Even at the height of Muhammad Ali’s fame and beauty and sheer maximum bravado… even when we kids saw him as a kind of light, a beacon to the future, our future as African Americans… even as we revelled in the wake of this fast-talking freedom fighter, this god, this man of sport and beyond… even then: I really hated boxing.
Back then, ice hockey was the go-to vicious, destructive stop-a-guy sport where I come from. All those hockey sticks swinging at warp speed back and forth, wielded by brutes on ice.
But ice hockey had you suited up; thick clothes; pads and so forth; protection in that arena of a winter sport rendered vicious.
In boxing, as we all know, there is no such protection. On the surface, outwardly, the kit is the shoes and the shorts and the gloves… but it is much more.
It is also about that elusive quality called “heart”, as well as style and will. It is, indeed, a brutal sport. Its object is stoppage. Bring the proceedings to a decisive halt. Stop your opponent. Bring him or her or any combination of the two, to where they can no longer come for you. Instead, make their corner come out; come out in solicitation; surrender; and make the referee start the count.
People have died in the ring and because of the ring.
Not being a doctor, I have no idea whether boxing contributed to Ali’s Parkinson’s diagnosis. No one really knows. And it is wrong to assume that boxing did. But boxing causes injury, physical, mental and psychological. It can kill. And yet:
Sylvester Stallone’s brilliant and audacious tap into the 1970s unconscious zeitgeist, Rocky – aka “Can a White Guy Take Out a Black Guy in the Ring?” – put on screen the anxiety that Ali and Joe Frazier and all of the other African American men unleashed in the American majority’s psyche.
Rocky was a stroke of genius, because it gave 70s America what every society needs from time to time: a David and Goliath story.
Boxing can and does tell many stories. Often they are archetypal ones because there are times that the sport attracts them, encourages them.
Which is why the current sensation of influencer boxing – matchups of reality TV stars, rappers, TikTok celebrities and the like – may kill the “noble” art of real boxing off for ever.
Full disclosure: I was taught to box back in the day.
I had a part in a play, a rather arty thing typical of the theatre scene in the East Village, as it was called in the 80s. I had to box a guy and also throw some punches at what is called the “heavy bag” while saying my lines.
All of this had to be for real because boxing aficionados came to this theatrical production to see the real thing, not something you paid to see in Soho at the time.
As I was what used to be called “petite”, my trainer was very careful. But that was not good enough for me.
Pretty soon, I was learning the hard way that the point is to keep your hands up; the body in a protective crouch to protect the upper regions; lunge forward and cross. Plus: look good while doing it.
If you’re “petite”, you have to know that your reach isn’t great and that has to be compensated for in some way by speed; taking advantage of your opponent’s lack of attention because you look like quick work; or just sheer guts.
First of all, you have to walk into the ring, and above all: with style. A fight is not a brawl. And that’s what influencer boxing is.
And in being that, it is jeopardising the art, the sport of boxing for the generation it is aimed at. It is a couple of rungs below even cage-fighting; its style and grace is reminiscent of two family members pissed and scrapping around the back of a pub.
So what? Who wouldn’t want to see some clown with a million Instagram followers or some king of TikTok get taken out in public? The point is that a brawl can be seen anywhere, at any time. A great fighter and a great fight cannot.
Right before the pandemic, I was asked by a production company working for HBO to be one of the narrators/commentators on a doc series about The Kings: the fighters who emerged in the 80s, post-Ali’s and Joe Frazier’s peak. They were: Roberto Duran, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard.
I had stopped paying attention to fighting as a sport/entertainment, so to research their stories, to understand them, reminded me what boxing, for communities of colour and the poor, really is.
It is a gladiatorial contest, not only against the part of you that has no hope, but against society itself. This contest demands not only courage or “heart”, but a kind of grace and beauty. It can be a metaphor about the defeat of the barriers put up if you’re working class/poor/a person of colour/a woman.
Some of the fiercest fighters now are women, and while I don’t really watch fighting as such, you can see some of them come across the radar. See them enter the public consciousness. Be as determined as their male counterparts. Maybe even more so.
Influencer boxing is in danger of blurring the lines, making the lunge of a well-timed right look careful instead of more than that: the fruit of training; timing; rhythm; style and a deep study of the person in front of you. It is analysis perfectly timed; in the heat of the moment: a kind of act of courage. A gesture of grace.
I would never now watch championship boxing; or urge someone to take it up. Except that the health benefits from training are very good.
But boxing is, maybe above all, understanding the limits of your opponent; understanding your own. Being in the moment and not going for the “result”, no matter if things look like that to those outside of the ring. It is not getting hit yourself; and it is not a brawl.
The question is simple: with influencers brawling in full view, their zillions of followers making the mess go viral… are we in danger of losing the art and technical prowess of boxing?
And this is a sign of the era we live in, one in which everything becomes the same. And the sport/art known as boxing becomes just a show of hands.
Devoid of poetry.
And the possibility of redemption.