When people inclined to share my enthusiasm for soul-sustaining arts like literature and music learn that I’ve written a book partially about boxing, they often ask how I became interested in the sport. (To date, no one has wondered aloud in my presence why I care about the post-ampersand part of the title Fighters & Writers. I don’t know if this means reasons for an interest in books are self-apparent or if reading is simply safe and uncontroversial.) The implied question seems to be: What’s a cultivated, educated individual doing mucking around with something like that? Certainly there are plenty of literary types who share my enthusiasm. I write about many of them in my essays. Yet a lot of people seem to require an explanation.
To some extent, this might have to do with a snobbish attitude toward sports in general. Sports invite dismissal by serious types. Plenty of reasons for righteous condemnation present themselves: they’re dangerous, they bring out the worst aspects of human nature in both participants and spectators, they’ve morphed from wholesome exercise into perverse industry, games waste time, and they ain’t what they used to be.
Boxing especially excites its critics. Amplify the common objections to sports and boxing haters will want to turn up the volume louder still.
Danger? In boxing, fit individuals aim to render opponents unconscious. Injury and death obviously ensue. How can punching at people’s vital organs and making their brains bounce about in their skulls be a good idea? With dispiriting regularity, boxers die after bouts. News of their deaths sparks fleeting outrage among the civilized set, who cannot fathom how society can condone such atavism, and rote calls for reform from those who either don’t wish to see the sport go away or know it never will.
As if the physical damage were not enough, what about the ugliness boxing brings out in people? George Orwell, in a 1945 Tribune column titled “The Sporting Spirit,” objected to sports generally and to boxing in particular for precisely this reason. When games cease to be about fun and fitness and start to shoulder symbolism, things go straight to hell: “as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.” Orwell worries especially about athletes becoming national representatives.
At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
While Orwell frets about football (i.e. soccer) and cricket as well as the Olympics enflaming vicious patriotic passions, he dislikes boxing because race hatred rears up among those seated around the ring. “One of the most horrible sights in the world is a fight between white and coloured boxers before a mixed audience.” He said that in the mid-1940s, and while I’d like to think racism has dissipated somewhat in subsequent decades, fight fans continue to assign some sort of meaning to the color of the skin boxers expose while fighting. When boxers from different countries fight, nationalist fervor invariably intrudes. It even factors into the promotion of events, with bouts pitched explicitly pitched as battles between boxers’ homelands. When Bernard Hopkins threw the Puerto Rican flag on the ground before fighting Felix Trinidad in 2001, he might not have been expressing his feelings about the place so much as trying to get its loyal fight fans to buy tickets. While Don King may have had custom made a characteristically understated jacket featuring a sequined American flag on the back, on fight night he would not be without flags of other nations ready to wave if a boxer from elsewhere were fighting, especially if he won and King wanted to sign him to a promotional contract. I’ve been at fights where it was immediately evident that the loudest shouters (1) didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to boxing itself and (2) based their preferences entirely on criteria not related to athletic ability. Put another way, countless idiots root for who they root for mainly or exclusively for racial or nationalistic reasons.
It’s easy enough to argue that the costs of sports are unjustifiably high. I’ve sat in ringside seats as a correspondent that I never would have been anywhere near if I’d had to pay for a ticket. The prices for fights at major venues can be outrageous. While I don’t think other sports routinely have four-figure prices for the best views, I certainly have heard people complain about how much money it takes to attend an event. Even viewing at home can be ridiculously expensive, whether it means paying fifty dollars or more for a pay-per-view bout or just paying the monthly bill for the multitude of television stations that broadcast sports. And all that time people spend watching TV is time not doing … something.
Besides, boxing, like all sports, was better in the past. Sure, there are good boxers nowadays – always have been, always will be – but they can’t compare to the real greats. Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko? Sure, they’ve got some skills and, between them, won the major sanctioning bodies’ heavyweight champion belts. But they can’t compare with [insert preferred boxing great from earlier era here].
I wouldn’t dispute a single one of these charges. Of course boxing is dangerous. I’ve questioned what I was doing by deliberately witnessing an activity that ended with participants carried out on stretchers. Yes, boxing can bring out ugliness and stupidity in those who base their allegiances on blood and land. I’m fully aware of and utterly disgusted by exploitative practices rife in the business of boxing and despair that the worst predators enrich themselves at the expense of both fighters and paying fans. As far as talk of a Golden Age, or at least a better time, goes, I’ll admit that while I’ve interviewed heavyweight title-holders like Chris Byrd and John Ruiz, I don’t delude myself that this can compare with interviewing, say, Muhammad Ali in the 1960s or 1970s or Joe Louis in the 1930s or 1940s. I’ve viewed the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila multiple times, but can’t say I’ve ever seen a bout featuring either Klitschko brother that I’d want to sit through again.
So, why boxing? The answer should already be apparent. Put crudely, as something to write about, boxing can’t be beat. As a dangerous, disreputable and dirty endeavor, but also as a demanding, difficult and inherently dramatic activity, it couldn’t be more intriguing to anyone interesting in examining what it means to be human. That fighters risk their lives is no reason to turn away from it. Indeed, their willingness to do so warrants close attention. There’s much about boxing to which sensible, sensitive folks can object. As Orwell knew, this can be done in writing. The characteristics associated with successful promoters – unscrupulousness, double-dealing, disloyalty, “trickeration” – are the stuff that schemes are made of, and they reward scrutiny. Action occurs in the ring, but what happens behind the scenes is another story, or, rather, a never-dry well of stories.
There’s also much to respect – about boxing and especially about boxers. The qualities that define accomplished boxers – determination, dedication, tenacity, “heart” – should never be discounted and cannot be discredited. Boxing, as fight fans habitually have to explain, is not about brutes brawling (though some of the partisans mentioned above might wish it were). It entails technique honed through training. Despite what looks like the elemental simplicity of nearly naked people hitting each other, boxing involves much strategy and thought as well as character and skill. This is no small stuff.
Saddling athletes with more symbolism than anybody can reasonably be expected to bear is a boxing tradition. It may be absurd to take any single person’s punching power or defensive abilities as indicative of the virtue of a race or a nation, but this happens, and when it does it reveals something, perhaps about the boxer, but definitely about the attitudes of those who take him (or her) to be a representative figure.
While boxing has produced countless remarkable individuals of indisputable talent, frequently in combination with great charisma, it has also had moments when the top man in the heaviest weight division fails to inspire. After Jack Johnson comes Jess Willard. After Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas. But even the boxers who never transcend the sport or who never make best-of-all-times lists, do something few people have the guts to do: they test themselves, in public, at the risk of humiliation and physical damage. I can’t help but admire that sort of courage, and all that makes boxing smell disreputable to many people only makes the fighters themselves that much more noble.