When Allen Iverson became a national pariah last week for saying he’d rather retire than become just another player, another name in the boxscore, it made me uneasy. Not only the underlying racism carried by much of the reaction, which goes without saying any time Iverson is discussed, or the imperial calls of owing something to “the game.” Personally my feelings about Iverson have never been constrained by any team, or game, or victory paradigm, but more on a moral, religious level. His is a will to overcoming that has long left me with the feeling that, had things been different, he might very well have been the modern day Ray Robinson, all the tools and spirit to be a welter and middleweight destroyer. There is something about what he has done, that, like a great boxer just past his prime, makes one hope he steps away, so that his will can be preserved, perhaps as a gentleman farmer, world traveler, and collector of rare and exotic orchids.
But why is it for so many that the athlete in the team sports “owes” something that the boxer does not. A question that seems particularly pressing at this time, when so many or our recent greats are on the way out, with much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over the appropriate manner and time of their departure. Bernard Hopkins, De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Barrerra, James Toney, and Evander Holyfield are all perched at the exits at points between glorious and macabre. Unlike Iverson the general consensus is that all should leave, nothing more is expected or wanted. There is no owing of anything, just a general undercurrent that they should get off the stage before they embarrass themselves.
Now the obvious and true difference is that boxing is the hurt business, a deep and lasting kind of hurt that we respect and fear far more than the ruined knees of Patrick Ewing or the fused ankles of Bill Walton. But really, is that what it’s about? Is Holyfield in any more danger today than he was taking hellish beatings from Bowe, or fighting with a heart that supposedly had a hole in it against Tyson?
How can one in good faith tell a man with the type of maniacal, borderline psychotic self belief of Holyfield, or a man like Hopkins who has kept his body a preserved marvel at 44 years old, or a will like Barrerra’s that has allowed him to arise from various stages of washed up to rejoin the elite that they no longer have it? It’s like reasoning with the insane, and ultimately says more about our own bad faith as boxing fans than it does of those of the truly great boxers who touch us, and whose psyche is fundamentally unknowable to the type of person who so admires them. They are the sort who could bring the very world to ruin for their desire for glory, or for a woman, and do we really believe that we could or should try to influence that type of person? If there was a way to reason with a will like that they never would have accomplished the things that made us love them.
No, I think the answer is a feeling of bad faith, our worry that what we have seen from Holyfield or Hopkins, or Toney (Oscar is somewhat different, as his will is as much Donald Trump’s as it is Ali’s) is something so personal and destructive, and have enjoyed it so much that there is something dirty and unseemly about it. And the reason we lived with the feeling of dirt and worry and deep unease was the chance at witnessing a great moment, an act of becoming that would stand as a monument. And when that moment has past, when Holyfield is only just another fighter, another contender, we see more starkly what boxing is for the vast majority of its’ participants. Not a historical monument, but two hungry men fighting for a bone. What is the difference between Roy Jones and any other long in the tooth top twenty light heavyweight contender? Nothing, except that he once was the romance of the sport, the god on Olympus, and now that he’s scrapping in the dirt we realize far more clearly that we are too.