1. Eternal Life
I typically refuse to partake in any debate concerning boxing being a “dying sport.” Cultural prophesy, in the words of the great Harold Bloom, is always a mug’s game. The forces that shape fads, trends, shifts, and fascinations from age to age are just too complex for any of us to be making on the spot pronouncements of what the future will bring, especially ones so simplistic as “_____ is dead,” which is quite in vogue at the moment.
Additionally, despite the humility that I propose in looking to the future, I don’t believe that boxing is dying or will ever die. I believe so not out of hope that something I love will always be with us, but because rather than rushing to pronounce it dead I find it more prudent to simply acknowledge that its mainstream popularity is currently waining.
If you’re Mexican, boxing is always flourishing. Same if you’re a Montrealer whose city is rapidly establishing itself as a North American fight capitol. For American audiences not of the diehard variety, for whom boxing means the heavyweight division, one currently characterized by a severe dearth of American talent, boxing is a thing of the past.
It’s a sport that seems to have its time and place, both constantly varying. Heroes rise and fall and occasionally a Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, Oscar De La Hoya, or Ray Leonard reaches the mainstream and captures the attention of the public at large. In Europe, the spectacle of a big fight puts us North Americans to shame. In the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao will always bring an entire nation to a halt when he enters the ring.
I choose to believe, however naively, that behind these individual figures who achieve prominence in their time is an art that we find eternally relatable whether or not we ourselves enter a ring. No matter the level of boxing’s mainstream appeal at any given time, we speak its language every day.
In a crucial moment of fear we’re “saved by the bell” at the precise moment when we were “backed up against the ropes.” In deciding to go for glory, we must first “throw our hat into the ring,” a phrase dating back to the pre-modern era of prizefighting when competitors signalled their readiness to fight by literally throwing their hat into the ring.
In a sport whose essence boils down to exerting force and strength in order to triumph, our experiences so easily resemble those of fighters in the ring. The fear of physical pain and the simultaneous urge to celebrate strength and the sheer brazenness of confronting physical force that is present in boxing is ever present in our daily lives, making it so easy to identify with those in the ring. Writer Jimmy Tobin, in an absolute must-read piece, summarizes quite rightly,
We want to unabashedly celebrate strength, we want hard truth, ugly realities; we want pain’s authenticity as well as our own. And it is in boxing, in the cruelest sport, that we find satisfaction.
2. Throwing in the Towel
There are times, however, when the pressure is too much and we must swallow our pride, acknowledge our limits, and admit defeat by “throwing in the towel.” We do so not out of cowardice, but out of acknowledgement that we have given our best efforts but have reached our personal limits. It does not mean that we won’t triumph again, but for the sake of our own safety and well-being it is sometimes imperative to walk away.
When a fighter’s corner throws in the towel, it does not cause us to lose respect for that fighter knowing that the pain is very real and that damage could be long term. Parallel to this acknowledgement, however, is that aforementioned and contradictory inclination to revere strength and defiance in the face of pain. A fighter who refuses to quit no matter the damage sustained is usually doubly praised as one who steps aside despite their best efforts. The “warrior ethos,” which has been celebrated since time immemorial, is celebrated again in modern prizefighting.
When Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado entered the ring this past Saturday for a rematch of their October 2012 slugfest, it should have come as no surprise to anyone who saw the first match that quitting would not be an option for either fighter no matter the volume of punishment each would take. The “warrior ethos” was to be on full display.
There was indeed punishment. The numbers alone, unaccompanied by any images, are staggering. According to Compubox, Alvarado threw 860 punches to 823 for Rios. Rios would land 182 powershots to 177 for Alvarado. Over the twelve rounds that this fight managed to last, these numbers translate into each fighter having thrown an average of 70 punches per round.
