Modern Gladiators

What is it about boxing that keeps enthralling spectators?  Last night, the latest hot match-up was the welterweight championship bout between Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and Victor Ortiz. Professional boxing lately seems to make more headlines for its controversies than for any epic battles for the ages.  Last night's fight will be remembered not for any pugilistic brilliance (although there was some), but for a dirty head butt, a bizarre hug and reconciliatory cheek-kiss, and a knock-out that some called a suckerpunch, while others called a fair shot by Mayweather taking advantage of Ortiz's lapse in defensive concentration.

Unlike the staged acrobatics and circus mayhem of professional wrestling or the hyper-real brutality of mixed martial arts caged violence, boxing continues to be a "gentleman's sport," if any combative competition with the goal of causing pain and possible injury can be called a "gentleman's sport."  From its origins as bare-knuckled fisticuffs with rules and techniques, boxing has aimed to be a respectable duel of athletes, mixing strategy with skill, speed with strength, endurance with mythic ideas of courage. 

Watching professional boxers duke it out, I get caught up in the moment and start rooting for one of the combatants.  It is a perverse feeling, actually, as if I were reliving the days of ancient Romans watching gladiators spill their blood for the amusement of the masses.  Yet, despite calls by some to ban the sport, I am drawn to boxing as many others are. 

Boxing has become a marketing machine, and the hype for each big event usually ends up in disappointment, but I keep watching.  Maybe we are victims of glamorized depictions in movies such as Rocky and we want to cheer for an underdog or watch a living hero who embodies those cinematic, superheroic ideals of invulnerability and power.  Maybe we're trying to recapture the past and find new icons of the ring to carry on the legendary achievements and personalities of Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roberto Duran, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, and the rest.

Maybe there's something in human nature that instinctively makes us emotionally connect when we see two people engaged in a one-on-one war against each other, trying to match wits and physical prowess.  I don't want to see boxers getting hurt or become exploited by others willing to make a buck from their endangerment.  Yet, boxing at its greatest continues to be a rare example of raw emotion and human athleticism.  There is a science and grace beneath the surface brutality that continues to grab my attention and keeps me from looking away.


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