Friday, September 5, 2008

When my father fought my friend

Boxing is crooked. Boxing is fixed. Boxing is a cesspool for the lowest form of human traffickers, those who extract money from athletes who put their very physical health and future on the line for our entertainment.

But it is also the most honest form of sport. A fighter is worth exactly what they sign for. Unlike basketball, football, or baseball there is no salary cap or luxury tax to limit his share of the market. Though wrong decisions are epidemic, the fighters know who won, and so do the fans. The belts are comedies of political favoritism and network pressure, but their very debasement means that we do not even have to pretend they exert meaning. Boxers are entertainers, they are the most aggressive form of capitalists, and as such I find it difficult to ever quibble with their matchmaking decisions. If they choose to go for the big money over fights that will build legacy and respect that is their prerogative.

So it is not without some self-conflict that I admit my deep despair over the upcoming mega fight between Oscar de la Hoya and Manny Pacquiao. When initial reports claimed that Pacquiao had balked over the 30% share of the fight’s revenue I was relieved, despite the knowledge that he had declined the largest windfall of his brief but spectacular career. Since he inevitably signed on for the fight my dissapointment has only grown.

It is not that De La Hoya is a bad man, and he has certainly proven himself to be an elite fighter over the course of his career. But at this point he has moved past the point of relevance. He is like Robert Deniro, or Jack Nicholson, someone still capable of giving a fine performance, but for whom there are no longer any stakes, where the embarrassment of a flop or the accolades of success don’t really reflect upon their careers.

And again, there is really nothing wrong with this in a global sense. I don’t think a fighter should be forced to retire unless absolutely medically necessary. Even a somewhat sad case like the final chapters of the heroic Holyfield’s career don’t bother me, as he plies his trade in the equivalent of the heavyweight minor leagues, taking fights against marginal Euros and no-hopers there is no pretense of meaning or jeopardy.

No, the problem comes when one of these vestiges of the elite thrust themselves back onto the main stage. Manny Pacquiao is now the top pound for pound fighter in the world, he has plunged himself through five divisions and the Mexican trio of Barrera, Morales, and Marquez with shocking violence and willpower. He is at the prime of his career, a fighting machine whose craft has finally caught up to his physical gifts. There is virtually nothing that it is not possible to imagine him doing.

It hurts to see him, at this point, his absolute apex, taking a freak fight, a toughman competition. Pacquiao, who only moved up from 130 pounds this year, will now be taking on a genuine 154-pound fighter. It is not merely the weight difference that is so daunting, weight is one thing, but the human frame is something else. Pacquiao and De La Hoya are not only in different weight classes, but truly in different zones of human body type. Their fist size, chest size, calves, are simply not comparable.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the early days of mixed martial arts, when they would match fighters for the freakish disparity of their bodies just to see what the hell would happen. Like a living test of a drunken barroom debate between friends. Who would win, Gandalf or Spiderman? But in those MMA events there was the element of the unknown, the integration of different forms of combat and skill level. As that sport has matured it has moved away from that macabre roman excess of violence and cruelty.

In this fight we have the worst of that instinct without much of the mitigating element of uncertainty. While de La Hoya has clearly deteriorated he is still a genuine fighter. I fully expect him to batter a noble Pacquiao around the ring, pushing him back and damaging him even when landing on the Philipino’s gloves until his corner is forced to spare him. Oscar will get his career-capping win, a sort of valediction for all he has done for the sport, but I will find it empty and sad. A win over relics like Vargas or Trinidad, while lacking any pretension of combat at the highest level, would at least have the weight of a match between equals. Oscar has stood astride the sport like a money printing colossus, but he will exit as a mere pile of excess bills.

And though this is Pacquiao’s prerogative, and his blood will be repaid with gold, it will be an empty feeling for all who watch. Even if Pacquiao is somehow able to do the unthinkable and actually win, my only reaction will be to marvel at how thoroughly Oscar’s gifts have faded to allow this to happen.

