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The Cruelest Sport

Sports Illustrated Boxing’s Best: Muhammad Ali

HBO Video, 60 minutes, $9.99

Ali vs. Foreman, 1974

Hemdale Home Video, 44 minutes, $19.95

The Ali/Norton Trilogy

NAC Home Video, 90 minutes (out of print)

Muhammad Ali: Skill, Brains and Guts

Vid-America Inc., 90 minutes (out of print)

And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
—Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”

A boxer’s victory is gained in blood.
—Greek inscription

Professional boxing is the only major American sport whose primary, and often murderous, energies are not coyly defected by such artifacts as balls and pucks. Though highly ritualized, and as rigidly bound by rules, traditions, and taboos as any religious ceremony, it survives as the most primitive and terrifying of contests: two men, near-naked, fight each other in a brightly lit, elevated space roped in like an animal pen (though the ropes were originally to keep rowdy spectators out); two men climb into the ring from which only one, symbolically, will climb out. (Draws do occur in boxing, but are rare, and unpopular.)

Boxing is a stylized mimicry of a fight to the death, yet its mimesis is an uncertain convention, for boxers do sometimes die in the ring, or as a consequence of a bout; their lives are sometimes, perhaps always, shortened by the stress and punishment of their careers (in training camps no less than in official fights). Certainly, as in the melancholy case of Muhammad Ali, the most acclaimed and beloved heavyweight in boxing history, the quality of the boxer’s post-retirement life is frequently diminished. For the great majority of boxers, past and present, life in the ring is nasty, brutish, and short—and not even that remunerative.

Yet, for inhabitants of the boxing world, the ideal conclusion of a fight is a knockout, and not a decision; and this, ideally, not the kind in which a man is counted “out” on his feet, still less a TKO (“technical knockout”—from injuries), but a knockout in the least ambiguous sense—one man collapsed and unconscious, the other leaping about the ring with his gloves raised in victory, the very embodiment of adolescent masculine fantasy. Like a tragedy in which no one dies, the fight lacking a classic knockout seems unresolved, unfulfilled: the strength, courage, ingenuity, and desperation of neither boxer have been adequately measured. Catharsis is but partial, the Aristotelian principle of an action complete in itself has been thwarted. (Recall the fury of young Muhammad Ali at the too-readily-defeated Sonny Liston in their second, notorious title fight, of 1965: instead of going to a neutral corner, Ali stood over his fallen opponent with his fist cocked, screaming, “Get up and fight, sucker!”)

This is because boxing’s mimesis is not that of a mere game, but a powerful analogue of human struggle in the rawest of life-and-death terms. When the analogue is not evoked, as, in most fights, it is not, the action is likely to be unengaging, or dull; “boxing” is the art, but “fighting” is the passion. The delirium of the crowd at one of those matches called “great” must be experienced firsthand to be believed (Frazier–Ali I, 1971, Hagler–Hearns, 1986, for instance); identification with the fighters is so intense, it is as if barriers between egos dissolve, and one is in the presence of a Dionysian rite of cruelty, sacrifice, and redemption. “The nearest thing to death,” Ali described it, after his third title match with Joe Frazier, in 1975, which he won when the fight was stopped after the fourteenth round. Or: “This is some way to make a living, isn’t it?” as the superlightweight Saoul Mamby said, badly battered after a title fight with the champion Billy Costello, in 1984.

A romance of (expendable) maleness—in which The Fight is honored, and even great champions come, and go.

For these reasons, among others, boxing has long been America’s most popularly despised sport: a “so-called” sport, even a “meta-” or an “anti-” sport: a “vicious exploitation of maleness”1 as prostitution and pornography may be said to be a vicious exploitation of femaleness. It is not, contrary to common supposition, the most dangerous sport (the American Medical Association, arguing for boxing’s abolition, acknowledges that it is statistically less dangerous than speedway racing, thoroughbred racing, downhill skiing, professional football, et al.), but it is the most spectacularly and pointedly cruel sport, its intention being to stun one’s opponent’s brain; to affect the orgasmic communal “knockout” that is the culminating point of the rising action of the ideal fight. The humanitarian argues that boxing’s very intentions are obscene, which sets it apart, theoretically at least, from purer (i.e., Caucasian) establishment sports bracketed above.

Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the more evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as a means of eradicating boxing that poverty itself be abolished; that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene. The pious hypocrisy of Caucasian moralists vis-à-vis the sport that has become almost exclusively the province of black and ethnic minorities has its analogue in a classic statement of President Bush’s of some months ago, that he is worried by the amount of “filth” flooding America by way of televised hearings and trials: not that the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearing and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial revealed “filth” at the core of certain male–female relations in our society, but that public airings of such, the very hearings and trials, are the problem. Ban the spectacle, and the obscenity will cease to exist.

