Chasing Shadows

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act 

(‘The Hollow Men’, T.S. Eliot, 1925)

Boxers are liars. They have to be, eventually. They lie about their condition, for promotion, about their intentions, about their bodies and about their reflexes. They lie about punches, about which ones will hurt and which are just for show, about which are diversions and which the real deal. They lie about injuries, about cuts, about bruises, about their hands and about their guts. And eventually, they all, nearly, end up lying on canvas, unwitting art.

Boxing is lying at its core, because it is metaphor: for war, for fighting, for brotherhood, for love, sex even, for sport. Or perhaps these things are metaphors for boxing. Joyce Carol Oates says that life itself might be a metaphor, ‘for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round, missed punches, clinches, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent so evenly matched it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you.’

The word ‘boxing’ is not like football, with its feet and its balls, or even rugby, with its geographic origin bound up in its name; you can chase the word boxing so far, passing French and Spanish analogues,  glancing to possible Germanic ancestors, taking in Slavic languages (the Czech verb is the wonderful boxovat), but its root is elusive. It may even have started as onomatopoeia. The word evades attempts to ground it, promising a kind of gentility and organising quality (putting things in boxes) to English ears that the practice fails to deliver. 

Fighters must be good liars to be good, like good writers. James Ellroy has: ‘Boxing taps testosterone. Boxing bangs to the balls. Boxing mauls and makes you mine meaning.’ His ‘taps’ is a lie, and a bad joke; his ‘balls’ are wish-fulfilment. Boxing doesn’t ‘maul’, and it doesn’t alliterate either, not even in the jabs that punctuate it. As a means of mimicking the sounds and rhythms of boxing, Ellroy can only go so far; the writing feels closer to the trash talk that accompanies boxing than to the fights themselves. Mike Tyson’s outburst at an unknown heckler for example, in which testosterone has not been tapped so much as pumped: ‘You scared coward, you not man enough to fuck with me. You can’t last two minutes in my world bitch. Look at you, you scared now you ho. Scared like a little white pussy. Scared of the real man. I’ll fuck you till you love me faggot.’

Such talk (though not always so extreme, and not often directed at fans) is as much a part of boxing these days as the fights themselves. Threats of death, beheadings and disfigurement are par for the course. Sexual violence is a sub-genre, with Tyson far from the only trash talker to have reached into ugly places for his metaphors. Heavyweight David Haye was in trouble not long ago for the nonsensical suggestion that his fight against Audley Harrison would be ‘as one-sided as gang-rape’. This kind of thing is more than mere bluster (though it is that), designed to puff up otherwise disappointing prospects to sell more tickets. The pre-match spite-fest can, it seems, have an effect on the outcome of the fight, not so much because of the words that are used, but because of the tone. A lie need not be a lie if it is said with conviction, and some fighters (Tyson was certainly one) often seem to have the fight won well before it starts. Though of course, a lengthy knockout record helps. 

It’s worth noting that trash talk is probably as old as boxing. Certainly it is old. In 1822, William Hazlitt remembered hearing the boxer Thomas Hickman say to his opponent Bill Neate: ‘What, are you Bill Neate? I’ll knock more blood out of that great carcase of thine, this day fortnight, than you ever knock’d out of a bullock’s!’

Hazlitt complained: ‘A boxer was bound to beat his man, but not to thrust his fist, either actually or by implication, in every one’s face. Even a highwayman, in the way of trade, may blow out your brains, but if he uses foul language at the same time, I should say he was no gentleman. A boxer, I would infer, need not be a blackguard or a coxcomb, more than another.’

That’s true, and different writers have variously cast boxers as everything from villains to innocents, liars to soothsayers. Ernest Hemingway, who wrote like George Foreman fought, seems uncharacteristically bashful in his story ‘The Killers’. A pair of assassins hang out in a diner, waiting for their moment to murder an ex-boxer named Ole Andreson. We don’t know what he did to provoke this presumably unwanted visit – indeed, we don’t even know that he was a boxer until much later, when Nick Adams, a guest in the diner and Hemingway favourite, goes to warn Andreson about his visitors. Andreson’s landlady remarks that he ‘was in the ring […] you’d never know it apart from the way his face is.’ The syntactic discomfort of ‘the way his face is’ sounds oddly polite, even as it nods towards one of the challenges of writing about boxing. The ‘noble art’ is a visual one, and even, for those who have been ringside, an aural experience, but it is hardly wordy.  Clichés tend to take the strain: a boxer will ‘let his fists do the talking’, while his face ‘tells a tale’; even in the ring, someone will ‘favour his jab’, or ‘cover up’, or ‘work the body’. Very rarely do we say what we see: one boxer punched the other one repeatedly under the ribs, then hard in the face, over and over until the other lost his balance and possibly consciousness and fell down.

Hemingway writes about the practice of boxing too, in his short story ‘Fifty Grand. Two fighters, both of whom are probably trying to lose, slug it out until the fight finishes with the most likely result (i.e. as it probably would have even if the fighters were clean). That the loser has bet on the winner is almost irrelevant – the truth of the fight eventually wins out over the lying of the fighters.

Because there are, always, moments of truth in boxing matches. The cliché holds. Between the idea of a punch and its reality, lies truth. It’s there between the motion of the fist and the act of fist on jaw. You see it in the mercy of a fighter who knows he’s won, pulling a punch to spare a defenceless man, and you also see it in the converse, when a fighter carries on punching even though the contest is over. You see it most clearly in the lust, the gluttony, for punishment. As Oates has observed, ‘Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning.’

There is narrative truth to boxing too, retrospective stories that run through its history. When Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle, it looked like destiny. But had he lost, that would have looked like destiny too. Norman Mailer is illuminating on the uneasy way we impose narratives on fighters. After Ali beat Foreman, he says, ‘Back in America everybody was already yelling that the fight was fixed. Yes. So was The Night Watch and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’

But stories don’t always have happy endings; indeed, when watching a boxer doing the damage that will become the damage that has already been done, it’s difficult to see how any boxing story can end well. The flip side of the heroic narrative is a kind of reflective retrenchment, a ‘coming to terms with’, necessary when the heroic veers too close to the tragic. Gerald McClellan, who lost his sight, much of his hearing, motor skills and parts of his brain during a fight with Nigel Benn, had one question for his sister when Benn approached his wheelchair looking to reconcile. ‘Does he look sad?’ McClellan asked. And everyone did, no word of a lie.