Friday, September 23, 2005

Former IBF Lightweight Champ Dies from Injuries Sustained in the Ring
Thoughts about the Beauty of the Brutish Sport

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former world lightweight champion Leavander Johnson died in hospital on Thursday, five days after suffering brain damage in a title bout in Las Vegas.
The 35-year-old American collapsed while heading to his dressing room after he was stopped in the 11th round of a failed IBF lightweight title defense against Mexico's Jesus Chavez on Saturday

When it comes to boxing, folks tend to fall into one of two categories. To some, the sport is a barbaric display of senseless violence, a brutish exhibition of cruelty as a form of entertainment. To others, it is a science, a form of ballet, complete with surgically-precise moves, delicate footwork, and strategically placed jabs.

I've always thought boxing falls somewhere in the middle of these two views. Yes, it is a sport built for brutality. From the ancient Greeks to the Duke of Albemarle's 1681 exploitation of his butcher and butler to present day, boxing has been about the awe of the well-placed hook, the broken nose, the split forehead, and the blackened eye. It is gruesome, gory, and even sinister.

But it is, strangely, a thing of beauty. More appropriately, the fights themselves demonstrate the purest of understanding regarding human conflict. It is not about heroes and villains, not about the mercilous beating of one person at the hands of another. In the ring, unlike in military warrooms, corporate boardrooms, or political meetings, conflict, while violent, is a meeting of equals to determine who is the "more equal" of the two in terms of skill, talent, and power.

Sure, there are cheaters. Fiinks, criminals, grandstanders, and exploitive managers permeate the sport. Promoters have long used "Tomato Cans" (unskilled fighters booked for a fight simply because they bleed easily and offer no real competition) to pad TKO and KO stats.

But, in the ring, it still comes down to two men or two women interpretting the choreographic perfection of Ali, Dempsey, Liston, Foreman, and De La Hoya. And it comes down to skill, fortitude, and constitution. Even tomato cans occassionally land a decent hook that sends promoters hitting the ground at the same rate as their newly-defeated prizefighters. That has fed dreams of hope, and provided numerous folks with the faith to believe that, at least in the ring, the underdog can still win one for the little guys.

Boxing has also provided tragedy, displayed our cultural shame, and exposed our cultural ills. Muhammed Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam helped inspired the poor and black to mobilize and to do the same. Joe Louis and Jack Johnson helped shatter myths about cultural superiority and spit in the face of racism with every punch. More negatively, Mike Tyson's insanity, from the rape of a beauty queen to ear biting to threatening to eat children, serves as a constant reminder of the sheer excess and self-centeredness that hid beneath the surface of American culture in the late 20th century. Who needs fiction like Fight Club or American Psycho to dramatize the violent underpinnings of cultural failures in modern society? Ask Evander Holyfield about what it really feels like to watch an insane madman spit out your ear in a title fight.

At 35, Leavander Johnson held the IBF lightweight belt for a matter of weeks. And in his first fight as the champ, he dies as a result of his injuries.

Johnson's death demonstrates another thing about human conflict, the true tragic face of daily life.

Sometimes, people die in conflicts. Even when the violence is supposedly contained, controlled, and confined to a squared circle.

There is beauty in boxing, because there is something very true about it, something raw and unfettered.

Because of that, there is also bound to be death, destruction, and senselessness.

After all, that's the double-edged sword of humanity. On one side the appreciation of life; on the other, the very real touch and feel of death.

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