bombing. Getting on the stage, and not winning them over in the first 30 seconds will make you desperate for their approval. This will make a non-experienced comedian rush through the set-up of his next joke to get the crowd on his side, but that usually makes things worse. Then you tell a joke without reading the crowd and if that joke doesn’t go over, your worst fear comes true. You’ve officially bombed.
It’s painfully awkward standing on stage knowing the crowd doesn’t want you there. Then the crowd can sense you don’t want to be there. Then they smell fear. It’s a slippery slope in the first 30 seconds. But if you are supposed to do a 30-minute set, you have to stay up there because the comics are on a schedule and the next comedian may not be ready.
I have bombed on many occasions. When you bomb, the only thing to make it better is to get back on stage next time and kill as fast as you can. But bombing will make you unsure of your ability. Unsure or not, you have to enter that stage with confidence and not let the crowd smell fear