A llow me to make a not-so-bold prediction. Human beings will never tire of watching people get hurt, particularly at the hands of other human beings. Some mainstream sports reluctantly embrace this schadenfreude – auto racing and hockey come to mind – but most associations never make this aspect of their sport’s appeal explicit. And then there are boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA), institutions that cut out the pretexts of civility and get right to giving people what they want – two people beating each other up. Sure, there’s a ref, rules, judges, and even points. But at the end of the day, I doubt most viewers want a fight to end in a decision. They want blood, cuts, broken noses, and punch-drunkards fighting the basic instinct to either flee or lose consciousness.
On June 5, boxing premiers at the new Yankee Stadium with a top light-middleweight billing between Miguel Cotto – probably best known recently for losing to current golden boy Manny Pacquiao – and Yuri Foreman – probably best known for being undefeated and un-ironically fighting from an orthodox (right-handed) stance while training to be a rabbi. I graduate a day or two before, and have been thinking about rewarding myself for my studies with a trip down to New York and a ticket to the fight. In a tip of the hat to Adam Smith, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that drives me to want to pay a minimum of 50 of my hard-earned (read: student loan) dollars to watch the fight in person. I’m reminded of the time a neighbourhood kid ran over to tell me that a house was on fire. I grabbed my coat, hurried down the block to join my friends, and got exactly what I expected: human suffering, some good old macho “just another day’s work” firefighting, and the intoxicating scent of danger mingled with melting roof. That’s not a slight to boxers (or firefighters). It’s a tough job. My boxing experiences came in a friend’s basement. He and another friend trained and fought at a Hispanic community centre on the south side of Milwaukee. We would spar in the carpeted basement, cutting off an imaginary ring to avoid backing anyone into the sharp corners of a ping-pong table. I would inevitably end up playing the part of Glass Joe in NES Punch-Out, taking head shots and body blows for a few minutes until I either gave up or a stop-watch went off and I would go to my corner to wash the blood out of my mouth and drink sugar water. These were the days of Oscar De La Hoya, whom we all idolized. We used to get together with our fathers to watch the pay-per-view feeds for his fights. Even my diminutive, intellectual, pacifistic dad would come sometimes. Back in those days, there were no significant Jewish fighters to identify with and I internalized my friends’ infatuation with certain Latino fighters. Red, white, and green silk boxers with “La Raza” emblazoned on them meant something more than pants. They meant standing up, pride in language and culture, commanding respect, and embracing social mobility – they were like an updated zoot suit.
I wouldn’t say I was ever a real boxing fan. I was more a fan of boxers. The greats always seemed to transcend the ring to represent ethnicities, religions, cities, and so on. In this, fighting is timeless and universal. It evokes cultural memories passed through generations of immigrants of “our” fighters, those who fought not for money but for aspects of our identities with the fists we wish we had and felt somewhat responsible for. In these histories, we drew our strength from them, and they draw their strength from us. These stories are integral to our culture. The human tragedies of structural inequality and agency in the boxing world are nostalgic even while rued – On the Waterfront and Raging Bull in cinema, Tyson and Ali in recent history. Boxing lends itself to a certain type of intellectualism as Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, and Norman Mailer come to mind. They knew that nothing had the aesthetic appeal of the lone fighter. Think matadors, boxers, Christ, Tony Montana, Ralph Nader, and so on.
MMA has been taking identities a step further into the ring, err, cage. Avowedly neo-Nazi fighters might someday be lined up to fight Left Coast anarchists or law students from the University of Minnesota (examples of all three are currently in the ranks). Who wouldn’t want to watch that? And let’s not forget about the rise in popularity of MMA women’s fighting that has no real equivalent in boxing history. As identity is expanding far beyond the immigrant communities that rallied behind Jewish Barney Ross or Italian Jake LaMotta, MMA appears to embrace its role as the quilt through which the newer fabrics of identity are lovingly woven together in order to beat each other up. Kimbo Slice – a man who owes his fame to YouTube videos of backyard bareknuckle fights – attained televised stardom only to have it taken away in one round by Seth Petruzelli, a pink-haired, occasionally cross-dressing, underweight replacement fighter. I don’t have the adjectives to properly describe how amazing that is. Why? Because I think it’s incredible that whether we define ourselves as intellectual, brutish, radically feminist, Zoroastrian, racist, whatever, there is likely someone like us who draws on the same symbols and experiences and uses them to fight. We like to imagine that these fighters represent us, and that it’s more than just two people hurting each other for money. And in some ways it is. Amir Khan, a British Pakistani Muslim, fights in Union Jack emblazoned shorts, spitting (punching?) in the face of both white British ethno-nationalists and anti-integration sentiments in immigrant communities. He recently defeated Dmitry Salita – an Orthodox Jewish, Russian-immigrant, previously undefeated Brooklynite – in 76 seconds. Could I have really rooted against either of them? Maybe that’s the fight I’d want to end in a decision, after all the imagined connections of collective identification have collapsed into contradiction. When that happens, all we are watching is two people beating each other up for money. Which is what it is. And there’s nothing wrong with that either.