Like the first fight, they were punches thrown with bad intentions. Every single jab thrown by Rios appeared to have enough force to shatter concrete. Alvarado, however, was apparently made of something much stronger, perhaps titanium. Rios loaded up on every shot, rarely if ever throwing more than one punch in succession. He wasn’t there to outsmart Alvarado. Rios, entertaining as he was, stayed one dimensional, looking to cut off the ring and nail his opponent with an uppercut on the inside.
Rios executed this punch successfully several times and each one could very well have put Alvarado to sleep. By the end of the fight, Alvarado’s face was some sort of mutated strawberry, blood red and looking like it could burst or fall apart in any place at any time.
In the second round, Rios buckled Alvarado with a jab, causing the latter to flail wildly around the canvas like a drunkard looking for his way home. In the third, Alvarado returned the favour and left Rios stumbling in a similar fashion. Neither fighter actually lost his footing and already in the fourth round I was wondering how this fight was still going.
It was exactly what we should have expected given the nature of their first encounter and the rhetoric of both fighters leading into this match. Rios borders on insanity, gleefully remarking in HBO’s documenting of both fighters’ training camps, “I’m not trying to be the best or pound-for-pound. I just love to fight.” Rios adds that he wants a Gatti-Ward type of fight and that he loves to get hit once in a while.
In the end, the full steam ahead mentality did not pay off for Rios. Alvarado went toe-to-toe whenever necessary but got on his bicycle when Rios attempted to cut off the ring; he threw combinations; he pivoted to avoid punches but replied to every statement made by Rios almost instantly. Alvarado didn’t just come to fight. He came to think, to play chess, to strategize. Alvarado is as rough and tough as they come, no one can doubt that now, but he was more than the soldier rushing into battle in a messianic fury and that served as his key to victory.
The blood and the bruises accumulated by both men brought so vividly to life those forces underlying our fascination with boxing, both the pain from which we can’t look away and the physical prowess that we celebrate. The virtues and terrors that we have documented in poetry and stories over the ages, and which we see played out in the ring, were on full display as Rios and Alvarado battered one another. We felt the pain and we felt the thrills as if we were in the ring ourselves.
3. Crazy Young Soldiers
When the final bell rings and Alvarado is proclaimed the winner by way of unanimous decision, Rios is ever the kamikaze. Even during the postfight interview, Rios is defiant in proclaiming that he was never hurt and that he wants an immediate third fight with Alvarado. He rattles off some statements about being a warrior among other unintelligible remarks and a barrage of expletives. It takes a special kind of insanity to claim that you weren’t hurt after taking a total of 261 punches.
Watching these two men in the ring and after the final bell brings back the idea of throwing in the towel. For Rios and Alvarado, it’s more than just a will to win. It’s a guiding principle of life. Each man, Rios probably moreso, probably believes that he can fight indefinitely. He believes that fighting is the chief triumph in life and that death in battle is as honourable a death as one can have. Perhaps I’m being a bit too speculative, but the glee with which Rios especially approaches fighting might just be his downfall.
It’s long been the province of the fight game that what’s done in the ring is merely an extension of the fighters life outside it, working their way out of dire poverty and violence. The ring was their way out, but that fighting spirit too often embeds itself in the mind of a fighter past the point of reason and reality. It’s why Ali fought long after becoming a shadow of his former self. It’s why Meldrick Taylor reduced himself to an incomprehensible mess.
The result is often not pretty. It reveals the dark side of the “warrior ethos,” that which denies that we are human and that we are susceptible to damage if we don’t know our limits and which posits that throwing in the towel is cowardly.
What we witnessed this past Saturday was incredible and I am certainly anticipating a rubber match. The truths of life that we see in boxing, however, cannot just be glorious victories and the spectacle of athletic prowess. We must also see our limitations as physical beings who react to pain and are ultimately mortal. Few things are sadder than fighters who refuse to acknowledge this reality and become crazy old soldiers, pathetically pursuing one last shot at glory in a young man’s game.
Throwing in the towel at times is necessary, and as the fight ended, I couldn’t help but wonder if Rios or Alvarado would ever realize that these glories, wonderful as they are, simply cannot be sustained indefinitely.