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?


Graydon said...

Pierce Egan approves.

I gotta admit Shoefly, I'm very glad you're doing this.

shoefly said...

Thanks for the encouragement. Whenever I think about Pierce Egan I always say Prince in my mind, it seems more fitting.

Boxing seems just so suited to a certain type of analysis and texture that I haven't found anywhere else. We'll see what happens. Thanks again for the link and the encouragement.


Tree Frog said...

Well... A.J. Liebling was doing this before we were born and he dropped Egan's name as often as he could.

I honestly see bursts of what he did here and there, but it's not sustained.

May you find your voice.

shoefly said...

Thanks you as well treefrog. I honestly felt very hesitant to use the name boxiana, as it's beyond presumptuous, but in my defense my first ten choices had already been taken and I couldn't stand thinking about a name any longer. Hopefully I'll improve over the next few months.