Silence (The Run Diary #12)

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This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here.

Silence in its most meaningful sense is not an absence of sound or distraction, but almost an immunity from it. People, sounds, objects, and even memories, are often harbingers of anxiety and temptation.

The ability to have such things in front of you, be aware of the mistakes they invite, yet somehow simply acknowledge them and continue moving forward without confrontation, is true silence. That silence is an inner strength that allows one to find an authentic peace and persistence.

When Steve Collins fought Chris Eubank, his eyes were closed and head tilted toward the canvas of the ring throughout the pageantry that typically commences a championship fight. He remained seated, the hood of his robe cloaked over his head, somewhat in the fashion of a Franciscan at vespers, while he and his opponent were introduced.

Eubank, as expected, showboated for the crowd, proudly and prominently displaying his adonis-like physique and flashing his cocksure stare all around the arena, gestures made to seem even more brazen by the fact that the crowd was clearly behind Collins. “Steve-O! Steve-O!” they chanted.

Collins remained seated, eyes closed, and head cast downward, not bothering to even acknowledge the cries of support let alone drink in those shouts of his name and strut for the crowd. The fight commentator pondered whether or not it was safe to be seated for that long before a fight.

Even as the chants of Steve-O continued, Collins is robotically proficient, remaining the more active fighter but refusing to remain in front of Eubank long enough for the Brit to counter meaningfully. Where the chants of the crowd and early successes of nailing Eubank, a previously undefeated and thought to be untouchable fighter, could easily invite recknlessness, Collins remains as attentive and steadfast in purpose as St. Antony in the desert.

Collins wins by fighting his fight. He wins by finding silence in all the distraction and temptation, remaining almost meditative in the midst of the violence in the ring. I would like to think that he was indeed deep in meditation, reminding himself of the plan that he brought to the ring and repeating it like a mantra. How brilliant it seemed to me that one could be so committed and immune from temptation. How genius that by making no rash moves, Collins executed a performance that was the stuff of legends.

***

I hadn’t run in Hamilton in over a year and wasn’t terribly excited to be back. I was there more out of the necessesity of getting my legs used to the notorious hills of the Around the Bay course. The group that gathered in the parking lot of LaSalle Park was large, an amalgam of Toronto and Hamilton runners.

I hadn’t seen the hills since the previous year and standing in that parking lot before we took off, they were really just memories. I remembered for a moment the last hill on North Shore Boulevard that leads on to Plains Road and just how overheated I was and how the gels I had taken for fuel were not settling right when I climbed that hill during the race in March of 2014. I remembered my legs feeling shackled during a training run the previous year and getting progressively slower the more I ran.

In the moments before we took off, I found myself silent, knowing that I was surrounded by other runners and would encounter many more along the route, all preparing themselves for the truly unique race that was Around the Bay, and that I might be tempted to keep up when I couldn’t. I knew that the hills were going to find themselves in front of me and that I could find myself daunted or tempted to attack them aggressively.

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Respect (Fighter of the Year, 2013)

1. Theatre of the Unexpected

Going into 2013, we knew a few things about Timothy Bradley. First, we knew that Tim Bradley was an incredibly skilled fighter and supremely conditioned athlete. Second, we knew that Tim Bradley did not defeat Manny Pacquiao in their 2012 contest despite what the official ringside judges had to say. Third, we knew that the botched judging was not the fault of Tim Bradley. Nonetheless, Bradley remained a target of disrespect, a rather kind way of describing the overdramatic reaction of some fans who pinned the injustice as much on Bradley as on the judges.

At the close of 2013, a year in which he stepped into the ring against monster Ruslan Provodnikov and legend Juan Manuel Marquez, we know a few more things about Tim Bradley. We know that having stood at the brink of disaster, Tim Bradley boasts a frightening sense of resilience and determination that could easily be his undoing. We know that for Tim Bradley, boxing is not just sport or profession, something that carries risk for him and his family and which must thus be approached with caution.

To judge by his performance against Provodnikov, fighting is probably Tim Bradley’s means to self-fullfillment and self-respect, an endeavour in which failure is not just a loss in an athletic contest, but a loss of self-worth and failure in the great mission of his life, a failure to catch his own white whale.

Given that Bradley’s 2013 comprised of a fight in which he showed his greatest vulnerability and a closely contested bout that he won fairly if not outright decisively, there are more obvious candidates for fighter of the year. Every fan will make their pick based on the facets of boxing that most resonate with them.