Black boxers from the time of Jack Johnson (the first and most flamboyant of the world’s black heavyweight champions, 1908–1915) through Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Mike Tyson have been acutely conscious of themselves as racially other from the majority of their audiences, whom they must please in one way or another, as black villains, or honorary whites. (After his pulverizing defeat of the “good, humble Negro” Floyd Patterson, in a heavyweight title match in 1962, Sonny Liston gloated in his role as black villain; when he lost so ingloriously to Muhammad Ali, a brash new-style black who drew upon Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Robinson, and even the campy professional wrestler Gorgeous George for his own public persona, Liston lost his mystique, and his career soon ended.)

To see race as a predominant factor in American boxing is inevitable, but the moral issues, as always in this paradoxical sport, are ambiguous. Is there a moral distinction between the spectacle of black slaves in the Old South being forced by their white owners to fight, for purposes of gambling, and the spectacle of contemporary blacks fighting for multimillion-dollar paydays, for TV coverage from Las Vegas and Atlantic City? When, in 1980, in one of the most cynically promoted boxing matches in history, the aging and ailing Muhammad Ali fought the young heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, in an “execution” of a fight that was stopped after ten rounds, did it alleviate the pain, or the shame, that Ali was guaranteed $8 million for the fight? (Of which, with characteristic finesse, promoter Don King cheated him of nearly $1 million.) Ask the boxers.

Boxing today is very different from the boxing of the past, which allowed a man to be struck repeatedly while trying to get to his feet (Dempsey–Willard, 1919), or to be knocked down seven times in three wholly one-sided rounds (Patterson–Johansson I, 1959), or so savagely and senselessly struck in the head with countless unanswered blows that he died in a coma ten days later (Griffith-Paret, 1962); the more immediate danger, for any boxer fighting a Don King opponent, is that the fight will be stopped prematurely, by a zealous referee protective of King’s investment.

As boxing is “reformed,” it becomes less satisfying on a deep, unconscious level, more nearly resembling amateur boxing; yet, as boxing remains primitive, brutal, bloody, and dangerous, it seems ever more anachronistic, if not in fact obscene, in a society with pretensions of humanitarianism. Its exemplary figure is that of the warrior, of some mythopoeic time before weapons were invented; the triumph of physical genius, in a technologically advanced world in which the physical counts for very little, set beside intellectual skills. Even in the gritty world of the underclass, who, today, would choose to fight with mere fists? Guns abound, death to one’s opponents at a safe distance is possible even for children. Mike Tyson’s boast, after his defeat of the twelve-to-one underdog Carl Williams in a heavyweight title defense of 1989, “I want to fight, fight, fight and destruct the world,” strikes a poignantly hollow note, even if we knew nothing of subsequent disastrous events in Tyson’s life and career.2

Consider the boxing trainer’s time-honored adage: They all go if you hit them right.

These themes are implicit in Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times and The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing; but it is only in the latter work that theoretical, historical, and psychological issues are considered—Hauser sees boxing as “the red light district of professional sports,” in which individuals of exceptional talent, courage, and integrity nonetheless prevail. His Ali is the heftier and more ambitious of the two, befitting its prodigious subject—the most famous athlete of all time, until recent years the most highly paid athlete of all time. An authorized biography, it would appear to be definitive, and is certainly exhaustive; Hauser spent thousands of hours with his subject, as well as approximately two hundred other people, and was given access to Ali’s medical records. The text arranges these testimonies into a chronological history in which (is this New Age biography?) the author’s voice alternates with, but rarely comments upon, still less criticizes, what these others have said. Compassionate, intelligent, fair-minded, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times might have benefited from further editing and paraphrase. Specific subjects (an imminent fight, financial deals, Ali’s marital problems, Ali’s health problems, the Nation of Islam, et al.) become lost in a welter of words; frequently, it is difficult to locate dates, even for important fights. And no ring record of Ali in the appendix!—a baffling omission, as if Ali’s performance as an athlete were not the primary reason for the book.

As it happens, Hauser’s succinct commentary on the Ali phenomenon and his shrewd analysis of the boxing world, including Don King’s role in it, in his earlier book, The Black Lights, can provide, for the reader of the biography, a kind of companion gloss; the books are helpfully read in tandem. It is a remark of Ali’s, in 1967, that gives The Black Lights its ominous title:

They say when you get hit and hurt bad you see black lights—the black lights of unconsciousness. But I don’t know nothing about that. I’ve had twenty-eight fights and twenty-eight wins. I ain’t never been stopped.

  1. 1

    See Gerald Early’s brilliantly corrosive essays on boxing in Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture (Ecco, 1989).

  2. 2

    See Montieth Illingworth, Mike Tyson: Money, Myth and Betrayal (Birch Lane, 1991), p. 330.

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