Should Boxers Abstain From Sex Before a Fight?
In the 1970s, boxer Richard Lord fought in the Texas Junior Olympics tournament and advanced to the finals. The morning of the championship fight, he had sex with his girlfriend. At the end of the first round of the bout, he returned to his corner and reported his legs were shot.
"I didn't have any energy," Lord admitted. "My legs weren't moving well."
His father and cornerman, Doug Lord, told him, "You look like you had sex." His son denied it and continued to fight. The bout was razor-close but Lord eked out a split decision victory.
"The other guy felt like he got robbed," Lord said. "He came to my gym three weeks later when I was training for the nationals. I just wanted to spar with him, but he was wanting to get vengeance."
They sparred four rounds and Lord dominated, knocking him down three times.
"He was easy pickings for me because I had been abstaining ever since that event happened," he explained.
Lord, who went on to enjoy a successful boxing career as a professional fighter, trainer, promoter and gym owner, said he never had sex before a fight again.
Myth or magic?
The practice of abstaining from sex before athletic competition has been around for centuries, and isn't exclusive to boxing. Historians believe it dates back to the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. However, the practice is perhaps most closely associated with combat sports, as fighters undergo intense training camps for weeks as they prepare for bouts. The belief is that having sex will drain them of the energy they need for the fight.
Depictions in popular culture have made the public very aware of this phenomenon. For instance, in the blockbuster movie "Rocky," as Rocky Balboa beats on a heavy bag, his grizzled, no-nonsense trainer Mickey tells him to stop seeing his girlfriend, yelling, "Women weaken legs!"
Jason Papillion, a former super welterweight contender who competed professionally for 18 years, said sex was prohibited at least three to four weeks before his fights, a practice maintained throughout his career.
"I was always told that sex and boxing don't mix, and I just lived by that," he said.
It's not the sex, it's the chase
When Casey Stengel, manager of the New York Yankees in the 1950s, was asked about the impact of sex on athletic performance, he replied, "The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game. It's that they stay out all night looking for it."
Donald "Tiger" Stokes, a former junior welterweight contender, echoed the sentiment.
"Sex ain't what hurts you," Stokes said. "It's all the things you're doing while you're having sex. A lot of times that involves going out, drinking, the lifestyle that comes with it."
The reason Stokes abstained while training was because he was sacrificing pleasure—not just sexual—for the fight, and he believed it made him stronger.
"You're basically giving up your normal lifestyle to dedicate yourself to your fight, so there will be no hindrances," he said. "If you're having sex and something goes wrong in that fight, you're going to find things to blame it on. If you get tired or weak, you'll say, 'It was that sex that I had.'"
Former undisputed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson may be the most famous case of a boxer blaming sex on the outcome of the fight. Tyson said his first professional loss to James "Buster" Douglas in 1990, one of the biggest upsets in sports history, was in part caused by sex with multiple women the night before.
What does the research say?
In boxing circles, there's no shortage of anecdotal evidence about the drawbacks—and in some cases, the benefits—of having sex before a fight. But what do scientific studies say about the correlation between sex and athletic performance?
According to a systematic review from 2016, the evidence suggests that sex the day before does not have any negative impact on an athlete. However, the review did find that performance could be negatively affected if there's sexual activity less than two hours prior to competition.
A randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine looked at the effect sex could have on leg strength for 12 healthy men. The researchers found sex the night before exercise had no significant effect on muscular strength.
Other research has examined the psychological effects. A study from 2000 indicated sex had no detrimental influence on the mental concentration of 15 high-level male athletes.
Britney Blair, Psy.D., a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist, researcher and avid boxing fan, said, "There's absolutely no legitimate data" that suggests abstaining from sex will improve a boxer's performance.
"If anything, I think the opposite is the case," she added. "I think it's one of those old wives' tales."
Blair noted there is data in the sports psychology field that supports being more mentally focused after sex.
"If you're having sex with your partner, physiologically you feel calm," she said. "You feel relaxed, you feel bonded, you feel attached. That feeds into your psychological well-being."
While some fighters prefer to have sex prior to their fight because it helps them relax and focus, Justin Fortune, a trainer, gym owner and former heavyweight contender, does not share this view.
"You want a fighter to be on edge," he said. "I don't want my fighter f**kin' relaxed."
Fortune follows the "old school" train of thought: He abstained when competing, and he advises his fighters to do the same. The former strength and conditioning coach to eight-division world champion Manny Pacquiao believes sex has a greater mental impact than physical, but believes in its impact all the same. He views sex as a distraction, so being deprived of it "makes you a mean son of a bitch" in the ring.
