TCS Daily

Souring on The Sweet Science

By Paul Beston - February 26, 2004 12:00 AM

Time was when a heavyweight champion's every utterance was scrutinized. But when Lennox Lewis, the heavyweight champion of the world, announced his retirement from boxing recently at the age of 38, the story barely made the headlines.

For most of the 20th century heavyweight champions had a cultural stature on a par with American presidents. They were figures that seemed attuned to the national mood: Jack Dempsey for the Roaring Twenties, Joe Louis for the World War II years, Muhammad Ali for the radical 60s, Mike Tyson for the depraved popular culture of the 80s and 90s. They were, like the presidents, a sprawling mass of conflicted humanity, often motley and uninspiring, on occasion sublime.

Lewis's retirement announcement was ignored in part because of who he is. Though he fought and beat every major heavyweight of his era, he never captured the American imagination. As a fighter, he was a stylist, not a slugger like Tyson. As a person, he was a gentleman, not a walking hip-hop lyric like, well, Tyson. When the two finally met in 2002, Lewis took Tyson to the woodshed. It made no difference. Boxing has had standard bearers like Lewis before, men who could not seem to break through. But this time the problem is much bigger than an uninspiring champion.

The problem is the decline of boxing. Once the most popular sport in America with baseball and horse racing, boxing has had a long, hard fall through the decades. Two developments in particular -- the advent of television and the rise of casinos like Caesar's Palace as underwriters of big fights -- had ruinous economic consequences on live attendance and the fan base. The sport's long history of corruption and scandal has never helped, either. But the main obstacle is cultural.

For many Americans nourished at the counter of political correctness and baptized by the Church of Tolerance, boxing is simply barbarism. Americans love violence, but only if it retains a synthetic quality, a stylized irony perfected by Quentin Tarantino. In boxing, violence lies beyond the consolations of irony. As Joe Louis once said, "You can run, but you can't hide." So we seek ways to laugh it off. Pro wrestling, which retains the symbolism of combat while making a mockery of physical pain, is the perfect substitute. It has long since eclipsed boxing in popularity. No wonder then, that boxing increasingly resembles wrestling in its sleazy promotions and the tasteless posturing of the fighters -- a far cry from the stoics of an earlier age.

In a sense, the growing isolation of boxing within popular culture is akin to the estrangement between the volunteer army and the civilian population. Both boxers and soldiers engage in occupations where the code of the warrior is absolute; in a postmodern popular culture, such a code is deeply alien. But in an earlier time, when the material conditions of life were difficult and death lurked as near as a walk around the corner, fighting for one's nation -- or for money -- was not viewed as morally questionable. On the contrary, it was admired. Now it is seen, at least by our elites, as a sign of psychological or moral imbalance. Those who believe that the human impulse for violence can be coached out of the race are also the ones who assume soldiers kill for bloodlust, or that fighters fight because they enjoy hurting people. But most of the time, the soldier's answer is different: "I killed because I had to." The fighter's, too, is more mundane: "I fight to make a living. I fight because I'm good at it."

The military analogy is appropriate for another reason. It was after the First World War that boxing attained its greatest period of popularity. Banned in many states before the war, boxing found a home in General Pershing's American Expeditionary Forces, who used the sport for training and recreation. When the soldiers came home, they brought an appreciation for what was called then, without irony, "the manly art of self defense." After Dempsey won the heavyweight title in 1919, boxing became an obsession on par with baseball in a nation that placed great importance on the martial virtues.

There is no sign that the War on Terror will have the effects on boxing that World War I did. For one thing, many Americans don't see the current struggle as a war. For another, the culture is deeply conflicted about the meaning of manhood, and boxing relies on our oldest understanding of man as warrior.

In The Professional, one of the great boxing novels, W.C. Heinz tells the story of Eddie Brown, a middleweight preparing for his shot at the title. Frank Hughes, the Heinz-like narrator, is a sportswriter who befriends the boxer and has several revealing conversations with him. At one point, Frank explains to Eddie what he sees in boxing:

"The basic law of man. The truth of life. It's a fight, man against man, and if you're going to defeat another man, defeat him completely. Don't starve him to death, like they try to do in the fine, clean competitive world of commerce. Leave him lying there, senseless on the floor."

Eddie agrees and asks Frank to explain boxing to his wife in the same manner. But Frank protests, "I wasn't explaining it to you. I was just talking. I can't explain it to anyone." As it is beyond irony, boxing is also beyond rationality. Its violence and sacrifice belong ultimately to the realm of mystery, where, as poets and martyrs and W.C. Heinz tell us, truth is sometimes found.

Sounds almost like a religion, doesn't it? But god is dead for now.

The author, making his first appearance in TCS, is a writer living in Michigan.


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