Thursday, November 09, 2006

Fighting a Losing Battle?

The Point Theatre is sold out on Saturday night for the return of Big Fight Night to Ireland. Well, not quite Big Fight Night on the scale of the halcyon days of the Eubank-Collins fights. Still, 7,000 punters will pack into the dockland barn for Bernard Dunne's latest fight, a contest for the vacant European Super-Bantamweight title against Esham 'Brown Sugar' (one presumes because his punches are of the 'sweet' variety) Pickering.

Dunne is probably Ireland's foremost professional boxer at the moment, aside from John Duddy, a Derryman who has fought out of New York for his entire professional career and is currently holder of the IBA World Middleweight Title. Dunne's bout may be for one of boxing's less prestigious belts, and the Dubliner ranks only 9th in the world in the WBA rankings (10th in the WBO, 12th in the IBF and 25th in the WBC, to complete the confusing picture) but the size of the crowd that will, regardless, huddle down the quays on Saturday night is testament to the enduring hardcore of popularity the sport retains, despite it currently having the lowest profile it has, perhaps, ever had.

Boxing's status as a major sport has been in retreat, probably, since the emergence of Sky TV, and their plucking of major fight nights from the accessible environs of terrestrial TV and placing them, not only on subscription channels, but primarily in the outer reaches of Pay-per-view. Still, even in the Sky era, fighters such as Lennox Lewis, Prince Naseem Hamed and, latterly, by virtue of prodigious achievements in the Olympic Games, Amir Khan have all become household names through practice of the 'sweet science'.

All of these fighters, however, are British. Like with Dunne, it appears that the only way that boxing commands attention in this corner of the world is through the parochial power of local interest. In the 1980s, the decade in which TSA came of age (not in the French arthouse film sense of the 14-year old boy being inculcated in the ways of love by his 35-year old poetry teacher; I mean I just, you know, grew up) anyone with a passing interest in sport was familiar with names such as Thomas 'Hitman' Hearns, 'Marvellous' Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran - and that was just one four-way rivalry. There was also the heavyweights: Spinks, Holmes, Berbick, Witherspoon and co., all blown away by the rise of Tyson.

Of course, the local media interest was there. Barry McGuigan's thrilling ride as world Featherweight champion, Frank Bruno's sad attempts at Heavyweight glory, Lloyd Honeyghan and Herol Graham. But there was a knowledge of the sport that went beyond these islands.

Today few people are aware of, or, of those that are, few have seen the likes of Roy Jones Jr, Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad, Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Sugar Shane Mosley and Ronald 'Winky' Wright. All are top fighters of recent years - not to say they are at the same hallowed status as the four trans-divisional rivals from the 80s I mentioned earlier. All have had great, exciting fights, yet none occupy the same space in our consciousness as Leonard and Hearns.

Perhaps the relentless disintegration of the heavyweight division has damaged boxing as a whole - that the sport needs its marquee division to carry the rest of the show.

It is more likely, however, that society has evolved away from boxing: the gentrification, or feminisation (and I don't mean that pejoratively) of society refusing, anymore, to accept the position in a central area of popular culture of men brutally hitting each other.

I have always struggled with boxing for that reason. I am appalled by what it amounts to, and, needless to say, would run - screaming girlishly - from a ring were I asked to step into one. Simon Barnes, the chief sportswriter of The Times, and a noted anti-pugilist, in his book The Meaning of Sport describes all sports as being a metaphor for something. "Football and rugby are cod battles; tennis is a cod duel. Running races are about predator and prey. Cricket is a complex metaphor about life and death......That is the point of sport: it is pretend....Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is a death duel."

For all the endless literature and cinema, the great works of writing and the great performances that have used the sport as a centrepiece, the awfulness at its core cannot be hidden. Indeed, the tragedy, courage, foolishness, honesty and savagery inherent in it are the reasons why it generates such passion from artists as a subject.

The 7,000 souls who yearn for occasions like Saturday night feel the same. And I understand them too. Watching a boxing match, particularly an exciting, dramatic one, it is very easy to let one's humanist tendencies ebb away, and to distance oneself from the reality of the shuddering impact of glove on skull. To wonder at those five themes from the previous paragraph made flesh in the ring.

However, that the contest involves consenting adults cannot seem to quite assuage the vague guilt at what is within oneself, unavoidably, bloodthirst.

That sense is probably why boxing is drifting from the sporting mainstream. Perhaps there will be other Big Fight Nights, involving a world champion in Dunne even; but it seems as if the death duel could soon be attended by seconds only.


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