The connection between boxing and writing

Both professionals are, ultimately, fighting themselves. Both deal in fear — more obviously in the boxer’s case, but equally in the case of the writer and the terror of the blank page.

Muhammad Ali’s (right) fights with Joe Frazier have been about pain and endurance.   -  AP

For long now it has been a matter of faith that boxing inspires the finest writing on sport. And for long I bought into it. But now I am not so sure. Perhaps that is a reflection of my own ambivalent attitude towards the sport I loved when young but now have mixed feelings about.

“Part of the pleasure of going to a fight,” wrote A. J. Liebling, “is reading the newspapers next morning to see what the sportswriters think happened.” It is from his classic The Sweet Science, a once-favourite book but one which today reads dated and perhaps even racist in his comments on some of the African-American boxers.

I much prefer Hugh McIlvanney of The Observer. He captured some of my boxing hesitancy in an introduction to one of his books. “Any supporter of boxing who does not admit to some residual ambivalence about its values, who has not wondered in its crueller moments if it is worth the candle, must be suspect.” The sport has become safer since then — that was written in 1982 — but the image of Muhammad Ali towards the end somehow tops all arguments for me.

READ| Of sports, politics and the impact of social media

Still it was the same Muhammad Ali who has provided us with some of the most stunning visuals in any sport. The Frazier fights might have been about pain and endurance — much of boxing is, but the Foreman fight (and many of the earlier ones by a young Ali) was about strategy and speed, the two elements in an aesthetic dance.

Thanks to the way the sport is consumed today — pay-per-view channels — it seems to be gradually disappearing from the regular sports pages, and confined to a select few enthusiasts. Some of that number are in it for the betting and wouldn’t recognise good writing if it were presented to them on a plate with an explanatory note.

READ| Sport is a sign of life

The novelist and passionate boxing fan Joyce Carol Oates has written “boxing inhabits a sacred space predating civilization.” And that’s my problem with it. You can’t civilise it without taking away the crude, the unrefined, the dangerous, the threat of death that make it the sport.

All sports require an element of courage and risk-taking. But as the British writer Simon Barnes has pointed out, “When deaths and serious injuries happen in sports like eventing, it’s because things have gone horribly wrong. When they happen in boxing it’s because things have gone horribly right.” Sometimes it is a fate worse than death — permanent brain damage.

Various writers have put down the connection between boxing and writing to the loneliness involved, saying both professionals are, ultimately, fighting themselves. Both deal in fear — more obviously in the boxer’s case, but equally in the case of the writer and the terror of the blank page. That might sound convenient, and probably is.

Boxing kills. That’s why some of us prefer to watch recordings of past fights. A broken jaw is a happy ending. I would rather read, though. And soon maybe not even that.