To “box clever” means someone is using his or her intelligence to get what he or she wants. It means using more than brawn to overcome an obstacle, achieve an aim or to beat an opponent. Boxing clever is different than thinking outside the box, because it is about marshaling resources and deciding upon a strategy, which may or may not require new approaches.
The battle of wits described in “box clever” owes its origin to the sport of boxing. Boxing permeates most cultures in the world, and evidence of it has been around for over 3,000 years. The first cave paintings depicting it were found in ancient Sumeria. Homer was the first to describe the sport at any great length in his epic poem, “The Iliad.”
Since its origins, the sport of boxing has been a game of chess or a contest of minds as well as a physical contest. Like any sport, it is a case of one boxer using his or her limitations to his or her advantage while trying to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. Both the strong and the weak boxer know that one right hook from the stronger boxer will floor the weaker one. Knowing this, the weaker boxer will attempt to “box clever” and outflank his opponent so the feared blow never arrives.
“Box clever” is a literal phrase turned into a figurative idiom. It clearly owes its origin to the sport, but also to philosophical thoughts on warfare. One of the ancient writers who spoke at length about the subject is the Chinese general Sun Tzu. His “Art of War” has become synonymous with strategy and has been applied beyond warfare into many walks of life. In one passage, Sun Tzu’s interpretation of to “box clever” is to exploit an opponent’s character and physical defects; he also suggests that to “box clever” is to choose battles wisely.
The term is commonly applied to political and sporting maneuvers. Someone who is making a clever play is often described as “boxing clever.” Using cricket, as an example, a batsman can box clever by choosing his or her shots wisely. This includes which balls to defend and which to strike and where to strike them. Bowlers will choose their mode of delivery depending on the batsman they are facing and the condition of the wicket.
Box clever has also been used as the name of various companies. This is often a pun on their type of business, whether it is packaging, fuse boxes or removals. It was also the title of an album by the band Farce and a computer game.