More than Sport: The Poetry of Boxing

By Adam Berlin – It’s easy to dismiss boxing. Barbaric. Ugly. Pointless. A sport that’s not sport, that often has dangerous consequences, sometimes fatal.

I’ve written about boxing for a while (as a journalist for Boxing.com, as a novelist in Both Members of the Club) and I’ve been around fighters for longer than that—in gyms, in locker rooms, even on the road as they’ve built their careers. My brother managed some professional fighters, represented several professional fighters in court, and in 2014 was appointed by the governor as Executive Director of the New York State Athletic Commission, which meant he oversaw boxing in NY for two full years.

My brother was a whistleblower and while the fighters loved him, the state’s powers-that-be didn’t, so rather than do the just thing and allow my brother to clean up boxing’s corruption, they asked him to step into another government position. My brother, who fought as an amateur and won the Gloves in Florida, who fought as a Legal Aid attorney in the Bronx for many years, and who fought for fighters’ health and safety in his official capacity, refused the state’s cowardly offer.

All this is to say I know the many flaws of the fight game. And, because I have witnessed hundreds of live fights, sitting so close to ringside my notebook’s been splattered with sweat and blood, I have seen, first-hand, men hurt in professional fights, including one death fight, years ago, which stopped me.

But I always return to boxing. To quote heavyweight champion George Foreman, “Boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire.” Foreman knew boxing’s pitfalls firsthand—he hurt many men and he was also hurt, most famously by Muhammad Ali, who KO’d Foreman in Round 8 of the famous Rumble in the Jungle. Yet Foreman recognized the nobility of the sport, and the character of its participants—men who test themselves more than most mortals.

I know I crave the adrenaline rush of seeing a great fight.  I can’t fully explain why I look forward to a punch thrown with bad intentions, or why I’m suddenly standing while a man in the ring starts to fall. But what I admire most is the beauty, yes beauty, when two professional fighters square off, with nothing but will and skill and a pair of gloves—no teammates to back them up, no bats or balls that separate man-from-man contact.

Writers work to recreate felt experience and, in so doing, make sense of it. As a fiction writer, I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s writing adage that less is more. If a writer can write the moment honestly (and simply), all the emotion and all the possible reasons for the emotion can stay under the surface, undefined. In my just-published poetry collection, The Standing Eight, I try to bring the same aesthetic. Poetry, a stripped-down art (like making weight), seems the perfect form for writing about fights and fighters and the power that remains below.

It’s the below, the between the lines, that makes boxing so intriguing and, ultimately, such an elevated sport. In a fight, the boxer with reserves usually wins. Experienced fighters talk about taking their opponents into deep waters. If a fighter has not put in the time to perfect his craft, to train hard, to be truly ready, he will drown. In a twelve-round bout, for thirty-six minutes of fighting, a fighter has prepared for hundreds and hundreds of hours, and, before that, years and years. These are not brawlers throwing apprentice haymakers in a parking lot. These are craftsmen with reserves of inner strength—confidence, valor, an almost super-human ability to take a punch to deliver a punch, and a need to win that, in its purity, is uplifting.

Yet most fighters eventually lose. And many fighters suffer long-term consequences, aging badly, not speaking or walking quite right, tripping off the curb. Is it worth it? I can’t speak for professional fighters.

As a writer, I can say this: Drama is about conflict. The harsh truth about our mortal drama is we fight a losing bout. We all have boulders on our backs and, like Sisyphus, most of us carry on, walking up that proverbial mountain, proving our worth as human beings even when we know that boulder will eventually become too heavy, the struggle almost pointless.

But we still fight. And that’s the word we use—fight. We go to the pugilistic realm to get the word that describes what we do, what elevates us, what makes us human. Often, our fights are very personal. Sometimes our fights are larger. It’s not a big stretch to make John Jay connections. Our college is founded on fighting. Fierce is a pugilistic word. Ideally, John Jay will give its students the foundation (the subtext, the rounds in the gym) to wage idealistic fights, even if these fights seem daunting.

The poems in The Standing Eight all touch boxing. In one, titled “Before the Fights at The Blue Horizon,” young boxers prepare to enter the ring. I try to suggest the futility of the existential fight, but also the hope beyond hope that also makes us human. Here are the last two stanzas:

And fighters have something else,
even these men preparing for preliminaries,
something different from ordinary men,
who look in perfect shape, something in how
their faces are stripped down, no shortcuts
to get there and no lies in how their noses
and cheekbones and eyes, even,
seem anatomically configured
to take punishment, like they
were born that way, which they weren’t.

It’s unnatural to stand there
and accept another man’s punch.
It’s the opposite of instinct.
And maybe that makes
fighters the highest men,
the men who stray
farthest from the cave
and see the light, star-
cracking light that starts
at the point of the chin
and if they can take it,
if they can take it and punch back,
and if the other man falls,
and not just any man
but a man also trained to take it,
they’re done, they’ve won
the purest win
and that’s what they’re dreaming,
these men in the back rooms
of The Blue Horizon
throwing practice punches at mitts,
still-pleasing sounds cracking
and echoing against stained walls
and floors and carpeting coming up,
too worn to muffle that cracking.

So much in the microcosmic dressing rooms of The Blue Horizon could squelch the fighting spirit. But that final cracking sound is clear, if only for a moment. That clarity, that desire, that need to move forward even with a symbolic rock on our backs, defines fighters, defines the best in us.

Adam Berlin is a professor of English at John Jay College and co-editor of J Journal.

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