Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Sweet Science

In 1896, a New York State Senator named John Raines sponsored legislation that banned liquor from being served on Sunday in New York. There was an exemption to the law: restaurants attached to hotels were still allowed to serve liquor on Sundays.

In response, many saloons purchased the buildings in which they resided (or a near neighbor building), called themselves “hotels,” and rented out the rooms by the hour to the sort of patrons that rented rooms by the hour, i.e. prostitutes. This was a classic loophole, producing classic unintended consequences.

Contemporaneous to the “Raines Hotels” was another loophole, this one in Federal and State Laws governing boxing, or prizefighting. Here, pugilistic competitions were allowed, provided they were as a “scientific demonstration.” Although the phrase “Sweet Science” first entered the language in 1824, in Pierce Egan’s Boxania, in which he used the phrase “the sweet science of bruising,” I have long suspected that the boxing loophole did more for the phrase than anything else.

Boxing is a very artificial fighting style, in that grappling techniques such as used in wrestling (or Aikido) are expressly forbidden. Of course, by “forbidden,” I mean, “used in a tactical way.” Hugging your opponent in a boxing match is a way to disrupt the current activity and obtain the intercession of the referee. This technique was the key to Buster Douglas’ defeat of Mike Tyson in the match that lost Tyson his title.

Tyson was from the “street thug” school of fisticuffs, no surprise there, since he had been a street thug. There was a time, briefly in his early career, when it appeared that he might have it in him to also become a technical boxer. The Tyson-Spinks fight was the culmination of that, a fight that has become legendary as over-hyped, since Tyson dropped Spinks in a minute and a half.

It was an interesting minute and a half, however. Tyson is usually seen as simply a bruiser, and there was some of that in it, of course. But his approaches to Spinks were technically brilliant; Spinks threw punches that Tyson slipped, but he also used the rotation of slipping the punch to cock his entire body for the follow-up. The effect was devastating. Spinks tried to block the return punches, but they had the entire force of Tyson’s body behind them. Blocking was useless against such power. A faster boxer than Spinks might have been able to dodge the blows, but it’s awfully hard to make a strike and then dodge when the return comes back at you so fast.

The young Ali could have done it, however. Ali was so fast that he got away with things that would have been suicide for most boxers. During the first Liston fight, Ali (then Cassius Clay) regularly evaded Liston’s punches by going straight back, something that should and would have been a straight trip to the canvas for anyone but Ali. The result was that Liston was punching air, and destroyed his shoulder over the course of a few rounds.

Tyson, except for a few brief glimpses of something greater, is of the Liston school of boxing, a street fighter tuned up and tamped down for the boxing ring. After the Spinks fight, Tyson’s father-surrogate trainer died, Tyson married and divorced Robin Givens, ran his car into a tree, and was then jailed for rape. Somewhere in there any hope of becoming something more than he was, died.

I think that the three most interesting boxers of the 20th century (certainly in the heavyweight division) are Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali, though opinions differ.

I don’t think there is any way to rank the three of them; their times were so different not even theoretical matchups make any sense. The first two ended their lives in poor circumstances, victims of both a sport and a society that feeds on celebrities then discards them when fashion shifts and age dulls their luster.

Ali still remains something of a creature apart. The connection that the boxing glove allows between physical force and the human brain works both ways, and neural damage is the frequent, perhaps even inevitable result. In Ali’s case, pseudo-Parkinson’s has frozen his face, but its very immobility now resembles the mask of a Mayan god, and only the eyes convey the powerful and generous humanity that still resides within.


black dog barking said...

I'm not much any more for rankings, to greatest and best and top N-lists, but if I had to pick one film to be stuck in the last DVD player on earth it is When We Were Kings. It has all the Hollywood larger than life-ness, too perfect dialogue and triumph. How could they film this before CGI?

Nice music. Who's the old guy that sings and plays like Mark Knopfler? Oh.

black dog barking said...

Among their many physical talents, cats have a finely tuned sense of reach, hovering just past your extended fingers while scolding you to get up and serve breakfast, walking nonchalantly just under the nose of the tethered dog next door. Liston's fully extended punches must have lightly touched the future champion's chin more than once.

James Killus said...

When I was doing the YouTube search for the clips, I found the Knopfler one and had it running when I also ran the Clay/Liston fight clip. The two combine to produce a really eerie effect, the crowd noises, the announcer jabbering, and in the background Knopfler almost whispering, "Sonny's going down for miles and miles..."

And yes, Liston must have felt like he was fighting a ghost that just brushed his gloves from time to time. Except when it was pounding him, of course.

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