Wednesday, March 6, 2013

On Boxing

Boxing. A man’s sport. Blood is spilled, punches are traded, and the winner is carried into the sunset on the shoulders of his supporters while the loser is forced to slink off into the corner of failure, obscurity, and shame. You play baseball, you play basketball, you play football and soccer. You don’t play boxing. Ask anyone in any gym around the world. This is not a game.

There is something raw and emotional about boxing that we as Americans are slowly falling out of touch with. It’s primordial, almost embryonic. It takes the two most basic fears a man has and forces him to resist them while putting himself squarely in the Lion’s Den. Getting hurt (i.e getting punched in the face by a full grown man) and Hurting someone. That cosmic fear that starts in your chest and spreads to the pit of your stomach when you’ve gone a step too far, when you see someone is really hurt. Your throat dries up and your heart begins to race, your mind speeding across every possible outcome, every possible consequence. Men have fought in that ring for years, for many different reasons, but one thing is universal. Fists don’t discriminate. Men have been crippled for life, terribly scarred, brain damaged, and even killed.

We live in a world now where we are overprotected. We spend most of our lives coddled behind a screen. Whether it’s a television, a laptop, an iPod, or a cell phone. We’re free to shit-talk and firebomb online with the protection of anonymity. No serious threat of a schoolyard fight. No mid-afternoon meeting at the rock piles to duke it out. This bullying phenomenon that everyone is talking about; how many of these kids took a good punch on the nose? It was Facebook, text messages, online nonsense, verbal abuse. The fear of physical confrontation is quickly leaving us as a society.

Perhaps that’s it. The fact that we have no fear, or rather no reason to fear physical threats. It seems juvenile, it seems brutish, but this is our most basic nature. Stand and Fight or Run and Hide? Will you have the courage? Strength, bravery, grace, skill, it’s all there in this beautiful mix of physicality and psychology.

From its inception all the way to its growth in America, boxing has been a way for underprivileged men to prove themselves. The poor, the uneducated, the ethnically, racially and religiously persecuted. During the 19th and early 20th century in America it was the Jews, the Irishmen and the Italians fighting to make a name for themselves, make a living for their families. Fighting was an avenue that anyone could succeed at no matter the color of your skin, or what god you worshipped. The Heavyweight champion was loved and revered, respected and feared.  During the 30s and 40s Joe Louis broke the color barrier, by becoming one of the most celebrated champions the world ever knew. Some called him an Uncle Tom, but most were just happy to see a Black face in the newspapers for something positive.

Jack Johnson was another story, a glorious heavyweight with one of the most devastating right hands in history. Pound for Pound one of the greatest fighters of his day, Johnson was larger than life. Already a demoralizingly large man, his exploits outside the ring made him seem even bigger. The booze, the cigars, the women, the cars, the fancy clothes, the outright defiance of authority. He was this wild mix of Babe Ruth, Gorgeous George and Howard Hughes in the body of an enormous Black Man. God Bless him for it.

It seems as though this blossoming century has no room for these heroes. Men who were larger than life, who prove themselves with their fists in contests of endurance, strength, intelligence, and sheer will. We look up to studio-engineered rappers and reality TV stars.  Actors who drink vitamin water instead of martinis. Perhaps this newer, gentler world doesn’t need a heavyweight champion. Perhaps too many hours of Halo and Modern Warfare have detached us from physical contact. We are a generation of virtual snipers. A whole era of sweaty upper lips and pale skin. Even though our country is entrenched in two serious wars, and seems to be dipping its fingers into plenty of other international conflicts, we live in what is arguably the most passive time in human history.

Why then, does the success of Mixed Martial Arts continue to flourish as boxing plummets like Icarus from the skies of favor? I have a theory. For all its close contact and brutality, MMA has much less personal resonance than boxing. It’s so far removed from people’s everyday lives that it becomes fantasy, mere entertainment by men with a higher skill set than most. Learning Brazilian Jujitsu, studying the discipline of Krav Maga, or mastering techniques from the Greco-Roman style of wrestling are things that most men will never do. There was a time however, where most men, at some point in their lives would get into a fistfight.

That time seems to be behind us. Face to face conflicts are slowly but surely vanishing; less and less young people growing up having to physically defend themselves. Now they are presented a fantasy element of “what if’s”. They have their whole lives to dream up some complex, emotional, reasonable plotline in which they are forced to act, and they have suddenly become masters of every self-defense discipline known to man. These people must live vicariously through MMA fighters on television or action heroes in movies that give more to explosions and fight scenes than plot development.

Boxing was always more relatable. Two men of humble backgrounds step into the ring, carrying on their shoulders years of oppression and damnation. Dead ends, poor decisions, and needs that can’t be met anywhere else. These men possess a certain skill set. They are forced to face their most primal fears and step face to face with each other, each man’s future on the line. A battle of not only fists, but of wits was going to occur. Whatever man held the endurance would win. Not just the physical endurance, it is not just a matter of keeping breath in your lungs, but psychological, spiritual endurance. Can your mind take 15 (now 12) rounds of high stress activity? The punches, the trash talk, the crowd, the creeping sensation of muscle failure. Minutes turn into miles as the gloves get heavier, vision starts to blur, and air gets thinner and less accessible. Who will be left standing? Who will fold under the pressure? Who’s body will fail them first?

