Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sweet Science

Boxing is a fascinating sport because it lives in a tension between being a primal contest of force and a highly elevated contest of technique and strategy. You can win by mastering either side of this tension but those who can master both have much in common with great artists.

I happened to tune into HBO Boxing this weekend. I didn't know anything about the scheduled bouts and started watching about a minute into the first round of the James Kirkland / Glen Tapia match. It was obviously a vicious fight, all about force and will. Both men absorbed as much punishment in the first few rounds as any boxer could expect in several fights. It brought the competition as close as possible to a fight to the death. One couldn't help but be affected by the fight, whether in disgust or admiration. 

The chatter in Kirkland's corner was especially revealing as his trainer Anne Wolf growled to him "you done took his nuts now you gotta take his heart", insisting that his opponent wanted to kill or humiliate him and that only destroying his opponent would win the day. That nearly became a self-fulfilling scenario because it seemed that both fighters were determined not to go down no matter how much punishment was to be absorbed. In situations like these boxers can and have died in the ring. It became clear that, unless outside forces intervened, these men would fight until one of them was unconscious or dead.

In a contest like this it ceases to be about boxing skills. Eventually it even ceases to be about strength and physical force. It becomes a contest of wills. After some back and forth Kirkland started getting the upper hand and was mercilessly beating Tapia against the ropes. The ring-side doctor had a look twice between rounds and declared that he was very close to calling the fight. They were allowed to continue. Eventually, and probably much later than was prudent, the referee intervened and stopped the fight. Just as he jumped in between the two fighters Kirkland continued with two final punches that actually seemed to knock Tapia out on his feet. He was held up by the referee to save him the embarrassment of being thrown unconscious to the canvas.

One couldn't help but be drawn in by the visceral drama of the fight even as it was accompanied by a tragic sadness and fear that someone might actually die unless the fight was stopped. In moments like this you get a glimpse of our indefatigable primitive selves. It's draining and exciting to watch such spectacles. At its heart boxing is a vicious competition to the death but it's contested within the bounds of a set of rules designed to leave in everything but the killing.

And just as I was coming to grips with what I had just experienced, the next bout swung everything back all the way to the other sweep of the pendulum. Guillermo Rigondeaux is a very experienced fighter out of Cuba. He is one of the most technically gifted boxers in the world but only turned professional recently after leaving Cuba for Miami. He has developed a style that makes it almost impossible for his opponents to hit him. His speed, strategy and anticipation allow him to cut in quickly, tag his opponents with a flurry of punches and then retreat before they know how to respond. His opponent Joseph Agbeko is known to be a very skilled fighter who throws a lot of punches in any given match. In this bout he was reduced to a confused mess of a fighter, unable to mount any offence. In some rounds he was unable to connect on any punches at all while many of the punches credited to him by the scorekeepers were charitable since they only barely touched Rigondeaux while lacking any force or harm.

It was a technical tour de force but what's really interesting is that many of the fans in the stands started filing out of the venue, considering the fight to be very boring. Most fans don't like this fighter nor his fights. There is little appreciation for his style and he cannot understand why that is, believing that it is a conspiracy and prejudice against Cuban fighters. The point of boxing is to hit your opponent while avoiding being hit and he does this as well as anyone has ever done. He's simply not appreciated for it by anyone other than a few hardcore boxing wonks.

Rigondeaux is unlikely to get very rich from professional boxing. The lesser technically talented Tapia, unless he's killed or maimed in the ring, is loved and may well go on to make a fortune by giving and receiving punishment. It's much easier to understand a beating than the chess match offered to fans by Rigondeaux.

There is a familiar diametrical opposition to the way viewers respond to various expressions of style in the arts. In the realms of music, painting, writing or film one finds similar disagreements about what is considered exciting and impressive; pop music vs jazz, Rockwell vs Rothko, Rowling vs Pynchon, Spielberg vs Kubrick. The opposition often tends to be between the emotional vs the intellectual. Pop/emotional styles are criticised for being too simple and primitive, while styles demonstrating advanced technique are criticised for being alienating and heartless.

Boxing as The Sweet Science reflects emotion in the sweetness and intellect in the science. It's inherently understood that greatness involves mastering both. A Nietzschean approach might be to discuss the interplay of The Dionysian and The Apollonian in the creative process. Creations that move us to strongly feel and simultaneously to think in challenging ways are often considered masterpieces. Muhammad Ali is a legendary hero and a Superman of the sport because of his mastery of both spirits. Artists of any medium who can demonstrate mastery of both sides of this coin can aspire to such heights.


Anders Woje Ellingsen said...

The contradiction you point out is the contradiction of man. I enjoyed reading your reflection. Boxing, as you describe it, is indeed illuminating. I would say it is a contradiction of responsibility and reliability. The responsible are the brutal ones. And the reliable are the artistic. And we may say Nietszhe advocated responsibility, and Marx reliability. And we find the opposition in any aspect of life. See poetry, which occupies me, how craftsmanship has totally lost interest in our economical world. Or see religion, how people shamelessly put forth values, making an idol of Christ.

We may make a law, saying reliability is to culture, responsibility not. But we will not let marxism take us. Being responsible is fine, periodically.

(I came to your blog by clicking "next blog" in the Blogger navbar.)

Anders Woje Ellingsen said...

What should one say; fork and knife, or knife and fork? That is the question. See my reflection on the matter at https://sites.google.com/site/poetonview/a-little-bit-philosophy.

Jake Jakob Koseleci said...

Thanks Anders for your comments. Basic contests like boxing reveal much about our primate cores.

One need not fear Marx. He gave a very elucidating analysis of Capitalism but was weak on prescription.

Anders Woje Ellingsen said...

His descriptions are heart breaking. But he had no sense of leadership.