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,…


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