So what are we left with? A freak show, an interspecies fight, a paralyzed rhinoceros versus a jackal, who will win? It really doesn’t matter. Boxing is capitalism masquerading as sport, it always has been. When the two intersect as with Pacquiao’s last fight with Marquez, the results are both terrible and beautiful to behold. When they don’t we’re left with, this.

And yet… what does it say about me? Despite it all, I won’t be able to keep from watching.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

My cancer is my friend

I would say that the most obvious reasons one watches and enjoys boxing are:

1. Ethnic pride.
2. The possibility of blood and, potentially, death.
3. The narrative of specific fighters.
4. The application of the sweet science as an expression of human athleticism and mental discipline.

I list those in what I would guess to be descending order of their commonness, and what I would like to think of as ascending order for my personal fandom.

Why do you watch boxing is a far more common question than for any other sport, asked in a credulous and somewhat prosecutorial tone. (It’s the third most likely conversation point when boxing is broached, closely behind anything related to Mike Tyson, and, strangely to me, the questioner’s admission that they enjoyed professional wrestling when they were younger.)

I bring this up because I went to a live fight on Friday. As everyone who has ever been to a live fight knows, the immediacy of the event, the sound of the punches, the physicality of the bruising is extraordinarily different than that of watching on television. Roughly the difference one imagines between the experience of a war zone and the reportage of an event. But strangely this time it left me somewhat lifeless and confused, as though the physical act of bone on bone were the equivalent of high school field hockey.

This was certainly influenced by the fact that the fight card was less than stellar. I had seen one fighter before, Fernando Beltran Jr., but despite being an honest pro and a world title challenger he was not the sort to inspire poetry or even car ornamentation. Combine the lack of household names with the event taking place in a cavernous hockey stadium that I would guess was roughly filled to an eighteenth of capacity, and you get the least rousing fight I’ve ever been to.

I’ve been to live fights in six different cities now, several of which had crowds as small or smaller, if none with such echoing emptiness at this one. But at those there was an underlying nationalism that sweetened the event, even if the stakes were similarly low.

I find college basketball unwatchable, but can understand the passion when the stakes are based on school pride and tradition, but like televised minor league baseball, being at a mid-level prize fight without the benefit of jingoism turns rooting interests into something more like trying to enjoy a funeral you’ve not been invited to.

It’s strange being in an event where the crowd doesn’t know whom to root for. Normally it’s a Mexican themed night, or a Polish card, but here the main event was between a Mexican and an African fighter, and while I always root for the African fighter because no one else does, I felt the largely white, voyeuristic crowd of mostly non fight-fans was torn between their distaste for illegal immigrants and the natural inclination to root against even a 126 pound black man.

The only clear rooting interest the crowd took was in favor of a fighter from Pennsylvania who came in to his own rap song. But this was not so much based on his style or demeanor, but the fact that his opponent, though actually from Maine, had a name that began with a Le, and as such, being seen as vaguely French, was easy to root against.

With jingoism and personal narrative ruled out we were left with blood, and while the madding crowd obliged with their familiar catcalls for violence, it wasn’t to be, and the place turned into a weird conglomeration of insignificance and personal triumph.

All of which is to say that though on some level the overt nationalism and xenophobia which are in many ways the worst part of all sports are, in boxing, the coda by which the liberated fan must react. The vitriol and bitter shouts that seem to be rote at fights more than any other sporting event: Polack, nigger, cracker, fairy, and cantaloupe, far from being a degradation of the event are the background upon which the noble fan has to trace his journey from mere sporting contest, to prizefight, from bruising to science. Boxing is one of the last honest refuges of racial relations through spite and blood, and lets hope it remains that way.

