The Witcher 3's Geralt of Rivia spends most of his time fighting. But for all the mountaintop battles and magic powers, the best fights in the game are the ones where he gets into a ring and uses his fists.
As a professional monster killer, most of Geralt's actions involve causing physical harm. The Witcher 3's leisure activities are pretty limited -- when not fighting, Geralt can play cards in taverns, sleep with sex workers in brothels, or ride his horse around until he gets in a fight. A series of quests called "Fists of Fury" lets him unwind from all his fighting by fighting more, competing in a series of boxing tournaments across The Continent.
The areas of Velen, Novigrad, Skellige, and Toussaint all have Fists of Fury storylines. Most matches have some flavour, the drama and weight fans of boxing read into two people punching each other a lot. His opponents stage comebacks, impress crushes, and restore or maintain local honour. Fighters showboat or threaten; bookies crow and build up the crowd. Several opponents ask Geralt to lose on purpose, unspooling the same tales of woe that everyone who approaches him does. These fights mean little to Geralt, but for everyone else, they have consequences.
The additional stakes fighters introduce to these matches aren't as important as Geralt's world-saving adventures in the main story, but boxing matches seem to matter more to the locals than whatever monster Geralt most recently killed. The wins and losses stick with them.
It reminds me of something Charles Farrell wrote at Deadspin: "When a boxer gets into the ring, he's seen as entering a magic theatre of virtue and vice cut off from the rest of the world. For the fight's duration his actions assume a kind of moral transparency, defining him as noble or ignoble. But when it's over and he steps outside the ring, becoming just a person again, the aura sticks."
As a Witcher, Geralt can't escape the aura of the fights that define his professional life, even though they seldom have witnesses. Most of Geralt's battles with monsters take place in the wilderness. He picks up a contract, treks out, slays the beast, then reports back to whoever issued the contract to tell them he killed it. His epic battles are mostly private affairs.
When Geralt boxes, he has an audience. He has to go through a bookie to kick off the encounter. In most fights a crowd defines the ring, closing Geralt in for the duration, cheering and booing. Geralt strips to just his pants; he tends to be ready to disrobe at a moment's notice, but I felt a different kind of intimacy showing his scars in the context of these fights.
Stripped of his armour, his potions, and his swords, Geralt is naked and exposed to an unusual degree. He's fighting on the same terms as the bloodthirsty gaggle of strangers surrounding him.
I found The Witcher 3's boxing surprisingly difficult. I significantly outleveled Novigrad's final fighter Durden the Tailor, but I couldn't beat him. The fight with Durden requires a wager, and I moved down to penny bets as my purse bled dry with each calamitous collapse. The square where Geralt fights Durden has the problem a lot of the Fists of Fury arenas have.
It's small and crowded, with a post in the middle on which I kept getting stuck. I'd find myself pinned between the crowd and Durden's fists, or stuck on wonky geometry while my health ticked down. Geralt handles like a motorboat at the best of times; adding tight spaces and the need for speedy reactions into the mix made my fights hopeless slogs.
Eventually I looked up some tips online. Many players suggested a simple pattern for overcoming boxing opponents: block when they swing at you, get in a few light attacks and maybe a heavy one if you have the time, then back out of range and let the opponent approach again. I avoided this advice at first because I thought it sounded more like a cheese than a strategy. I wanted to box, not exploit the game's AI. But I finally got sick of losing and gave in.
The new strategy worked, but the fight still wasn't easy. The size and clutter of the ring meant I had to pre-plan my retreats each time I zipped in for an attack. I had to resist the impulse to go all-in when Durden staggered after a parry, reining in my greed for vengeance. I patiently dodged and backpedaled, using the space to study Durden's moves. Sometimes he'd get stuck in his defensive stance, hiding his head behind his wrists like he was crying.
Other times he rushed me across the arena. Before too long, I could read him like a book. I landed the final knockout with calm precision. Even though I had won with a rote series of punches, blocks, and dodges, my victory felt bigger than any dramatic head-to-head with a hulking monster.
Despite how difficult I found them, The Witcher 3's boxing matches are unusually nonviolent. A fistfight in a ring is tame compared with the head-lopping, chest-stabbing action in the rest of the game. No one gets their arm sliced off in the boxing ring; Geralt is restrained from burning anyone to a crisp with his Witcher powers. When fighters lose, they simply flop over in the mud. Almost immediately they're ready to fight again, no worse for wear.
Geralt's fists function differently from the clean slice of his blade. They thud when he lands a punch, drawing out dull-coloured sprays of blood and inflicting blurred vision and flashes of white. It's mundane violence, nothing like the spiraling swordplay and elemental detonations that play such a prominent role in his life as a Witcher. As he stands in the ring, blood caked onto his knuckles, these fights seem beneath him.
Yet there he stands, stripped of his weapons and Witcher tricks, surrounded by the very people he so frequently struggles to understand. In the ring, Geralt is reconnected with whatever humanity he has remaining. In the ring, Geralt is nothing but himself.
The Fists of Fury quest gets more creative as it goes, though it loses that human element along the way. The Skellige part of the quest takes place in a proper arena, complete with stone walls and bleachers. In the final Skellige bout, Geralt faces off against Olaf, a giant bear. Punching the bear feels ridiculous, but it's not really any different from the many bears you'll fight in the rest of the game, particularly because you're allowed to use potions to restore your health.
I breezed through the fight, then headed off to Spikeroog to take on the "Champion of Champions," who, as it turned out, was a glum rock troll. Narratively, those final bouts were a good way to end the quest, but they didn't stick with me in the same way as my earlier fights against ordinary humans.
A year after The Witcher 3 came out, the Blood and Wine expansion added a whole new area, and with that a whole new chapter in the Fists of Fury quest. I was happy to find that the bonus chapter aggressively re-embraces the human side of things, though like many things in the fantasy land of Toussaint, every fight is ratcheted up to the point of absurdity. Each fight has its own twist, including insult battles, matches where you can't throw a punch, and a drinking contest. I laughed through them all, which was certainly a different response than the rest of my fights.
They're ridiculous, even joyful. No one in Toussaint takes their boxing too seriously. After all that I had been through in the main game, travelling the circuit felt more like a champion's victory lap. The final showdown was a Mayweather-McGregor spectacle in terms of stakes, but with the goofy air of a Las Vegas magic show.
At long last, my final opponent fell, and the Fists of Fury quest was complete. As my reward, I now have a trophy for Geralt to display in his home. In his 1955 essay "Ahab and Nemesis," boxing writer A.J. Liebling compares a boxing match to Moby Dick, writing, "What would Moby Dick be if Ahab had succeeded? Just another fish story."
Geralt's trophy, won in Toussaint but meant to celebrate my boxing career as a whole, feels like a shabby trinket. It has nothing to do with the challenges Geralt and I faced in the rings across The Continent. It has nothing to say about the towns we passed through and the people who remained after we left.
In my game of The Witcher 3, Geralt still has plenty of monsters to fight, but no more people to box. There are no challengers left. He may still have griffins to slay and maidens to rescue, but never again will he be just another fighter, throwing punches in the mud like everyone else.