For this writer, boxing remains resonant for its ability to take those who experience it into the unknown, triggering a sensation that one is seeing a feat of strength, determination, skill, and perhaps recklessness that had never been seen before – the “theatre of the unexpected.” To show both relentless determination against a beast of a puncher and also the skill to dissect one of boxing’s great professors, Tim Bradley feels to me the only choice for fighter of the year.

2. Resilience

The story of Tim Bradley’s bout with Ruslan Provodnikov is largely told in the first two rounds of the fight. In these rounds, we see a Tim Bradley that we have never seen before. It was well known that Bradley was not a power puncher and this fight would not change that, but we would certainly see Bradley step out of his comfort zone, engaging with a clearly harder puncher and natural brawler rather than employing his superior athleticism to outsmart his opponent.

Logic dictates that this fight should have ended in the first round. With every flurry of punches thrown by Provodnikov, all hard enough to do damage, Bradley shows a desire to answer back immediately, charging hard to put himself right in front of his opponent in a statement of arrogance, signalling to Provodnikov that he is not intimidated and will not be cowed into retreat by the Russian’s power. This is obviously false, as a right shot buckles Bradley and sends him to the canvas, albeit in a delayed manner. Referee Pat Russell erroneously called it a slip.

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Crazy Young Soldiers (Brandon Rios vs. Mike Alvarado)

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.

Brandon Rios v Mike Alvarado

Image via Examiner. More photos of the fight from the Examiner here.

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.

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Still Without an Answer (Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez III)

This is my final piece looking back at the trilogy of fights between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao. They fight for the fourth time on December 8th, 2012. My pieces on their first two fights can be read here and here

***

In the lead-up to his third fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, the narrative espoused by nearly every fight writer and outlet needing to hype the fight was that Manny was no longer the animalistic destroyer that he once was. He had slacked in his training routine to lend focus to teaching Bible study and tending to his duties as a Congressman in his native Philippines. We might just have been witnessing the fall of a champion and the long awaited triumph of Marquez. The seemingly invincible Pacquiao was about to get caught.

Gone was the gambling, cockfighting, and adultery, replaced with an evangelical zeal for his newfound faith. Talks of retirement were more frequent in his comments. Had Manny traded his killer instinct for spirituality and would this fundamentally change his style in the ring?

We might be led to believe that this was indeed the case given his less brutal performances against Shane Mosley and Joshua Clottey, both of whom Manny seemingly refused to knock out, opting instead to just outpunch and outhustle his clearly overmatched foes, winning comfortably rather than dominantly. The Pacman had mellowed. He was more “mature,” a quality not necessarily highly valued in a prizefighter.

It’s certainly hard to deny that Pacquiao had changed, both in and out of the ring. In the fight in question, a change was beyond doubt in the mind of this writer, but it was change in the form of continued evolution and brilliance.

As much as I lauded the subtle improvements made by Pacquiao in my write-up on their second contest, I feel that this was once again the story of the third fight. What we witnessed was certainly not vintage Pacman, a forward moving phone booth style fighter who relished trading punches but was sure to get the best of close exchanges, but it was spectacular. Furthermore, while Marquez gave as good as he got in several instances, repeated viewings of the contest show that he simply did not do what he does best, namely frequent and clean counterpunching.

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Evolution of a Legend (Manny Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez II)

This piece looks back at the second fight between Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquiao and is part of a series on the three times they’ve entered the ring. My piece on the first fight can be read here.

1. What If?

Counterfactuals are a complicated but enticing business. With regard to major historical events, it seems that we simply cannot help but ask “what if?” What if Stalin had not succeeded Lenin? What if the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand had failed?  What if the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life had succeeded? The possibilities for counterfactuals are infinite and likely infinitely inconclusive. Nonetheless, we can’t seem to resist.

Sports fans, it might be said, are more vicious than historians when it comes to counterfactuals. There’s a therapeutic value, something akin to the bargaining stage of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, in boiling our disappointments down to one moment or a series of moments where a few slight modifications in events might have changed the results of a single contest or history itself.

What if Paul Gascoigne had not been sent off in tears with a second yellow card in England’s semi-final match against West Germany in the 1990 World Cup? Would England have then gone on to win the penalty shootout that settled the match and subsequently defeated Argentina in the final? What if Babe Ruth had not been traded to the Yankees? Would the prevention of a single transaction have relieved the Red Sox of the nearly century long Curse of the Bambino?

