Lessons from the Sweet Science.
“No man is obliged to do as much as he can,” wrote Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).
Would this lack of obligation extend to personal failure and its subsequent challenge to succeed? For onetime professional boxer Glen Sharp, it does not. In his book Punching from the Shadows: Memoir of a Minor League Professional Boxer, the experience of failure takes the form of an existential burden: ever present, front and center, looming.
Failure haunts: it threatens with the last word. “I didn’t want my tombstone to read: ‘Here lies a 1-2 fighter,'” writes Sharp.
“If at first you don’t succeed…” How familiar we are with the nobility of effort and its portent of success. Just try again, right? Inventor Thomas Edison reminded us of the merits of experimentation: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Arguably America’s greatest college basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”
But basketball isn’t boxing; few endeavors in life compare to pugilism’s organized violence. According to one source, between the years 1890 and 2011, more than 1,800 boxers died in the ring or due to the damage suffered in a specific bout. If we were to track the collateral damage boxers suffer — say, from a detached retina or dementia-related issues — one would be hard pressed to think of a more dangerous sport than boxing. Former heavyweight contender Randall “Tex” Cobb once remarked: “If you screw up in tennis, it’s 15-love. If you screw up in boxing, it’s your a–. Even the author is prompted to offer:
People play baseball and basketball and football, but nobody plays boxing. You never hear trainers telling their boxers to ‘have fun out there.’
The change Coach Wooden calls for, here in the case of a fighter’s decision to throw in the towel or retire altogether — could well be life-saving and health-promoting. Still, Sharp was to box on, fully cognizant:
The late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once described professional boxing as the ‘red light district of sports,’ and I was attracted to that light. I was drawn to it in the same way a moth is drawn to the flame.
And the reader senses this. Early on in the book, we are able to applaud the author’s progression, from mistakenly equating the lack of achievement in the squared circle to some greater existential or moral failure. Success would be had — just elsewhere.
Boxing is unique in all of sports—in all human endeavor, actually—in its strange marriage of savage brutality to heroic elegance. I’ve always loved it myself and still watch a TV bout now and again, although at times I’ve find it very difficult to watch, too. It is at once horrifying and elevating; there’s a raw poetry way down deep in its bones, the bones of a sport that at base is all about two men beating each other senseless for no good reason.
Many people are greatly offended by the sport, viewing it as an anachronistic throwback to a less civilized past—a meritless relic better left behind, disgracing us all by its mere continued existence into modernity. Maybe they’re right, I dunno. Certainly the world of boxing is widely populated by shady, seedy charaters without integrity, honor, or shame, at least at the higher management and promotional level. Lowlife grifters like the notorious Don King leech millions for themselves off the efforts of young athletes willing to subject themselves to permanent, life-threatening bodily damage in the ring.
Boxers themselves are widely perceived as, shall we say, not too bright. They’re assumed to be nasty, unpleasant, even dangerous people outside the squared circle, without redeeming value to anyone beyond their ability to beat other men half to death for money in front of an audience. We all know that those stereotypes have been confirmed in many cases over the years. But they by no means hold across the board.
In the end, maybe boxing today can be thought of as a conundrum: contradictory and puzzling, impossible to reconcile with a gentler, more refined society. As time goes by it will become more and more difficult for boxing to find its rightful place there. It may not even have one at all.