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?”

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