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Pacquiao’s Left – Marquez’s Right

1. “You Either Die a Hero or Live Long Enough to See Yourself Become the Villain.”

To be honest, I’m not a devotee of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. I do like that quote, however, and it serves as a perfect starting point to discuss the trilogy of fights between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, who will do battle for the fourth time in December. Here, I look back on their first contest.

When the fourth fight was announced, the reaction on the web was overwhelmingly negative.  The negativity, to return to the opening quote, has been directed primarily toward Pacquiao, the singing congressman from the Philippines who also enjoys a reputation as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, though this has come into hot dispute as of late. The negativity, it seems, stems from two sources.

First, though he is not solely to blame, Pacquiao is thought to shoulder a share of the culpability for the fact that fans are not getting what they have been wanting for years, which is to see Pacquaio battle Floyd Mayweather Jr. in one of the biggest fights of any era. Against the background of a constant lament that boxing is dying, fans are understandably sick of the politicking from promoters that has thus far failed to make that fight happen, particularly when it would have been most competitive.

Second, the narrative in the lead up to the fourth contest is that Juan Manuel Marquez is the victim of injustice. In three incredibly close fights with Pacquiao, particularly their third contest, there remains no shortage of fans who are willing to contend that Marquez was the victor in all three fights.

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The Perfect Imperfections of Sergio Martinez

1. Anything Can Happen

Excitement in sports has two components. First, there is the moment itself. The three point shot as the clock runs down, the touchdown pass, the knockout punch following a savage exchange, the winning run coming home in a dramatic race to the plate. Before these moments can actually happen we must have the first component, this being the tension building toward them and the anticipation of what might come.

Both the big moment and the anticipation vary in their intensity. In sport, to be it crudely, anything can happen at any time seemingly without explanation, so there’s always the possibility of surprise. Some of these moments produce an ephemeral excitement, a cheer or jeer from spectators. These are immediately gratifying but not so in the long-term.  They can as well be a little out of the ordinary, prompting spectators to turn to their friends and say, with or without the use of words, “Holy Shit? Did you just fucking see that?” We can call these, strangely, small or medium big moments. Yet still, some moments have the kind of effect that causes one to reconsider what they initially thought was possible. These are truly big moments.

The tension and anticipation will inevitably vary as well. It’s always present, because as mentioned above, anything can happen at any time. Some contests seem to constantly be pressing toward an explosive moment and something previously thought impossible. In these instances, competitors seem to battle with a sense of urgency throughout and appear to be bringing their A game and them some. In most other instances, the tension can be quite mellow, as the action proceeds according to convention and a particular logic. There may be some moments of interest, but everything else looks like something you’ve seen before. Call this, strangely, tension lite. So it is that a truly religious sporting experience requires high tension, big moments, unpredictability, and a sense that you’re seeing something you’ve never seen before.

Boxing is no exception to these rules. The fights that are rife with excitement in which both fighters seem to be in overdrive, in which two combattants seem to constantly be going toe to toe or offering a perfect demonstration of the Sweet Science by hitting without getting hit, in which punches come fast and furious and savage exchanges take place from bell to bell, are rare and treasured precisely for their rarity. Think Corrales-Castillo I (link to YouTube vid), the entirety of the Morales-Barrera trilogy, the mere eight minutes of fury that it took Hearns and Hagler  (link to YouTube vid) to bring their contest to a close. Most fights just don’t contain that type of intensity, at least not for more than maybe a few moments within the space of as many as twelve rounds.

It’s something that can be argued back and forth among devotees for an eternity, but I’m sure that I’m not alone in thinking that there are few fighters currently active who are capable of producing truly exciting contests that stay in one’s memory or leave you in awe of their abilities and their fighting spirit, as most fighters have adopted a more defensive and pragmatic style of fighting. Brandon Rios, Jorge Arce, Lucas Matthyse, Carl Froch, and non-elite fighters like Michael Katsidis, to name just a few, are never in boring fights, this much is true.

Though their fights are action packed, however, none of the above mentioned fighters produce the religious experience that David Foster Wallace once ascribed to Roger Federer, wherein ” the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.” There are many fights that are high octane, but at the end of the day, they look like what they are, a boxing match. Immensely enjoyable to be sure, but without that “unreal” quality in which fighters appear to have defied all logic and intuition and even the laws of nature.

