My appreciation of boxing stems, strangely enough, from basketball, Evander Holyfield's ear and Buster Douglas.
Like every boy who grows up in the U.S., I took part in organized sports. The reasons for this are many. At the time, I played because it was fun. I realized as I grew older there were benefits from learning how to play on a team. As a parent, I now know the value of wearing kids out to make them more manageable at home.
That middle reason, of course, is the one parents and child-development experts will cite. Children need to learn how to work together toward a common goal, how to compensate for their weaknesses with others' strengths, how to subsume their desire for personal achievement in pursuit of shared success.
And what does every kid do instinctively? They shoot if they are open. They swing for the fence despite the coach's plea for a bunt. They head for the end zone instead of the sideline when time is of the essence. They know that their chance to shine is fleeting. If they have the ball, they are going to do something with it.
What does this have to do with boxing? Well, I still play pickup basketball games – have for twenty-five years now. Sometimes I shine, sometimes I dog it and let someone else do the work. But what I like best is when there are just two of us on the court – one on one. In that moment, there is no one to set a screen and free you for a jump shot. No chance your opponent hung back to catch a breath while his teammates were left to pick up their slack. It's just you and what you can do. It's your quickness, your endurance, your ability, and nothing more, stacked up against that of another in the same situation.
These are the most grueling, demanding games I play, and their frequency diminishes with each passing year (much to the relief of my creaky knees). If you're doing it right, there's no way to feel anything but spent when you're done.
Now imagine that your opponent is trying to knock your block off. Sure, one-on-one basketball can get rough, with a shove here and an elbow to the head there. But your opponent isn't trying to hurt you, to cause enough physical damage to stop you.
How do boxers do it? That question popped into my head a lot during my late high school and early college years as I watched Mike Tyson destroy all comers. Tyson is that rare athlete who transcends his sport. Like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or Wayne Gretzky, his accomplishments drew attention from beyond the core of people who care about his sport. It's why at college I would often find myself gathered in the apartment of some rich kid from the Chicago suburbs who bought the pay-per-view rights to the latest Tyson fight. He'd ice a keg and then sell a seat for ten bucks to cover his costs (and probably make rent for the next month in the process). Red Solo cups in hand, a group of us would gather to watch the bout.
You had to get there early and pay attention since Tyson's fights rarely lasted long. I don't recall all of the specific fights, but I'm guessing we saw him stumble against Frank Bruno and then demolish Carl The Truth Williams.
It was Tyson's fight against Buster Douglas, however, that cemented my status as a fight fan. By that point, Tyson seemed unbeatable. Age, perhaps, would be the only thing to slow him down. It certainly wasn't going to be Buster Douglas, right? But as we watched in someone's apartment, a couple dozen guys – only a couple of years younger than Tyson – all jammed into a living room furnished with pressed-board furniture and sagging couches, the impossible happened. Douglas, a forty-two-to-one underdog, knocked out Tyson in the tenth round to take his titles.
Experts cited Douglas being affected by the recent death of his mother, or the turmoil in Tyson's life thanks to fractured business relationships and a dissolving marriage. Tyson’s camp complained about a long ten count in the eighth round that saved Douglas. Still and all, it was a case of two men entering a ring where anything could happen – experts and bookmakers be damned.
It wasn't just the anything can happen feeling that hooked me on boxing. It was that someone like Douglas could have the confidence to step into the ring with a monster like Tyson. Not only do you need to believe you will survive, you need to believe you will win – that your raw strength and stamina and skill will be enough to counter the same in your opponent. Douglas had no one else to lean on when he stood toe-to-toe against Tyson round after round. There was no one to set a screen and free him for a good shot. No one to pick up the defense while he sucked air in the corner for a moment. That, more than the brutality – perhaps even more than the strategy – is the appeal of boxing for me.
And Evander Holyfield's ear? Well, all high-mindedness aside, boxing is singular in its embrace of the absurd. So it was that I found myself, again with red Solo cup in hand, standing in someone's backyard, watching a big-screen TV back when this was a novelty, before everyone had one bolted to their living room wall. This one perched precariously on some table of some sort in the sloping lawn of a college rental house. A friend had heard about this party to watch the second Tyson-Holyfield fight, and so there we stood amid dozens of people arrayed around the yard as the sun went down on a warm, June evening.
You know the story – first one nip on the ear, then another fierce enough to actually rip part of Holyfield's ear off. After a disappointing first fight marred in controversy, we shouldn't have expected much more. Still, after waiting five years for the first and another year for this, it was a disappointment from a boxing standpoint. Yet, in a way, it was exactly what we expected. Tyson, by this point, had proven himself to be crazy, and clearly lacked the fire and explosiveness that he'd left on the other side of a prison term for a rape conviction.
If I could be entertained solely by the physical exploits of two athletes going head-to-head, I'd probably follow wrestling. But for that little added bit of theater – the kind professional wrestling must manufacture to achieve – boxing has it all.