While De La Hoya and Hopkins may now have meaning beyond their respective ethnicities, if they did not start with one how would we ever find the other?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Be imitators

One need look no further than the trite but true boxing axiom that “Styles make fights,” to know that boxing is more than mere athletic contest, it is beauty and sweet science intermingled. It is showmanship and pain. It is drama and farce. The history of boxing is littered with champions that mixed performance with personality, body with mind, that no other sport can match; Ali, Foreman, Robinson, Duran, Tyson, Jack Johnson, men who’s names conjure not merely athletic achievement, but a sort of living communion between muscle and man that those of us still coming to terms with the flesh which carries us around will never hope to achieve.

It is no coincidence that the majority of great sporting dramas in both literature and film take place in the squared circle. Boxing is all too human and the shedding of the robes, the baring of the chest, the near nakedness and vulnerability of the participants strip them to their essence in a way impossible in other endeavors. In the same way one never gets to know a person until spending an ungodly amount of consecutive hours with them; a road trip, a shared vacation, a prison cell, when all their defenses are removed, one cannot but know what a man is made of after twelve rounds of hit or be hit. There is no quarter in boxing, no timeout, it is elemental. In the championship rounds when the body weakens and the brain is exhausted all that one is left with is the base, the fundamentals, the instincts, the MAN.

There’s a certain moment in round twelve of Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Naseem “the prince” Hamed that has always stayed with me in just that way, not so much for the violence or tactical mastery, but for the humanity of the moment.

You probably remember Hamed. The flamboyant Brit born of Yemeni parents would enter the ring with the word "Islam" emblazoned on the back of his trunks. A radiant and grating personality from a country starving for a champion (Lennox Lewis just never stuck) Hamed changed the economic environment for fighters in the featherweight division. He was a southpaw and built like a fire hydrant, with short, thick, muscular legs and an almost cartoonishly tiny head that looked like nothing so much as Mr. Peanut. I’ve often wondered why, during one of his numerous and drawn out ring walks he never once dressed in formal wear with a top hat, monocle, and cane.

In the ring Hamed was the ultimate stylist. He carried his hands low, clowned, and basically did everything that even an amateur would know to avoid. Instead of craft he relied on incredible agility, quickness, and power. The power was the thing. At the lower weight classes knockouts, when they come, are normally the result or consistent and repetitive domination by one opponent. Hamed, on the other hand, had an impossible, preternatural destructive power that seemed to come from nowhere. He would throw punches at weird angles, and when they landed the fight usually ended.

Both loved and hated during his prime, his importance is hard to overstate. During the late 90’s every weight class below 130 lbs. was the rough equivalent of the NBDL. You might occasionally see them on TV, the first undercard fight on a PPV, but never a main event, and never for much money. Hamed changed all that with stadiums filled with loyal fans and those eager to see him fail.

Hamed was making a million bucks a fight, but doubts remained. He had won titles in several weight classes, defeating good, but not great opposition. After repeatedly avoiding the top Mexican fighters in his division Hamed was finally matched with someone who would test his vaunted power.

Marco Antonio Barrera was born in Mexico City and turned pro at the age of 16. Nicknamed “the baby-faced assassin,” not so much for his youth, but for the implacable, almost disturbingly fixed expression of concentration on his face when he fought. A serious man, his most flamboyant ring entrance has been following two compatriots bearing a sign in opposition to the Republican Congress’s punitive immigration legislation.

Barrera was picked from an early age as the potential successor to Julio Caesar Chavez for his boxing crazed countryman. (Chavez holds roughly the same significance for the Mexican that Koufax holds for the Jew. That is, just slightly below the Virgin and Moses respectively.)

A straight ahead brawler with a mean streak, Barrera did not have Hamed’s otherworldly power, but he had the type of left hook to the body that only a Mexican fighter can be born with. Barrera was destined for greatness until running into Poison Jones, a slickster from New York with a wicked straight right.

After losing two fights Barrera rebuilt his career till the first and most epic of his three fights versus arch rival Eric Morales. Though he lost that fight by decision it made little difference to the public. Considered without dispute one of the ten or so greatest bouts in the history of the sport it was the sort of violent confrontation that is most comparable to cockfighting, with each man trading blows long passed the limits of endurance.