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Fire With Fire (On the 2011 Fight of the Year)

1. A Strange Resonance

There are certain fights that have a strange sort of resonance with boxing fans, at least if one has ever stopped to carefully consider the many objections to such violent spectacle as well as what makes the sport so thrilling. The strange resonance to which I’m referring is comprised to a sort of dual reaction one has to certain fights, including many of the classics. The most enjoyable fights are brutal and bloody. They may end in a violent knockout or continue as an unrelenting slugfest for as many as twelve rounds, formerly as many as fifteen rounds. We love them. We’ll re-watch them and never stop talking about them.

On the other hand, these are the fights that remind us that boxing is a sport built on a set of rules almost horrifying in their simplicity. Unlike football or hockey, where the most brutal aspects of the sport are incidental to other objectives, brutality is indeed the objective of boxing. There is no puck to put into the net or ball to run into the end-zone. There are no teammates or goal posts. The sweet science is merely two men confined to an enclosed area with no weapons other than their own strength, skill, and will to triumph. The more power shots that land, the more knockdowns that take place, the more blood that is spilled, the more we know that the infliction of harm is the very purpose of this cruel profession.

In so many years of watching the sport, I have yet to succumb to any of the moral objections to boxing that posit the sport as barbaric and violent, serving only to inflict mental and physical damage upon its participants. I know that these arguments are valid and may contain a grain of truth (mind you, they are valid for nearly every sport and many other activities), but I’ve never stopped watching. Perhaps there is some element of a primal love of violence that remains from a time prior to our establishment of moral principles.

If I can take the great man out of context, Nietzsche’s lament for the loss of admiration for the expression of strength perhaps hints at the reasons for our adoration of such displays of raw power between two competitors, which harken back to a time when violence was ubiquitous. Indeed, we are well aware that early versions of combat sports served as preparation for battle and hunting at a time when such things seemed perpetually necessary.

The instincts and customs of our ancestors may just be calling out to us when we bask in the glory of competition. We may very well nod in agreement at Nietzsche’s claim that, “[t]o demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.”[1]

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Mayweather vs. Mayweather

The great A.J. Liebling, the Herodotus of modern prizefighting, lamented the advent of television as bringing forth the “ridiculous gadget” that would kill the sport of boxing. As more people took in the fights on the idiot box, this would in turn suck support from local boxing clubs and less new talent would develop. In addition, television, concerned more with hawking beer and razor blades, again to paraphrase Liebling, would focus solely on those fights and fighters that would generate viewership and revenue and eventually become the sole medium by which modern day pugilists could achieve any success or prominence within the sport. If you didn’t fight on television, you simply didn’t matter.

It appears that Liebling was right, perhaps to a greater extent than the boxing’s greatest chronicler had himself anticipated. Whereas major bouts at one time aired in primetime slots on major cable networks, easily accessible to fans and far more likely to catch the eye of casual and potential fans, the Sweet Science is now all but entirely absent from non-Pay-Per-View television, where only the most prominent handful of bouts are broadcast.

Given the astronomical cost to order a fight on television, it’s more than likely that only the most devoted fans of boxing will be watching from home, usually with a large crowd attending by invitation – no sense in twenty people all forking out sixty dollars for a fight. In other instances, the best option a modern fight fan has is to make their way to the nearest pub broadcasting the event, and finding such a place is sometimes not so simple. From a purely cost-benefit standpoint, this makes sense. Watching the fight while consuming a few pints – I try to consume in moderation so that I can actually digest what’s happening in the ring – one is likely to spend much less than they might have had they ordered the bout on television. This is especially true on those occasions when a fight ends abruptly. My pint had only just arrived and I had barely taken a sip in May of 2009 when Manny Pacquiao dispatched Ricky Hatton in the second round.

So it was that a friend and I made our way up the street and around the corner from my home – again, we were lucky to find a venue so close – to watch Floyd Mayweather return to the ring against Victor Ortiz. The undercard, to say a brief word about it, was absolutely spectacular. Erik Morales claimed the vacant WBC Light Welterweight title from Pablo Cano, taking the place of an ill Lucas Matthyse. Many have validly claimed that the title was bogus given the suspicious circumstances under which the WBC stripped it from Tim Bradley, and that Morales was coming off a loss, albeit a close one, to Marcos Maidana yet was still fighting for a vacant title.

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