Mike Tyson once called boxing the “hurt business”, and he hurt ’em more than most, saying famously, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Joyce Carol Oates, the novelist who has written one of the finest books on the sport, On Boxing, wrote later: “In a fully civilised society, professional boxing would not exist. That it so profitably flourishes in the United States, where purses for highly publicised if unexceptional fights routinely involve millions of dollars, is a testament to both the flawed nature of our society and our dark fascination with this cruellest of sports.”
The list of those destroyed by boxing — physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially — is a sobering one, yet there is something about this pre-civilisational sport that provokes both the sportsman and the sportswriter into producing the best that sport, any sport, has to offer. Rawness can be attractive. Yet it is sobering to remember what the sportswriter Simon Barnes said: “When deaths and serious injuries happen in sports, it’s because things have gone horribly wrong. When they happen in boxing it’s because things have gone horribly right.”
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Thoughts of boxing and some of its terrible consequences have been triggered by a fabulous book I have been reading, Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing by Donald McRae. In particular, McRae’s eyewitness account of the Chris Eubank-Michael Watson super middleweight fight that put the latter in a coma for 40 days.
Eubank’s punch, writes McRae, “landed in a scything arc which pundits would have termed ‘perfect’ if it had not wrought such havoc.” He continues: “Watson’s head had rocked hard against the third and lowest rope. For a hundredth of a second his head may have rested there, as if cribbed in a cat’s-cradle made out of an elastic band by a child. But then it snapped back, the rope inducing more of a whiplash than Eubank’s right hand.”
Before the fight Eubank had said, “my job is to hurt the other fighter as badly as I can. When I have hurt him and he’s dazed and bleeding, then I must pounce. As he backs against the ropes with pain in his face I must smash my fist into that face again. He expects it, the crowd demands it. They want you to finish the other man off. And that’s why I hate boxing.”
McRae, a South African who lives in London, questions the morality of his involvement in a sport that some of its top performers are reluctant to call “sport”. They see it as a trade that deals in violence. This ambivalence is not unusual in the sensitive boxing fan (if such an expression is not an oxymoron). You can be both fascinated and repelled by the same thing. Perhaps that accounts for the literary quality that writing on boxing lays claim to. “When the heavyweights become champions,” wrote Norman Mailer, “they begin to have inner lives like Hemingway or Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Faulkner…”
Sometimes superior writing can work as a grand justification.