It wouldn’t be a shock to find out that most of the people reading this have never been in a fight. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps not. It would be na├»ve to say that the disappearance of physical confrontation means the disappearance of aggression and violence. Taking a look at our modern society and how violence is still prevalent will quickly confirm this notion. People who have been picked on or bullied now resort to school shooting sprees or the gruesome murder/suicide of their tormentors instead of a face to face, non-lethal physical confrontation. It is something that has been brewing since the invention of the bow and arrow, and came to an unsettling peak during the Battle of Coral Sea in World War Two. For the first time in history, neither Navy saw their enemy through the course of the battle.

If the dwindling presence of physical contact has no effect on the fact that we are a violent species, then why not embrace our nature and get into the clinch? Fighting, specifically boxing places you face to face with your own humanity and occasionally, your own mortality. The look on another man’s face when you land a fierce body blow. The sound of air escaping your lungs as the same is done to you.  You can see and feel the damage, and it is visceral. It is present. There is no denying it. Being a firsthand witness to these things will make a man appreciate the physical sacrifice that goes into a fight. The damage that goes hand in hand with violent outbursts.  It will remove flippancy from most men’s thoughts on combat and violence altogether. There is a heavy price to pay, and if you have seen it firsthand, you will be more reluctant to pay it.

People have been talking about a disconnect in social interaction for years now. Ever since the rise of the internet, cell phones and video games, people have said we don’t interact like we used to. To an extent, this is true. But a good, solid punch is just as important as a loving touch, or intimate conversation. That is another form of intimacy. It’s an important experience for a man to have. It tells you who you really are. Not who you project yourself to be. Our generation has the unique ability to lie about every detail of our lives and get away with it for the most part. Who really knows us? Most of us only exist to our friends through a screen, so there’s no way to call their bluff. A tough, graceful fistfight will keep you from believing your own bullshit; it’ll keep others from believing it too. Limitations are realized, new strengths are discovered, and weaknesses are exposed and can now be worked on. The only downside is a few moments of pain. Though now it seems that we are so terrified of even mild discomfort that we can’t even fathom volunteering ourselves for pain.

This is why the Boxer is no longer the American Hero. We are a generation free from physical pain. It’s all in our heads. We are overprotected, overexposed, over-analytical and overmedicated. We’re overweight, overstressed, overtired, and overwhelmed. Our neurosis is eating us alive. Being quirky and “uncool” and different is valued over being tough or loyal or courageous. Where does that leave the guys making a living overcoming man’s deepest fears with his fists?

That is not to say that the sport has done no wrong. Boxing has failed us just as much as we have failed boxing. We have no great champions anymore. No longer are there knock-down, drag-out wars in the ring like in the days of old. Very few are willing to sacrifice their bodies not only for the good of the sport, but for the entertainment of the masses. It’s about money, it’s about fame, it’s about getting away clean. That didn’t always happen in the glory days.

Tyson was the last great giant. He was also the first Champion who was instantly recognizable, yet impossibly unfamiliar. No one related to Mike Tyson on a personal level like previous champions. Marciano, Louis, Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Spinks, Norton, and later Douglas.  He was viewed as a wild beast. A cartoon. A walking knockout machine. That was the beginning of the end for Boxing. Tyson’s early dominance was good for ratings, and great for Don King, but ultimately it created a viewership that started to destroy the sport. Now instead of a heated battle between two near equals, all we look for is the knockout highlights.

There are some great fighters left, but no great champions, no great wars. The Klitschko brothers as heavyweights, Roy Jones Jr, Oscar Dela Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Ricky Hatton, Floyd Mayweather, and Sugar Shane Mosley have all kept it alive, but it’s getting softer every day. More corrupt every day. A lack of great heavyweights, too many belts, not enough big fights, so many elements contribute to the decay of the sport.

The Pacquiao/Bradley fight is a perfect example of the sports dying credibility. In one of the most repulsive, stomach turning, staggeringly flabbergasting calls in modern boxing history, 2 of 3 judges went for Bradley over Pacquiao in a split decision. The fight was clearly Pacquiao’s from the beginning, 11-1… 10-2 at the absolute worst. No one watching in the arena that night, and very few watching at home believed Bradley had even come close.  Somehow, the incompetent judges went for Timothy Bradley in a 115-113 decision.  It seems even the judges are losing touch with the sport. There was over two decades of experience at the table that night, but somehow two of them just didn’t know how to score a boxing match. It is truly a science both beautiful and complex, and one that should be taken more seriously by the people directly involved.

At the end of the day however, Boxing is falling out of favor with America because we as a country no longer hit each other; and we ought to. We live in a world where anyplace without a cell phone signal is a torture chamber and the slightest extra effort is expected to be met with thunderous applause.  Over the last few decades, with every passing year we’ve gotten just a little bit softer, just a little bit weaker, just a little bit further removed from the realities of life.  As times get tougher in this country we lean harder and harder on escapism, some relief from the weary road we travel, some sort of break from the troubling monotony of everyday living. I suggest that instead of retreating from the world as we know it, we should embrace the physical, turn pain into strength, suffering into toughness. Keep our hands up and our chins tucked.  We as a generation, we as a country, could use a good punch in the face. It sure as Hell wouldn’t hurt us to learn to throw a few, either.