The Sweet Science of Bruising

Boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire
"Big" George Foreman

Any Boxing fan is used to the question, "Why do you like Boxing?" They are told that is is a "brutal", "barbaric", "violent" "non-sport". The men involved in it are either criminals or criminals at heart. They are uneducated and attack each other like animals. It's un-civilized to sit there and watch two men beat each other to death. Boxing should be outlawed because it's dangerous and leaves its fighters "punch drunk". Just look at Mohammad Ali. The Boxing fan understands the confusion of the outsider to the sport. Boxing is, by far, one of the most paradoxical games in existence.

At first, Boxing seems like a very simple "game". In fact, some people argue that this is a good thing. Boxing is human competition in its purest form. There are no "balls" or "sticks" involved. Two men step into a ring and proceed to bash each other's brains in. Or, at least, attempt to. If you'd really like to see this simply watch a Toughman Competition. Compare that to any real Boxing match you can find on TV and you should quickly see the difference. Boxing has much more in common with Chess than Toughman. Well, more in common with Speed Chess. The two principals spend months fine-tuning their bodies and training themselves to instinctively react to a myriad of situations. Then they are given minutes to unlock the mystery of how to get past their opponents defense while also managing to avoid their offense.

People often feel that Boxers simply become "barbarians" who are animalistic killing machines with no control bent on destroying their "enemy" when they get in the ring. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Boxing is all about control and will power. It is hardly "animalistic" to fight someone in 3-minute bursts. Or to suddenly stop punching because they've fallen down. On the other hand, it's also not natural to continue fighting when you're losing and escape can easily be attained.

The idea that a Boxer hates his opponent is also not usually true, regardless of how grueling the fight is. The perfect example of this was the recent struggle between Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti. Over 10 rounds these two men skillfully and beautifully doled out tremendous damage on each other. No doubt, they were throwing punches with "bad intentions" meant to cause pain and, hopefully, unconsciousness. But as soon as the final bell rang the two exhausted "enemies" grasped each other in a hug like two warriors who have survived another heated battle. Very often the two men involved have a relationship like those who have gone through a war as fellow soldiers, not as enemies.

Boxing is very often considered an exceptionally dangerous sport. After all, the object of the fight is to concuss your opponent or, at least, beat him to a bloody pulp. And blood is a very common sight in Boxing. In its attempt to help ban boxing the AMA admitted that it wasn't the most dangerous sport at all. Of course, Boxing's most notorious danger is that of permanent brain damage. The image of the crumbled mind and body of Mohammad Ali haunts even the strongest supporter of Boxing. Most Boxers are able to avoid this fate by simply quitting before they've bceome too old. The greatest tragedy of Ali's story is that by avoiding his last few brutal fights this condition could have been averted. Boxing is much safer now even though some fighters insist of fighting past their prime. The super-majority of Boxers leave Boxing in better shape than in many other sports.

Of course, Boxing does have its share of other problems. Most of these have nothing to do with the sport itself but with those who manage it. The Boxing fan is used to a constant barrage of bad decisions, early stoppages, late stoppages, bad calls, bad refs, horrible promoters, mismatched fights, great fighters who never get noticed and much publicized fighters who seem to stand for everything their beloved sport is not. The popular media doesn't help by usually highlighting these facets. Everyone knows about the upcoming Mike Tyson fight and his insane ramblings are newsworthy. Meanwhile, one of the greatest fights in years, Ward/Gatti, was ignored and the upcoming Barrera/Morales fight is getting no attention. It's not surprising the way people feel about Boxing since they only ever hear about its bad side.

In spite of all this, at its best Boxing makes other sports pale in comparison. No other sport can pack in as much action and drama in so short a time as in Boxing. Great fights seem like epic wars even though they're less than an hour long. No other sport has its participants straining their physical and mental abilities to the limits that Boxing does. No other sport presents its players with moments as difficult as in Boxing. Coming from behind in Basketball by putting out a little more effort than the other team is sometimes exciting. Watching a fighter who has been knocked down three times and is bleeding all over come back to win the fight is, as HBO's Larry Merchant recently put it, "humbling". While on average Boxing matches may sometimes be "slow" or mismatched, every once and awhile one comes along that is breathtaking in its mixture of brutality and beauty. This is why the Boxing fan puts up with the bad side of the Boxing: To be able to witness some of the most moving and exciting events that Sports have to offer.

Joyce Carol Oates. On Boxing. Hopewell, NJ: Echo Press, 1994.
Showtime, HBO and ESPN's Boxing broadcasts
Max Kellerman