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Fighting words

by Mellissa Martinez

Last week I tuned into the heavily-promoted boxing match between retired world champion Floyd Mayweather and feisty, Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor. Although not a boxing enthusiast, I was intrigued by the odd pairing. Even so, I went into the experience expecting to peek between my fingers and wince with every blow.

I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the style of each athlete and, more importantly, by the announcer’s blow-by-blow description of the fight, which revealed the true origin of many common idiomatic phrases. As he praised Mayweather for his skillful bobbing and weaving, admired each athlete’s ability to roll with the punches, and criticized McGregor for hitting below the belt, I marveled at how many times I had used these expressions without really considering where they came from.

Initially, descriptions of boxing predicaments and conundrums were limited to the small group of spectators who were able to view the matches. The emergence of sports journalism in the early 1900s, however, spread these sports-themed expressions to a wider audience.

By the mid century, even non-fans were using boxing lingo; up against the ropes, in your corner, low blow, lead with the chin, down for the count, and saved by the bell took on linguistic lives of their own.

‘Knockout’ was first used in the late-1800s to describe a boxer who had been stunned by a blow for longer than a 10-second count. The original longer version was to knock out of time. Roughly a decade later, the expression came to describe a beautiful person. In other words, someone’s beauty is so powerful, it stuns those who see it.

Later, in 1936, people began saying knock yourself out to a person making a considerable effort (to the point of exhaustion). This eventually morphed into a more sarcastic (or dismissive) way to give permission as if to say “exhaust yourself for all I care (knock yourself out!)”

Occasionally someone from a boxer’s corner will admit defeat by tossing a towel into the center of the ring. According to Oxford Dictionary, the practice of throwing something into the ring to end a match goes back at least to the mid-1800s, but the expression throwing in the towel didn’t become popular until the following century. The opposite occurred in amateur boxing when a hat was thrown into the ring. This was a way for a member of the crowd to accept the challenge of a match. Nowadays it’s often politicians who throw their hats in the ring to accept the challenge of running for office. 

There was one expression that was exuberantly shouted at the end of the Mayweather-McGregor match, which left a lot of people in a state of shock. A smiling (yet defeated) McGregor shouted over the reporters at Mayweather “I turned you into a Mexican tonight.” Did McGregor deliver a low blow to an entire nation on live television? According to all available sources, the comment was intended as the exact opposite—a compliment.

According to one blogger, “branding a fighter as a Mexican is universally considered high praise.” Mexican boxers are apparently known for their rugged, aggressive, no-nonsense tactics. And, clearly McGregor is known for telling it like he sees it or, as some might say, he doesn’t pull any punches. 

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