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It is one of the wonders of the world, this body of a good fighter. Think of the things it must do when the mind orders it…
— W.C. Heinz, The Professional
I don’t watch boxing. The “sweet science”, they call it, or “the sport of kings”. I can believe that – on the few occasions I have watched parts of a fight, I have seen nobility peeking through the flashes of gloves and the flying sweat; the cuts that require hopeless Vaseline that will come hopelessly unstuck.
I don’t watch it because I am fearful for what might become of the combatants – because I have read the stories of their forebears. This is how Norman Mailer opens up The Fight, his account of the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman:
There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man…
Ali must have looked beautiful to Mailer – at the height of his career, before his most epochal fight. Today he shuffles – a victim of worsening Parkinson’s brought about by too many ugly blows taken for money and for glory, too long ago to remember.
Sport should not do this. A hit in sport should be a metaphorical wounding: a run scored; a net bulged. But in boxing, a punch is a punch: the imagery delivered viscerally into one’s facial features. The cricketer or the tennis pro will age, but usually gradually and usually gracefully. Boxers are all too often desperate to stave the ageing process off. The Americans Bernard Hopkins and Evander Holyfield fight on to this day, both approaching their sixth decades. Maybe they are fearful of what will happen if they stop. I know I am.
It is little surprise that writers have so often found fighters, and the ring, objects of fascination. For any writer worth the seasoning on his chips is an eagle-eyed coward who observes the human condition from the shadows – and in the fighter there is much to admire. Here is Frank Hughes describing the middleweight boxer Eddie Brown in W.C. Heinz’s celebrated 1958 novel The Professional:
When a kid starts out to become a fighter and, somewhere, walks into a gym, bag in hand, he is like a rough-cut block of marble emerged from the quarry that is the mass of man. In any block a stone mason can see many things, but a master sculptor can see but one…
When a man, or a boy, decides to become a fighter, he abandons himself to a single purpose: to become a trained machine of hurt. It’s this factor that Heinz captures perfectly – by channelling almost all of Eddie’s speech through his effusive and charismatic manager Doc Carroll, by removing one of his central characters of any aspect of a personality, he reminds us, in the most lucidly gentle manner possible, that the fight game dehumanises its subjects.
Heinz’s spare prose serves a dual purpose. Eddie Brown’s story – or at least the run-up to his attempt at the middleweight championship of the world- is to become a magazine feature written by the stolid journalist Hughes, who narrates with a warmth and empathy belying someone who has never stepped into the ring. Then there’s the stylistic debt Heinz owes and shows to Hemingway, who himself wrote on boxing and practised it too. In “The Battler”, he tells of a former champion upon whom repeated beatings in the ring and a broken marriage have conferred poverty and a wretched existence on the streets.
It’s significant that the only violence in The Professional occurs during the novel’s final act, as Eddie Brown has his senses removed from him by the incumbent champion. In fiction, of course, we can imagine Eddie’s life turning out innumerable satisfying ways, each and none involving dementia and homelessness and a chronic addiction to the ring that pulls the champion back far beyond his bedtime. There’s no such solace to be found in War, Baby, sports journalist Kevin Mitchell’s recount of the 1995 title fight between a Brit, Nigel Benn, and an American, Gerald McLellan.
It is commonly and infamously known as one of the most brutal wars to have occurred inside a British boxing ring – and with good reason. After the tenth round of the fight, McLellan went back to his corner and “threw in the towel” – he surrendered victory, in another metaphor, to Benn. Except the American never got up. The G-Man, as he was and still is known, slipped into an 11-day coma, and he lives today disabled, requiring 24-hour care.
To be a fighter, you must conquer the duality of embracing the possibility of death while denying its very existence, while at the same time being prepared to be the harbinger of someone else’s doom. That requires a special kind of controlled rage. If only it were true that “when everything else is equal, fighters are the best-adjusted men in the world”, as Doc Carroll puts it in The Professional. For a life of violence inside a squared circle must have its naissance in the outside world. Here is Donald McRae on Mike Tyson in Dark Trade, perhaps the most perversely beautiful sports book of the last twenty years:
Tyson’s whole life had been chiselled from themes of loss and deceit. While still a child he had lost both his parents- his father almost instantly and then his mother- to drink and neglect and then death. Ever since then he had been searching for a new family.
Into Tyson’s life came the trainer Cus D’Amato, who filled the role of father figure by transforming the boy Mike into the most fearsome heavyweight the world has yet seen. Whenever I think of Mike Tyson, when I read his name or see photographs of his still-mesmerising face, I think of these words alone: He never stood a chance.
The theme of childhood trauma driving men to fight is explored most beautifully by Lars Saabye Christensen in his epic, The Half Brother. Fred Nilsen is conceived in Oslo at the end of World War Two – through the rape of his mother. He spends much of his childhood mute after watching his grandmother die before his eyes, before finding a release as a boxer, and a vagrant. It has long been my favourite book on boxing, for its recognition of this simple truth: that the psychological complexity necessary to fight for one’s living must find its mirror and root in the brutality of childhood.
It is no more than a coincidence that as I write this piece, the next, enormous British fight is nearly upon us. On May 31st George Groves and Carl Froch will meet gloves before 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium. But I would rather read of Eddie Brown skipping rope than watch their four fists fly. However much I respect those who fight – and I do – I have read too much about the G-Man, too much about Iron Mike and far too much about Muhammad Ali as he is now to recognise boxing as sport. That is, to recognise it as sport is to see it as fiction. And in fiction, everyone gets up from the punch.