Real, Not Pretty
Beautiful and brutal, boxing reveals parts of ourselves we need to see
I love boxing: the craft, skill, conditioning, the physical genius, and most of all the absolute commitment to compete no matter the challenge, no matter the odds. I have loved boxing since I was a boy watching Gillette Cavalcade of Sports matches with my father.
Boxing is the poetry of the working class. It is the metaphor for life across that blue-collar line. You climb into the ring of life alone, and if you’re not prepared, not ready to accept possible defeat, not ready to be carried out on your shield, then you’ve been beaten before you begin.
When you watch a boxer get hit in the liver and take a knee, you feel it. It’s the third round but maybe his last chance. So when that boxer stands up at the count of nine and grabs on to smother his opponent’s blows, you clench your fists and hope he makes it to the bell. Because if he does, he gets 60 seconds to catch his breath, dominate the pain and get back into the fight.
When that boxer gets to his feet, he’s the symbol of our lives; of the days we’re hungover because we didn’t want to slap the boss; the mornings when we have the flu but no more sick days; those days when the smarter, stronger, younger worker is trying to take our salary and make it his.
That’s life in America. Most of this population is working-class without a parachute, a promise or a prayer. All we have is the strength in our bodies and the will to survive.
Floyd Mayweather came from that working class to become maybe the greatest boxer of his generation. He knows his craft inside and out, how to adjust to any opponent, how to win no matter what. I love his style because he protects himself at all times while evading, frustrating and, sometimes, hurting his opponents in the process.
I love his fights.
I detest his history of violence against women.
These opposite feelings pose no conflict for me. Boxing is a foolish place to look for saints or moral purity. What we look for in the ring is ourselves.
Some people equate violence outside the ring with the ugly rhetoric that managers, promoters, TV announcers, publicists, sports programs and magazines use to hawk their wares. This negative publicity concerning big fights, such as the upcoming match between Mayweather and Conor McGregor, upsets some people. I personally don’t mind. Boxing has always been a violent game, an ugly sport. And sport in general, worldwide, has always been tribal. Before the collapse of boxing’s color line, Irish fighters battled Italians, Jewish boxers settled scores with both. Joe Louis represented all of America and the free world when he entered the ring for his rematch against Max Schmeling. We hated those Nazis and wanted to see their blood on the canvas. That’s right: their blood on the canvas.
Insult and humiliation are, at least partly, what boxing is about. That’s why Ali called Frazier the Gorilla in Manila. That’s why corporate managers don’t demand their boxers control themselves when talking trash about opponents. People will pay to see it.
Like Mayweather once said, “I’m a prizefighter. That’s what I’m supposed to fight for, a prize. Duh.” Nobody but fighters put their money where their mouths are. They put their lives on the line like gladiators have throughout the millennia—for bling and praise.
Someone asked me why we put up with this milieu, this atmosphere of anger, violence, racism and pain. “Why do we continually wade through all these things that discomfit us?” he asked me. I found the question itself discomfiting. I’m not bothered by Mayweather exhibiting his extraordinary skills. I watch boxing because, like poetry, a good match expresses the passions in my heart. My boss doesn’t give me the raise, my wife leaves me without a word, my editor changes my words to fit his needs. All of this, and I can’t even raise my voice in opposition. All of this, and in the end, I feel like a loser humiliated by my own tears and capitulations.
In the ring, Mayweather and McGregor are fighting for me. They take all of my pain, shame, anonymity and disgrace and turn it into a fight to the finish. I want my guy to win, of course, but mostly I just want the fight. That will clear up the blockage in my heart, the raging coagulation in my veins, blunt the fact that I’ll have to work my entire life like Tennessee Ernie Ford sings, “another day older and deeper in debt.”
Mayweather and McGregor are proxies for millions of Americans on a dozen sides. It might be MMA advocates against boxing aficionados, blacks against whites, boxing fans who don’t like Mayweather’s defensive style siding with the more straightforward McGregor. Do I care? I hope no one thinks that I’m surprised by racism. I hope no one thinks they can end that ridiculous system of prejudice except in their own hearts and minds. I hope no one believes that Conor and Floyd are fighting for some kind of racial superiority. This match is about personal pride and money. It doesn’t matter why you are or are not watching. Floyd and Conor are fighting each other to make a profit that (to my knowledge) they do not intend to share with any political group, ideology or presidential candidate.
And now let’s be clear about criminal activity and sport.
Floyd Mayweather’s hands are lethal weapons. So if he were to beat his wife, daughter, girlfriend or some stranger again, I expect him to be answerable to the law and I expect more from those laws than just a slap on the wrist. Anyone who commits a violent crime should answer for that crime—period. After the debt to society is paid, then that person should be able to go back to work. You don’t have to like him (or her). You don’t have to buy tickets to see her (or him).
And if violence and criminal activity run rampant among a certain group, then the society itself has to wonder if maybe we are missing something; maybe we are doing something wrong.
This is not only true for boxing. MMA, football leagues, the bloody arena of ice hockey, all of these “sports” create raging aggressors who are expected to manage the fury unleashed in them by a system that is nearly perfect in its ability to fashion monsters much like the ancient Romans made gladiators to die in public spectacles.
Sports institutions, managers, promoters, agents and TV sports conglomerates hone and reward competitive violence in young fighters.
What are we to expect from these youngsters who, on the whole, come from poverty, abuse, low expectations, poor education and streets prowled over by unrelenting gangs and frightened cops? How can I, in good faith, condemn the boxer and not the violence that spawned that boxer? How can I boycott, ban, berate or banish the man or woman who has lost control because they have been trained to direct their rage into the only tool that might, for a little while, deliver them and their families from suffering?
We cannot convict boxers without indicting ourselves because grinding poverty makes boxers. Ghettos make boxers. Prisons make boxers. We make boxers.
This story is featured in ESPN The Magazine’s August 21 Fighting issue.Subscribe today!