Boxing lives as boxers die

ROHIT BRIJNATH

File picture of IBF lightweight champion Leavander Johnson, who died on September 22 due to injuries sustained five days earlier in a lightweight title defence against Jesus Chavez.-AP

Who killed Davey Moore, Why an' what's the reason for? "Not I," says the referee, "Don't point your finger at me. I could've stopped it in the eighth An' maybe kept him from his fate, But the crowd would've booed, I'm sure, At not gettin' their money's worth."

— Bob Dylan's ode to fallen fighter Davey Moore

LAST week, Leavander Johnson went in search of a dream in the ring only to meet his maker. He began by defending his IBF lightweight title and finished with a fatal bleeding in the brain.

Next week no one will remember him, collateral damage of a stern sport, another name in a book on a crowded page, another name stencilled alongside 900 or so dead since 1920, next to Willie Classen 1979 and Steve Watt 1996 and Sonny Banks 1965, boxers unlucky, boxers dead, boxers forgotten.

Sport every day showcases the exuberance of man, it broadcast his momentary triumph over himself and opponent, it rejoices in his spirit, it reveals the perfection of his physical self. It is a celebration of life.

But for the boxer, more than anyone else, one thing is different. Death is often next door, rapping hard on the window of his brain.

"Who killed Davey Moore, Why an' what's the reason for? Not us," says the angry crowd, Whose screams filled the arena loud. "It's too bad he died that night But we just like to see a fight."

Am I for boxing, or against it, I don't yet know, but I am less inclined to see the nobility of it. Boxing takes troubled young men off the streets, it is said, it provides them a legalised vehicle for their anger, it allows them to dream and for a few to escape dismal lives. Rich boys are rarely found in rings.

Anyway men like to fight, a primitive longing to test themselves that will forever endure, and better in an arena with doctors ringside then in a dark side street amidst the rattle of garbage cans. As A.J. Leibling, author of the The Sweet Science, wrote: "The desire to punch other boys in the nose will survive in our culture. Boxing is an art of the people, like making love".

There is something base yet electric to boxing, in the sweaty shadows of the gym, the skipping of feet and rain of sweat, in the hard-luck and true-grit stories every fighter carries in his kitbag, in the geography of faces rearranged for a ghastly second as glove meets flesh. Not for nothing has some of sports' finest literature emerged from the sport

In a bizarre way, you admire the boxer, for only he truly lives every clich� we hang on sport every day. `Last man standing', `fight till the end', `battling spirit', the boxer knows them all, breathes them with every torn eyebrow and bruised kidney that delivers urine crimson with blood.

But there is also a grotesqueness to the fight game, a world beyond the Las Vegas million-dollar prize fight, a world of $1000-a-fight boxers, going down and rising, again and again, and for every champion with a 48-3 record are the 40-odd he beat who are going nowhere, some without medical insurance, some with no scans to show the accumulation of damage in the head, some with detached retinas and concussions, some with no dream except to take home that $1000.

Who killed Davey Moore, Why an' what's the reason for? "Not me," says his manager, Puffing on a big cigar. "It's hard to say, it's hard to tell, I always thought that he was well. It's too bad for his wife an' kids he's dead, But if he was sick, he should've said."

What does he think the fighter, you wonder, when he ducks the ropes and springs into the ring, certainly not of death, it is too remote for him. He is guaranteed pain, he can feel it, for a heavyweight's blow carries close to 600 pounds of force per square inch, but his brain, colliding against the walls of his skull, like a stone rattled in a tin can, he cannot see. The boxer does not go out to kill either, he says it occasionally, but doesn't mean it, his promises of destruction at press conference are mostly well-rehearsed lines, a verbal shadow-boxing that sells tickets and fuels his resolve.

But death lingers ringside. On the night before his fight in 1947, Sugar Ray Robinson dreams he will kill Jimmy Doyle in the ring, he pleads for the fight to be called off, only for his trainer to allegedly say: "Dreams don't come true. If they did I'd be a millionaire." So Sugar Ray fights. And Jimmy Doyle dies. Risk attaches itself to many sports and life and limb are so often challenged it has almost turned routine. Jockeys are killed under galloping hooves, race cars disintegrate, American football players collapse with heat exhaustion, and extreme sports enthusiasts go too early to their Gods.

But boxing is the ultimate mainstream contact sport, its skill lies in punishment, a sort of artistic violence, a stylish thuggery. In rugby body parts are mostly inadvertently brutalised, in boxing it is all intentional.

Death is only one factor of it, what boxing often leaves behind more is damaged men, the assimilation of a career of punches impairing the once functioning man. Speech slurs, memory becomes short-term, hands shake, sight dims, walk slows, headaches persist. But no one quits, not even Ali.

Sometimes you have to wonder, where is the sport, the celebration, in all this? Leavander Johnson's promoter said he died a champion. At 35, it seems a useless epitaph.

Who killed Davey Moore, Why an' what's the reason for? "Not me," says the man whose fists Laid him low in a cloud of mist, "I hit him, yes, it's true, But that's what I am paid to do. Don't say `murder,' don't say `kill.' It was destiny, it was God's will."