»  National Review Online

February 8th, 2002

  Sweet and Sour


The relationship between sports and what Hazlitt called "the reflective portion of humanity" — writers, intellectuals and the like — is a very curious one. Nowadays, most people think of baseball as the sport for us pointy-head geeks. There's the history and mythology of the game, the drowsing, dream-inducing summer heat under which it's played, the pathos ("I'm the luckiest guy in the world … "), the idioms ("Say it ain't so, Joe!"), the peculiarly pleasing geometry of the field, the myriad pettifogging rules, and the statistics! And, if further authentication were needed, George Will has written books about it.

In fact, for most of the 20th century the thinking man's sport was not baseball, but boxing. To anyone under 30, I suppose the phrase "boxing literature" will bring to mind nothing more than those silly "Rocky" movies. Well, here is a partial list of people who have written with love and understanding about what Pierce Egan called "the sweet science": Homer, Lord Byron, Hazlitt himself (his classic essay "The Fight" was the ultimate source for the raw-egg business in Rocky), Jack London, Hemingway, Faulkner, John O'Hara, Nelson Algren, Ring Lardner, James Farrell, Irwin Shaw, Norman Mailer, A.J. Liebling, Joyce Carol Oates … As for real boxing movies — well, where does one start? I can think of a dozen brilliant ones without trying. (My favorite? John Huston's Fat City, by a mile. You haven't seen it? See it.) And while, as I suppose is to be expected, boxers are not as verbal as baseball players, some pithy and memorable things have been said in, and about, the ring. "He can run, but he cain't hide," (Joe Louis). "Somebody up there likes me," (Rocky Graziano). "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," (Muhammed Ali).

It's all slipping away now, of course. Our civilization has apparently advanced into a zone of refinement in which the sight of two men punching each other in the face until one of them falls down no longer has broad appeal. How many people today could name any fighter below the heavyweight division? Even within that division, how many could name the last three world champions? (Yes, yes, I know, the bewildering proliferation of governing bodies for the sport — boxing's best attempt yet at collective suicide — has hopelessly muddled the issue: but how many people could name any of the champs?) When I was a kid, a televised Big Fight would sweep the streets clear. No self-respecting man would be anywhere but in front of a TV set the night they were showing a Big Fight. Now, unless you have Pay Per View, you can go through your whole life without ever seeing a boxing match.

A good thing, too, a lot of people would say; isn't boxing a sordid sport? Penniless young men are lured into the ring by unscrupulous managers, who are not infrequently involved with organized crime. The poor lad is pushed out to fight until brain damage has dulled his reactions, then he's tossed into the gutter. Bud Schulberg's 1947 novel The Harder They Fall is the model here (there was a movie with Humphrey Bogart). Well, yes, there is that side to boxing, and always has been. It is the case that at the higher levels, boxing does periodically get so crooked that no self-respecting corkscrew would shake hands with it. And for as long as men have fought each other for money, boxers have demonstrated a tendency to slide into ruin when their fighting days are over. It happened to Tom Cribb, the English champion 1805-20 (fifteen years! and that was before gloves!!) It happened to Tom Shelton, a prize-fighter of the generation after Cribb, who, when he couldn't shake his addiction to strong liquor, committed suicide with the words: "Any man has a right to hang himself."  It happened to Kid McCoy, it happened to Sonny Liston.

Much more often, though, it does not happen. Retirement isn't easy for anyone; and for sportsmen it comes awfully early. Most boxers have negotiated it pretty well, all things considered. The typical retired boxer becomes a trainer, a referee, an official of one of the governing bodies, or a small businessman. In England, they always seem to buy a pub. (Which is what Tom Cribb did. Alas, he forgot the golden rule of dealing in mind-altering substances:  "Don't get high on your own supply.") Some are very successful. Jack Dempsey ran a popular restaurant in new York. The tremendous John Gully (1783-1857), after experimenting with the inevitable pub, bred racehorses, invested successfully in land, and got elected to Parliament! (And had 24 children by two wives. He turns up in one of the Flashman novels, where Count Otto von Bismarck catches him with a sucker punch.) Jack Broughton (1703-89), the father of English prize-fighting, and national champion for 21 years, is buried in Westminster Abbey. Joe Louis was reduced to working as a casino greeter, but he did it superbly well.

