What does it say about a sport that its most revered practitioners-among them Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali-are as much icons of suffering as they are of success?
The human spirit is prey to the most astounding impulses
That people have an affinity for boxing, despite its cruelty, is obvious; but the reasons for that affinity are difficult to ascertain. To retain their affinity—though more likely to justify their own likes—devotees defend boxing. Some defend it as a means of freeing the poor from their socio-economic shackles. The legacy of recently deceased Emanuel Steward, whose training and managerial prowess helped many transition from the slum to the spotlight, speaks strongly to the sport’s potential in this regard. Such reasoning, however, does not address the cruelty inherent in the sport. It simply attempts to justify it, and can only do so by arguing in defense of mere potentiality, and really, the exception to the rule, for boxing is anything but a sure road to success. Moreover, false hope can lead to ruin—and it is false hope that is encouraged by arguments relying on the exception to the rule. There is cruelty in that encouragement, in endorsing a vision of hope all too often beaten blurry.
Resorting to history is another common tactic employed to defend the sport. Boxing is an ancient sport and this alone serves as an endorsement for merit. It has endured legal persecution, the virulent hand of organized crime, tragedy between the ropes, and marginalization in print and television. Still the sport persists. That terms like “knock out”, “on the ropes,” and “roll with the punches” have become entrenched in common vocabulary suggests that, however ugly it may be, boxing is unlikely to be relegated to the past any time soon. Violence will always find an audience. And although the imprimatur of history may aid the sport’s survival, it is hardly a satisfactory defense when it is your brother, father, or husband being battered and commoditized.
Personal liberty is another popular angle in defending boxing. People are free to pursue boxing, this argument says, and thus they are complicit in the ills that befall them as a result. But if the walk to the ring is one of the only paths to follow for the destitute, then just how free is one in choosing it? Apologists then argue that people are free to choose their interests, but that is nonsense. While we may nurture them, we do not choose what we like, just as we do not choose what we dislike: we are inclined one way or the other long before articulating this inclination. But look at this argument of choice and liberty again. Nowhere does it address the cruelty in boxing. Is this absence an implicit acknowledgement that in fact cruelty cannot be justified?
Why then, are we drawn to boxing? It cannot simply be a zest for competition, as competition need not be cruel. Nor is nationalism a sufficient answer. While it is a dominant theme in boxing, nationalism does not always lead to cruelty. The World Cup and other global competitions provide ample opportunity for flag-waving without partaking in cruelty. The necessary connection with cruelty is also missing from the argument that it is racial enthusiasm that explains boxing’s appeal. No, boxing’s appeal runs deeper than competition and national or racial pride, deeper than hope and history.
Both the aesthetic and the technical appraisal of boxing serve as an artifice of sorts. Filtering the sport through the lens of art and technical analysis—and what is “the sweet science” if not an ironic euphemism?—are two ways that boxing enthusiasts reconcile bloodlust with propriety. While this attempt at reconciliation is enough to placate modern sensibilities, it cannot successfully clean the sport because boxing, both in its history, and its desiderata, defies such cleansing.
In appraising a fight aesthetically, one glorifies violence and its consequences. The language of aesthetics is supposed to insulate the appraiser from facing this reality by misleading him into thinking that it is with a higher, more refined perspective that he enjoys watching men stun each other’s brains. But the lens does not mitigate the brutality of the event. Moreover, the most brutal affairs are often attributed the greatest aesthetic value. The savage first fight between Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, for example, is spoken of in reverential tones even though boxing artistry was neither man’s currency. The technical analyst thinks he interprets the painful physicality from a distance as well. Here a broken nose is the product of positioning, or timing, or capitalizing on mistakes. There is truth in these observations: boxers do strategize. But the analyst, however he tries to intellectualize the contest, is still guided in his observations by interest in a fundamentally cruel sport.
In her essay, “The Cruelest Sport,” Joyce Carol Oates calls boxing “a stylized mimicry of a fight to the death.” It is an analogue of human struggle in life-or-death terms where the closer the proximity to death the greater the contest’s merit. This merit is dependent on the presence of brutality, which speaks to an atavistic enjoyment of the warrior and what Oates calls the “triumph of the physical genius.” The linebacker who buries a running back in the turf, the forward who dunks while draped by a defender, and the pitcher who freezes a batter with a fastball are all examples of the triumph of physical genius. For the boxing enthusiast, however, these feats pale in comparison to what is achieved when a man with a bare torso, gloved hands, and bad intentions puts his opponent on his back But enjoyment in this sport cannot be achieved without suppressing—if only for 48 minutes—the conscience shaped by modern values. Without this suppression boxing’s intent and its brutal manifestations would, and very often does, repulse modern sensibilities. This is where the aesthetic artifice becomes so valuable. It provides a means of evading the pang of modern conscience by classifying the cruelest sport as art—and art is generally given a pass regardless of how or whom it offends.
For the abolitionist, this suppression is impossible. In modern society, the cruelest sport should be taboo. But for boxing enthusiasts, temporary shedding of modern values and conscience is both desirable and possible. And it is a reminder that humankind, for all the adornments of civilization, still exalts the conqueror; that regardless of the enlightenment of modernity, it is still antiquity, and its stomach for cruelty, that inspires. With the direct trajectory of a jab, boxing provides a path back to a world unfettered by puritan values, humanitarianism and the supremacy of reason—those celebrated hallmarks of modernity. Boxing accepts pain as a pedagogical tool; it makes a virtue of the quest for superiority, for distinction, for distance between oneself and others. Perhaps part of the appeal of boxing is that its cruelty appeals to the atavistic eye.
Even in cases where the authenticity of the event can be questioned, the truth of what is learned is secure. Bad decisions, for example, while rewarding the wrong fighter with victory still deliver truth—the truth that an injustice has occurred, that such injustices are possible in the sport, that the most efficacious form of victory is the most violent, that the sport is undeniably cruel. Lesser examples of these revealed truths include the fighter who smiles after absorbing a hook to the liver and whose pain is betrayed by his attempt to mask it, or the broken fighter’s half-hearted plea to continue after the referee’s final intervention. In cases like these one can question the authenticity of the event while being furnished with truths about the sport, the participants, and of course, the audience. This epistemic value contributes to the sport’s appeal.
Perhaps boxing, stripped of its laurels, is partly a manifestation of our desire to know. We want to unabashedly celebrate strength, we want hard truth, ugly realities; we want pain’s authenticity as well as our own. And it is in boxing, in the cruelest sport, that we find satisfaction.