Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Have you ever seen a boxing match?

I mean live, in person, close to the ropes, near enough to smell the sweat and taste the fear.

I haven't, but I'd like to. It's a savage, brutal, animalistic sport that has very few redeeming qualities, leading its practitioners to a middle-age filled with nothing but headaches, blurry vision and a faulty memory.

And those are the good points.

Kickboxing is popular here in Cambodia, (and Thailand, too) but I can't get into that form of the sport. Something about adding kicking to boxing seems to take away the, I don't know, basicness of it. For me, boxing is about punching somebody in the face.

"You every get hit in the head sixty, seventy times a night?" Stallone asks Talia Shire in the original (and best, although the first sequel comes close) Rocky. "It starts to hurt after awhile."

Yes, getting whacked that many times one evening does hurt (I'm assuming), and it shouldn't be, well, fun to wathc somebody go through that, but it is. (For some.) Yet it's more than amusement -- it's elemental. It's archaic. Like the hundred-metre dash, boxing is sport and humanity at its purest.

Some people are scoffing or puking right now, but there's an undeniable grace and balance to the sport that can't be denied. (If you know where to look.) It's why two of the literary world's most esteemed writers, Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates, have written reams on the sport's spectacles. (Read Mailer's The Fight for a philosophical, thrilling exploration into the 'Rumble in The Jungle' fight against George Foreman that was featured in the documentary When We Were Kings.)

Defending his sport against the naysayers, one of Ali's old trainers said: "What people don't understand about boxing is, you don't have to get hit."

Ah, and there's the rub. That single line -- you don't have to get hit -- encapsulates what many people ignore about boxing: its artistry. Its precision. Its strategy. Its dimensions. That's what attracts the inflated egos of the literati and the drunk guy at the end of the bar at Joe's Pub, the one who always falls off the stool.

I'm thinking about boxing 'cause I picked up a biography of Muhammed Ali, probably the most significant American of the twentieth century (after Martin Luther King and the guy who created The Fall Guy. You ever see that? With Lee Majors, the unknown stuntman, who made Eastwood look so fine, as the song said? That was a good show. So the creator of it deserves my props, is what all I'm saying.) No other sport could have allowed or enabled Ali to transcend the sport and become the icon he became.

Soccer, maybe. Because both soccer and boxing are for poor people. You don't need money for either. Which is why you can find variations of both pasttimes in practically every country in the world. (Maybe even in Antarctica, but I'm not sure. )

Boxing, though, appeals to our instincts to protect and defend and defeat. One person against another. Will against will. Each drawing out the other's energy to draw out, in turn, the best of themselves. Each needing the other they're determined to decimate.

Oooh, good stuff, boxing is. Yes, it is ridiculous. Yes, it is inhumane. But if sport serves as a microcosm for life (and I think it does) then boxing explores that microcosm better than any other. It is an intense, unforgiving bolt of life, in all its bloody, ragged glory. Three or ten or twelve or fifteen rounds of sweat and tears. In the end, a winner and a loser. All of it futile. A spectacle of barbarism.

Donald Sutherland, portraying legendary running coach Bill Bowerman, states in the great movie Without Limits: "Some consider running an absurd pasttime on which to waste our energies. But if you can find meaning in the kind of running you need to be on this team, then maybe you can find meaning in another absurd pasttime -- life."

And if you can find (or are willing) to find meaning in something as pathetic and pointless as boxing, maybe you can find meaning in that other absurd pasttime, too.

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