As for the brain damage — well, I have no doubt it happens. In what sport is there not some characteristic pattern of common mild injury? Sport entails doing violent things with your body. And, yes, people occasionally die in the ring — as they do on ski slopes, basketball courts and even baseball diamonds. That's a rarity, though; and the number of sharp-as-a-tack old-timers you find in the boxing world suggests that brain damage is far from universal. It probably only came in at all with the introduction of gloves in the late 19th century. Before that, the force of blows was limited by the reluctance of fighters to shatter the bones of their fists. Gloves save the fists and faces, but jolt the brains.

[Prize-fighting, by the way, is not at all extinct. In my part of England — the East Midlands — there are regular prize-fights, and a pecking order of champions well known to the cognoscenti. It's illegal, of course, and the fights are held in remote fields or woodlands, the location made known to the fans by word of mouth at the last minute. Huge crowds assemble, and vast sums of money are wagered. I have never seen a prize-fight myself, but I'm told it's unforgettable. If you want to try it, get yourself to England and make some contacts in the "traveller" community of gypsies and tinkers, who organize these events.]

Boxing's going through a bad spell right now. The Tyson-Lewis fracas the other week was a disgrace, as was the less well noted (outside boxing circles, anyway) incident in the same city at an exhibition benefit for the Twin Towers Fund last November. Middleweight James Butler lost a bout to Richard Grant. In the true spirit of boxing, Grant went up to Butler after the bell and extended his hand to shake. Butler floored him with a vicious right. (They had taken their gloves off at this point.) Butler was arrested and charged with second-degree assault, to the solid approval of the crowd — heavy, like any boxing crowd, with cops and firemen. This is still a sport.

The current world heavyweight champ — by everybody's reckoning, after his emphatic KO of Hasim Rahman November 17th, and to hell with those alphabet-soup governing bodies — is my countryman Lennox Lewis. Lewis, however, inspires little enthusiasm. The reasons for this are complicated. Unlike Mike Tyson, Lewis is clearly a member of the human race. He is well-behaved, well-spoken and intelligent. His hobby is chess, which he is said to play four hours a day. (The London Daily Telegraph sent one of their smartest reporters to check this out. He came back with a narrow win.) He is a terrific fighter when he puts his mind to it … but that's the problem. When he does not put his mind to it, Lewis is a joke. This leads fans to think he's less interested in the game than they are — a boxer who's not altogether serious about the sport. That's harder to forgive than Tyson's rape conviction. Lewis is anyway 36 years old, so presumably he will not be around much longer, even if he does get serious. That leaves boxing, from which general public interest has been draining away for decades, with a celebrity-shaped hole in its center.

Boxing will survive, though, I have no doubt of that. I'd be sorry to think otherwise. My own direct acquaintance with boxing was very slight, but planted the seeds of affection. In my early teens at my all-boys school in England, we had a P.E. teacher who was keen on boxing. For two years we boxed every winter. As a deeply unathletic lad, I was surprised to find that it got my attention. It was, for one thing, a loner sport, with none of the human demands and dependencies of team games. And for another thing, I was modestly good at it. The reason for this was that I had long arms. You remember that adolescent growth spurt? How different parts of you grew at different rates? Well, with me, it was the arms. At age 13 I looked like a gibbon. I don't know how it is in the professional ring, but at the schoolboy level, there is nothing like having long arms. Once you have some elementary principles of defense worked out, nobody can touch you. Add the easily-acquired knack of throwing your body behind a punch without falling over, and you are a competent boxer. (Though good wind is an absolute requirement, too. You may think boxing is hard on the brain, but it's the lungs that really take punishment. Why do you think they do all that road work?)

That P.E. master left the school, and parental opinion, moving with the Zeitgeist, turned against permitting us little scholars to beat the crap out of each other, even under proper supervision, so that was the end of our boxing. I always kept a soft spot for it, though. I'll always stop channel-surfing to watch a boxing movie — or the very occasional actual bout that's shown. The sign "BOXING GYM" always makes me stop and linger, and want to go in. Boxing is the sweet science, and always will be. It'll survive somehow, and come back some way, in an age less deluded than ours. Not even Mike Tyson can kill boxing.