While perhaps not the true heir to Chavez, Barrera was without a doubt the finest opponent Hamed had ever fought. Even so, as the fight neared Hamed was a 3 to 1 favorite, astonishing for a fighter of Barrera’s achievements. The match up seemed all wrong for Barrera. Barrera loved contact, loved mixing it up, and claimed he was going to take the fight straight to Hamed, knock out the arrogant showman whose pre-fight comments had infuriated him. The thinking was that all Barrera could do was punch, and no one could outpunch Hamed.

As Barrera paced in the ring waiting for Hamed to enter his face was impassive as always. He was from a culture of fighters, a hard man and ten year professional. He waited nearly an hour while Hamed retaped his gloves multiple times before finally being carried into the ring on an apparatus rigged to look like a magic carpet.

And then something completely unexpected happened. Marco Antonio Barrera boxed. The ultimate banger, Barrera reinvented himself as a conservative boxer-puncher. He let Hamed unleash his leaping left hand leads and responded with accurate counter punching and carefully controlled aggression. He used his jab to bounce Hamed’s head around, unleashing his perfect left hook only when he was certain Hamed would be unable to counter.

After the first few rounds it was clear Hamed was outclassed. The tactics that had worked against weaker opponents were useless against the reborn classicist Barrera. Hamed, desperate, began clowning continuously hoping to land his one fight changing punch. The crowd, half full of Mexicans roared in orgiastic ecstasy as the off-balance Hamed was repeatedly hurt by sharp punches. The few times Hamed landed clean Barrera took them and came back with something even better.

By the twelfth round Hamed was hopelessly behind on points and seemed more intent on taking the fight the distance than taking chances that would open himself up to Barrera’s excellent counterpunching. But rather than take his defeat Hamed wanted to spoil it. He began to hold, to punch in the clinches, and to trip Barrera. Though Barrera retained his stoicism you could hear the mounting bloodlust in the crowd, the feeling that the humiliation wouldn’t be complete with a mere lopsided decision.

It wasn’t so much the particularly egregious late punch by Hamed (long after the ref had stopped the action), during the middle of the twelfth and final round that made you know something would happen. It was the odds, and the prefight press conferences, and the hour waiting in the middle of the ring – it was the whole thing. And it is a moment that has stuck with me not only as the example of what it means to be an elite level boxer, but what allows any man of will to exercise his mastery over another.

Barrera waited a few moments, until the Prince leapt in, off balance, and then grabbed Hamed’s right arm, put his hand around his neck in the closest approximation to a head-lock one could manage while wearing boxing gloves, and marched Hamed halfway across the ring before he slammed his face into the ring post. The crowd, seemingly at its apex roared even louder in their glory.

Though one point was deducted it was well worth it for the raging Barrera. He had reinvented himself, become a new and different fighter, but the force of will and greatness in him had remained intact. It was the kind of moment only seen in elite level prize-fighting, the ultimate exhibition of machismo and competitive greatness. He very well might have been disqualified, but that thing which made him a champion would never allow him to accept either a punch, or a show of disrespect without an answer. There was no possible other way Barrera could have responded – his identity as a Mexican and a champion precluded it. As much about national pride and the sacred codes of masculinity as it was about the fighters, it is the moment that captures what boxing means to Mexican fans.

Hamed had a different notion of what boxing means as an institution. Fighting more for flash and fortune, Hamed never recovered from his loss, the blow to his ego and his lack of fighting spirit making it easier to fade into retirement than to work for the sort of redemption and resurrection that have come to mark the storied and glorious career of Barrera, whom, long past all expectation, remains a champion.

And though it has never been definitively established, I like to believe certain ringside reports that said as Hamed offered to touch gloves after returning to the middle of the ring Barrera, notably refusing any show of sportsmanship or comity, asked the Prince, “quien es su padre?”