Paul Simon's "The Boxer" is a long, thoughtful ballad that reflects on the struggles that one encounters in life. It is set in the form of an autobiography of a man who leaves home early. Arriving in New York City, he seeks work, but can't find any and is comforted only by prostitutes. Near the end of the song, he declares that he is going home, but in the final verse the song shifts into the third person to describe a scarred boxer who says he is leaving, but does not. (There is actually one more verse usually left off recorded versions of the song, but frequently sung by Simon in concert, in which the character talks about the passage of time, concluding that, "after changes, we are more or less the same.") The song thus represents the tension between a determination to succeed and the experience of apparently insurmountable barriers. But the tension is expressed calmly, breaking into passion only at the wordless chorus.
Since its appearance in 1969, "The Boxer" has attracted several interpretations, including one from Bob Dylan scholars that holds the song is about Dylan, a competitor of Simon's, and is a criticism of him. By this reading, the "poor boy" who arrives in New York is Dylan, of course, and the famous "whores on Seventh Avenue" line -- prostitution not actually being a noticeable feature of that generally upscale midtown-Manhattan business street -- refers to the offices of Columbia Records, for which both Simon and Dylan recorded, located during the 1960s on Seventh Avenue. It is more likely, however, that, as Simon acknowledged in an interview, "The Boxer" is an extrapolation of himself, commenting on his own pugnacious persistence in the music business.
"The Boxer" was originally recorded by Simon & Garfunkel. At a time when major recording artists were expected to release two albums and three or four singles a year, the duo operated at a surprisingly slow pace, and "The Boxer" was released as a one-off single in March 1969, nearly a year after their previous recording, the half-a-dozen new songs on Bookends. With a running time over five minutes (which may explain why that extra verse was left off), the recording had an elaborate, yet delicate arrangement, paced by fingerpicked acoustic guitar and discreet clip-clop percussion in the verses, but utilizing an unusual combination of added instruments, including a bass harmonica, a high trumpet, and a pedal steel guitar, plus strings and thunderous percussion on the stirring "lie-la-lie" chorus. It peaked in the Top Five of the singles charts in May.
"The Boxer" was included on the next Simon & Garfunkel album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, released in January 1970. It was quickly covered by Bob Dylan, who either didn't interpret it as being about him or didn't mind. Dylan's version appeared on his Self Portrait album, released in June. Before the year was out, another cover had been released on Paul Butterfield's album The Butterfield Blues Band/Live. The next notable cover came in 1980, when Emmylou Harris recorded "The Boxer" for her Roses in the Snow album and released it as a single that made the country Top 20.
But the song remains most closely associated with Paul Simon, and with Simon & Garfunkel. It has been included on Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits (1972), The Concert in Central Park (1982), the box set Old Friends (1997), and The Best of Simon & Garfunkel (1999), while Simon has included it on Paul Simon in Concert/Live Rhymin' (1974), Paul Simon's Concert in the Park (1991), and the box set 1964/1993.