[Earlier this week I made some remarks about the Manny Pacquiao phenomenon here in the Philippines. What I wrote had little bearing on what I argue below, except perhaps the primal and nationalistic aspects of the sport. This is merely to head off accusations of my having contradicted myself. Filipinos need only be reminded that what makes Pacquiao such a hero to them is his ability to incapacitate his opponents with his fists. People cheering while Ricky Hatton was on his back, breathing spasmodically after having been knocked unconscious, is my whole point.]
Boxing is a savage sport. It is the only sport in which the objective is for one competitor to injure his opponent sufficiently to neutralize his ability to continue. Every boxer's record tells us his wins, losses, and draws. And it also numbers how many of his wins came as a result of a "knockout." But a "body shot" can injure a boxer as much, if not more, as a "head shot," and can halt his ability to continue. And even a particularly bad cut above a boxer's eyes can cause bleeding into his eyes that effectively blinds him. When a match is stopped under these circumstances, the decision is called "technical knockout," or "TKO."
Boxing purists would deny all this and insist that it is really about one boxer outscoring his opponent by landing the greater number of punches, that the punches needn't have any force behind them as long as they land above the boxer's belt. They would point to the fact that many boxing matches are not decided by a knockout or any other debilitating injury, but by a preponderance of points. In Olympic boxing competition, for example, padded headgear is worn to guard against blows to the head.
But other boxing proponents would accept the argument that its object is physical injury. They would even argue that this is boxing's greatest appeal, and that it is the last surviving gladiatorial sport (even if boxers do not fight "to the death," except by accident). Perhaps some observer with a stronger stomach can tell us what primal emotion boxing, like bullfighting, appeals to in us. It must certainly be sadistic, watching men so strong rendered so helpless by the blows they inflict on one another. Boxing is certainly a blood sport, as anyone can tell you who has sat close enough to the ring to have been anointed with the blood from a boxer's open wounds.
When a boxer is knocked out, he has actually suffered a concussion, which is caused by the brain colliding with the inside of the skull. It can lead to convulsions, seizures, and eventually to brain damage. Some prominent American football players, like Steve Young and Troy Aiken, have had to cut short their careers because of the number of concussions they sustained, despite their padded helmets. One of the telltale characteristics of a veteran boxer is the condition commonly known as "punch drunk," in which the subject speaks and acts as if they were intoxicated. (1) And Rocky Graziano, considered a "knockout artist" in his day, had been punched in the throat so hard it gave him his trademark wheezing voice for the rest of his life.
Arguably the greatest and most recognizable heavyweight boxer of the 1960s and '70s was Muhammed Ali. Aside from his boxing abilities, he was a beautiful and graceful athlete. Now he suffers from Parkinson's Disease, a neural disorder that many believe was brought on by head injuries sustained during his long boxing career. Like too many boxers, past and present, Ali kept on boxing long after he should've retired.
Some sociologically-minded observers claim that, in every era of boxing, there is a single ethnic group that dominates the championship ranks, and that it is a reflection of society's minorities struggling to be assimilated. The first champion boxers were Irish, since the Irish were the dominant minority in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were gradually pushed out by black boxers, who were in turn replaced by Italians, etc. Since the 1970s, Hispanic boxers have dominated the sport.
In other words, once an ethnic group has been assimilated into society, like the Irish and Italians, fewer of them turn to boxing for their livelihood - leaving the next up and coming ethnic group to put on the gloves. For a long time, boxing was largely a contest between two black fighters, watched by an almost exclusively white audience. The ethnic groups may have changed, but boxing remains a matter of ethnic minorities beating one another up for the diversion of white people. Ring Magazine's latest Top Ten Pound for Pound boxers is a veritable cross-section of ethnic minorities: Manny Pacquiao (Filipino), Juan Manuel Marquez (Mexican), Bernard Hopkins (African-American), Shane Mosley (African-American), Israel Vasquez (Mexican), Rafael Marquez (Mexican), Miguel Cotto (Puerto Rican), Nonito Donaire (Filipino), Vic Darchinyan (Armenian), Celestino Caballero (Panamanian). Or they are proud representatives of what are currently labeled as emerging nations. And now that boxing has become more of an international competition, it is appealing to nationalistic sentiments.(2)
However you look at it, boxing remains a competition among men who came from nothing to stand up against one another, prepared to inflict serious injuries for a cash prize. Even if it were not for cash but for pride, such a sport should be banned, at least in the United States. Let Spaniards and Mexicans butcher bulls in the ring in front of cheering crowds. Let Filipinos go on pitting fighting cocks against one another and bet on which is the winner. But Americans should know better than to take pleasure in watching half-educated men, who clearly have few other options for a livelihood but beating one another with their fists until the fight is stopped by the final bell, by the referee, or by a knockout punch.
In a satirical vein, Macaulay wrote that "The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators." Would that we were all such Puritans.
(1) Manny Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, suffers most noticeably from this condition.
(2) The day after Manny Pacquiao's victory over the Briton Ricky Hatton, I was on my way back to my house from a nearby town here in provincial Philippines, and I noticed a few boys squaring off as if to hit me when they saw my white face.