BBC Radio 4:Professor Robert Beckford - 26/08/17

What makes tonight’s fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor such a spectacle is not the enormous sums of money each fighter is expected to earn, nor the fractious build-up to the event, but the fact that Mayweather, a boxer, is fighting McGregor, a martial art expert. This unusual match-up is the first of its kind, and consequently there is much at stake for the fighter’s egos, and the future of their respective sports.

The New Testament make positive use of boxing imagery, but has less say of the meaning of competition. The apostle Paul travelled widely, and was familiar with Greek sporting culture. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he compares the training of a boxer with the discipline required to be a Christian.

“I do not fight if I were shadowboxing, No! I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”

By underscoring the discipline, and single-mindedness of the athlete, Paul is seeking to impress upon his readers the qualities required for the spiritual life. Later, he compares spiritual discipline with athletic prowess in his letter to Timothy. But this time, Paul emphasises the superiority of spiritual training over physical competition.

“Train yourself for devotion but while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect.”

But perhaps we shouldn’t separate them entirely, for the two practices can be deeply inter-twined. For some, competition is spiritual when it is about mutual benefit; striving to improve both oneself and one’s opponent. In this case, the mantra is, ‘it is not the winning that counts but how you take part.” For others, to win for oneself - when approached with a spirit of humility and placed squarely within the rules of the game – can be an expression of spirituality. In other words, “you win fair and square.” In both cases a deep spirituality rejects a win at all cost mentality.

I don’t think Paul would condone the braggadocios displays of machismo leading up to tonight’s fight, the fight purse of one hundred million dollars or the win at all costs language used by both camps. But I do think he would appreciate the personal discipline of each fighter, and the sacrifice they have made to be ready for tonight’s contest.