What Makes Boxing Unique
By: Sean Crose
Like many boxing nuts, I find myself watching old fights a lot. It’s one of the joys of the modern era, being able to access history with the mere click of a mouse. Last night, for instance, I watched Dempsey-Firpo. That gem, from the early 20s, was sheer pandemonium. Watch it with the sound off and you can still imagine the crowd of around 80 thousand that night going nuts. I don’t just like the truly historic stuff, though. More recent fare is great, too. Watching the wars from the 70s and 80s can make for a fulfilling night of sports entertainment.
And that, I think, is the thing about boxing, or at least one of the things about boxing, that elevates it from other sports. You can watch an entire event from the past and still get the thrilling sense of urgency that event had as it was occurring. Now, I know the same can be said of other sports, but let’s face it, few are going to want to watch this year’s entire super bowl again on YouTube any time soon or ever. It was a great game, make no mistake about it, but people simply aren’t going to want to sit through it twice. Hagler-Hearns, however…
The reality is that boxing matches are relatively short compared to other sporting events. Current matches are less than an hour, max. Those of the recent past run less than an hour and a half. Those from the distant past can go on forever, but there’s rarely full recorded coverage of most of those events as far as I know. All that’s left for the modern viewer are the notable parts (personally, I think that’s a shame, but no matter). The point? A famous and classic boxing match takes a lot less time to watch than most other classic sporting contests from the past.
There’s more to it, however. Boxing, after all, focuses on the individual. When you watch an Ali match, you’re watching Ali or one of his countless notable opponents rather than a couple of teams. In other words, boxing is a triumph of the individual whereas hockey, for instance, is a triumph of the team. There’s a huge psychological, emotional and philosophical divide there. When I think of Babe Ruth, I think of that famous picture of him watching a ball he just whacked. When I think of Ruth’s contemporary, Dempsey, I think of the long count fight.
Boxing, therefore, appeals to something in the fight fan that, say, basketball doesn’t. When a great fighter of the past is talked about, that fighter’s particular bouts are discussed. When, say, a great baseball player from the past is talked about, it’s generally a matter of stats. There’s exceptions, of course. People talk about Tyson’s persona and collection of knockouts more than his bout with Michael Spinks. Overall, though, more people are going to discuss Ray Leonard’s particular matches than they are Joe Montana’s particular games. It’s just the distinct nature of the respective sports these men were a part of.
There’s something else at play here and that’s the fact that boxing’s action is very condensed and, yes, very violent. Violence is a horrifying and cruel thing in general, but most – particularly fight fans and World War Two historians – would agree that’s not always the case. If there we no entertainment merit to be gleaned from at least the concept of violence, there would be no “Avenger’s” movies. So yes, boxing is violent in a way that appeals to people. And an Ali Frazier fight is inherently going to have more entertainment value today than a pitching duel from the same year.
None of this is to dismiss other sports, of course. Watching something like an eighty-yard touchdown is terrific no matter which way you slice it. Boxing, however, ages well. Very well. I often show my freshmen writing classes the opening round of Hagler-Hearns and, since the kids usually walk into it completely cold, have them to write a descriptive passage on it afterwards. Needless to say, my freshmen are, always, without fail, taken aback by the action. I ask them to describe other things throughout the course of the class as well, like a solo dance from the “Nutcracker Suite.” Those sorts of things don’t have the same impact, as Hagler-Hearns does. Those three minutes of intense combat never cease to (pardon the horrific pun) pack a punch.
And yet the bout went down in 1985. Would the class be as interested in Joe Montana’s opening drive against the Miami Dolphins in that year’s super bowl? Probably not. Boxing, in the oddest of ways, is exciting and immediate because the action occurs largely without context. Homeruns put scores on electronic boards. Knockouts turn out the lights. That’s as true of a bout from 1897 as it is of a bout from last weekend. And it ultimately may make all the difference when it comes to the matter of repeat viewing.