In 1990, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were inducted as Simon and Garfunkel into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by James Taylor. During their acceptance, Garfunkel noted, "And I want to thank, most of all, the person who has most enriched my life by putting these great songs through me, my friend Paul here." Simon was quick to remark, "Arthur and I agree about almost nothing, but it's true, I have enriched his life quite a bit, now that I think about it."
At the ceremony, they performed “The Boxer,” a song penned by Paul Simon in 1968. The song was released as a follow-up single to their Number One hit, “Mrs. Robinson,” and reached Number Seven on the U.S. charts. The b-side of the single was “Baby Driver,” and the song appeared on their last studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water.
The lyrics focus on a person struggling to overcome loneliness and poverty in New York City. It is written in the first-person until the final verse, where it switches to a third-person idea of a boxer, who, despite the effects of “every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out,” perseveres. One of the most memorable pieces of the song – the chorus – is wordless. The refrain consists of a repeated chant “lie-la-lie,” of which Simon stated that it was originally only intended as a placeholder, but became part of the finished song. According to Simon: “I didn’t have any words! Then people said it was a ‘lie’ but I didn’t really mean that – that it was a lie. But, it’s not a failure of songwriting, because people like that, and they put enough meaning into it, and the rest of the song has enough power and emotion, I guess, to make it go, so it’s all right. But for me, every time I sing that part... I’m a little embarrassed.”
The song was originally written with a “missing” verse that does not appear in the Bridge Over Troubled Water recording:
Now the years are rolling by me / They are rocking evenly / I am older than I once was, but younger than I’ll be, but that’s not unusual / No, it isn’t strange / After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same / After changes, we are more or less the same
This “missing” verse was included on the Live 1969 album, as Simon and Garfunkel performed the full version of the song during their tour in November 1969. After the duo disbanded, Simon would regularly perform the song in its entirety. When Simon and Garfunkel reunited for a Saturday Night Live performance in 1975 and for the Concert in Central Park in 1981, they sang the whole song, as well as on an appearance that same year on Late Night with David Letterman. The duo's 1990 Hall of Fame induction performance of "The Boxer" included the additional verse.
On September 29, 2001, Simon sang the song to open Saturday Night Live, which was the first live SNL following the September 11 attacks on New York City.
Ranked number 105 on Rolling Stone’s list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time," many artists have covered “The Boxer," including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Waylon Jennings, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Joan Baez and Chet Atkins. Most recently, Mumford and Sons covered the song on their 2012 album Babel, which includes vocals by Paul Simon himself.
In 2007, “The Boxer” won Paul Simon the inaugural Gershwin Prize by the Library of Congress.