Of course, perception also plays a role.
"It's how you think about it," Stokes said. "If you think having sex makes you great, makes you feel good, boom, there it is. If you feel like having sex makes you weak, as soon as something goes left in that fight, you're gonna blame it on the sex."
'You want a fighter to be on edge. I don't want my fighter f**kin' relaxed.'
James "Buddy" McGirt, a former two-division world champion, said, "If it's instilled in your mind and, you believe it, it's going to f**k with you."
McGirt, who has trained numerous world champions, knows that not every fighter will listen to advice about abstaining from sex. He said the choice comes down to them and avoids even bringing it up to prevent any friction from disagreeing over it. However, McGirt said he can tell when they've fooled around. "They're in the gym and you look at them and they're having a rough day and look at their legs and you say, 'Uh oh, somebody did something over the weekend,' and they start laughing."
Blair, the psychologist, pointed out the power of the placebo effect is well documented in the medical literature. She said if a fighter believes down to their core that abstaining—or not—is inherent to their ability to win the fight, it's going to have an impact.
"You would never want to take somebody who truly believes that no sex works and then make them have sex or vice versa," Blair explained. "That just means that the mind is powerful, and placebo is real. It has nothing to do with whether sex has any kind of impact on your ability to win a fight."
How female trainers and fighters see it
Terri "The Boss" Moss, a former strawweight titleholder and an International Women's Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, does not think having sex during training camp is a good idea—for men or women.
"I've had some guys that said they had sex too close to a fight and it made their legs weak," she said. "I've seen some guys that [sex] just made them kind of lazy. Even though the science might be changing, what it boils down to is people are a lot less driven to do what other people tell them in their lives, period."
Regardless of the actual physical effect, Moss believes what most pros seem to—that the psychological effect is what matters. A fighter who abstains, Moss said, will be like a racehorse at the gate when the fight starts. "You're snorting and you can't wait for the door to open," she said with a laugh. "When that bell rings, all you're thinking about is doing this one thing so you can get to all the rewards behind it."
However, she noted that she has noticed a distinct gender difference.
'There's a lot more involved in boxing than brute strength. How focused are you?'
"It's a lot of emotion involved with sex that definitely can distract [women] from camp," she said. "I don't think it carries the same weight as it does with men just because of the sexual instinct and drive that men have. They're way different animals."
Holly Lawson, a professional boxer in the welterweight division, said she doesn't think sex has a major physiological impact on female fighters, calling the abstinence practice "antiquated."
Lawson, however, did point out how women have higher testosterone levels after sex, which could, very theoretically, give them a performance boost. While some studies have indicated an increase in women's testosterone levels immediately following sex, other research has shown that sexual activity the night before does not raise T levels the following day.
But Moss disagrees that higher testosterone after sex if it even occurs, would provide an advantage.
"There's a lot more involved in boxing than brute strength," Moss said. "There's timing, reflexes, speed and the number one thing, which is the mind. How focused are you?"
Misogyny in boxing
According to Patrick Connor, a boxing historian and co-host of the podcast Knuckles and Gloves, the "Rocky" movies reinforced stereotypes about old-time trainers and boxing culture, including ideas about gender and masculinity.
"I think there's a very clear overlap between the machismo in the culture of boxing and combat sports and, frankly, the misogyny," he said. Note how "women weaken legs"—not that men are weak for being so affected.
Lawson and Moss both agreed that blaming women for male boxers' failings in the ring is rooted in misogyny.
"Boxing is wildly disappointing a lot of the time, particularly in its misogyny and its treatment of women," Lawson said. "As a female fighter, I know this firsthand."
'I think there's a very clear overlap between the machismo in the culture of boxing and combat sports and, frankly, the misogyny.'
According to Moss, the notion that a woman's place isn't at the boxing gym can be attributed, in part, to it being a sexually oriented sport.
"It really touches into the male psyche on the sexual side that makes him a dominant male object. He's dominating other men physically," Moss said. "Any sport where it's about being a tough guy, I feel like the sexual undertones are going to be way more visible."
Despite the highly patriarchal nature of the sport, Lawson is hopeful women's boxing will continue to receive more exposure and more women will get involved. In fact, the biggest fight in women's boxing history is set for April 30 this year at Madison Square Garden in New York City as undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor takes on seven-division champ Amanda Serrano.
"The more space we take up and we're granted exposure, I'm hoping the more we are able to dispel some of these old notions that don't necessarily hold true," Lawson said.