By Johnny Walker
There was a predictable reaction from the internet cyber-mob when Victor Ortiz suffered a broken jaw and retired Saturday night against Josesito Lopez during their bout at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Soon, the keyboard warriors and internet tough guys–including some boxing scribes–who haunt boxing chat boards and blogs were baying about Ortiz being a “pussy,” a “quitter,” and all manner of other nasty epithets. Ortiz had quit a match years ago against Marcos Maidana for dubious reasons, so the haters were ready to pounce this time.
Never mind that they had just seen an exciting, brutal, competitive boxing match in which Ortiz was leading when he was forced to quit. The fact that, with his jaw hanging open and blood pouring from his mouth, Ortiz decided that discretion was the better part of valor–that his health was more important that some idealized image of boxing machismo–that was for the cyber-mob the unforgivable sin.
The irony here is that I’d wager on many of the people who were howling about Ortiz’s supposed cowardice being the same people who are startled and condemnatory when a top boxer gets caught taking performance enhancing drugs.
We live in a comic book age, when Hollywood churns out movies based on comic book superheroes one after another: Spiderman, Batman, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk.
Perhaps this pop culture phenomenon is part of the reason why many boxing fans have begun to confuse their pugilistic heroes with comic book characters. They demand that boxers live out a comic book scenario of bravery in the ring, to persevere no matter what, disregarding life and limb.
They also now demand that the physique of the boxers they love be of the comic book hero variety – anything less than Hulk-like rippling muscles and six pack abs and the boxer of today is labeled “soft” and “fat” (never mind that one seldom saw such ripped physiques on the boxing greats of the past).
“Boxing isn’t a bodybuilding competition” is a cliché that often gets tossed around, but in reality, it has indeed become one at the elite level.
This demand for comic book superhero looks and actions in the ring has no doubt led many boxers to find a magic elixir—Popeye’s metaphorical can of spinach—that will allow them to create the illusion that so many boxing fans seem to require.
And thus: “juicing.”
With performance enhancing drugs, a fighter can look like a ripped-up superman, and fight like a Viking warrior. The fighter loaded up on the juice feels invincible, having that “extra edge” on opponents who aren’t taking what he is taking. He is indeed “juiced-up,” ready and willing to fight through anything: broken jaws, broken ankles, broken anything.
And that is what many boxing fans today really want. But they don’t really want to know about what it takes to achieve that superhero state. One reason the fighters who get caught juicing receive so much hate is that by getting caught, they have spoiled the comic book illusions (or delusions) of the boxing fan who doesn’t want to see what goes on behind the curtain.
We don’t know the percentage of fighters who are juicing, but it’s becoming apparent that many of them are, far more perhaps than we ever suspected. And in many ways, they are doing so to satisfy the demands of a boxing public that wants to see a comic book fantasy played out in the ring, right in front of its collective eyes.
The great sin of Victor Ortiz last Saturday night was that by stopping the fight with a broken jaw—a severe injury that can have life long health implications—he spoiled that boxing fantasy of invincibility. A comic book hero would have found a way to continue, no matter what. Why couldn’t Ortiz?
By quitting, Ortiz exposed himself as something less than a superman, again spoiling the illusion of superhero omnipotence.
Victor Ortiz, of course, made a logical choice in stopping. In no other sport would an athlete be expected to perform with a broken jaw. He made a human, rather than superhuman, choice, and that is what the keyboard warriors can’t forgive.