James Lawton: The noble art of boxing

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Always brutal, often bloody, and occasionally lethal, boxing has inspired some of the greatest writers and film-makers in history, and produced more legends than any other sport. As the world awaits the showdown of the decade, Lawton examines our enduring fascination with the noble art

Boxing, which even its most eloquent apologist AJ Liebling feared was probably doomed 50 years ago, largely because of a "ridiculous gadget" known as television, which he reckoned had been invented solely to sell razor blades and soap powder, is this week making still another statement of rude and enduring health. Well, maybe not health in the deepest, most solidly founded way, but an extraordinary ability to conjure a surge of life, vital signs creating a frisson of anticipation which the great Muhammad Ali once likened, improbably enough, to the pursuit of a beautiful woman.

Ali was speaking on the eve of a world welterweight title fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, in their different ways two of the greatest fighters of all time, but now, 27 years on, he would no doubt apply the same comparison to what will happen in the small hours of this coming Sunday morning in Las Vegas, when Britain's Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather of the United States step into the ring in the vast showroom of the MGM Grand Casino Hotel to fight for the undisputed version of today's welterweight title.

Ali said: "When you chase that beautiful lady you put the cologne on your face and for a little while nothing else matters. Then it is over, one way or the other, and you wonder why you got so excited. It's the same when two guys get into the ring; whatever else is happening in the world, you want to know the answer to just one question: who's gonna win, who's gonna win? Fighting will always have that because, you know, it is just so basic."

Basic, no doubt, but since the days it was recorded by its first great chronicler Pierce Egan, who described the then-outlawed sport as the "science of sweet bruising", boxing is also endlessly capable of provoking fine writing and superior film-making, touching men and (certainly in the case of the novelist Joyce Carol Oates) women so profoundly that if boxing was abolished today, if it was driven into the streets like the now-familiar groups of smokers huddled outside their office blocks, it would leave a body of artistic and literary expression permanently dwarfing such rivals for the entertainment dollar and pound as opera or ballet.

As to ballet, Joe Liebling once seized with shameless superficiality on the eccentricity of the great dancer and choreographer Nijinsky, while defending boxing against the carefully documented ravages caused to some of the sport's greatest heroes, sadly among whom Ali must now be numbered.

"A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone," wrote Liebling. "If he loses, he cannot call an executive conference and throw off on a vice president or the assistant sales manager. He is consequently resented by fractional characters who cannot live outside an organisation. A fighter's hostilities are not turned inward, like a Sunday tennis player or a lady MP's. They come out naturally with his sweat, and when his job is done he feels good because he has expressed himself. Chain-of-command types, to whom this is intolerable, try to rationalise their envy by proclaiming solicitude for the fighter's health. If a boxer, for example, ever went as batty as Nijinksy, all the wowsers in the world would be screaming, 'Punch-drunk'. Well, who hit Nijinksy? And why isn't there a campaign against ballet? It gives girls thick legs."

Intellectually, it just wouldn't do, and no doubt Liebling knew it. But generations of fight lovers, and mere observers drawn by the human drama who have followed him have scarcely dealt better with their ambivalence. The late Norman Mailer's compulsion to be at ringside he eagerly accepted a commission to cover the classic collision of Ali and George Foreman in a jungle clearing in Zaire in 1974 sat uncomfortably with the incidents of violence that studded his own life and even such a gentle, erudite figure as the writer Budd On the Waterfront Schulberg confesses that he still, in his nineties, goes to the fights, torn between the thrill of the conflict and the often dreadful physical consequences.

Why? Because, in its atavistic rages, its often beautiful skill and the implicit courage of the protagonists, boxing takes men and women into areas that are untouched in other areas of legal spectacle.

I once speculated that riding the Tour de France might be the toughest assignment in sport, only to be swiftly reproached by Hugh McIlvanney, who wrote of the brave and spindly Welsh fighter Johnny Owen, who died as a result of injuries sustained in the ring in Los Angeles: "Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language."

On the wider point, McIlvanney had pointed out that when the bravest wearers of the yellow jersey reach the peak of some snow-covered col, they are not greeted by someone anxious to punch them in the head.

****

Hatton, 29, a tough but intrinsically agreeable Mancunian, and Mayweather, 30, a narcissist from a big and anarchic family reared in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are generously endowed with that brutal ambition and both are undefeated.

Mayweather, rated by many as the holder of the mythic title of the world's best pound-for-pound fighter, has so far earned 50m and Hatton an estimated 12m. These are not bad pickings from a business pronounced moribund so many times down its history, and when they step into the ring on Sunday morning it is anticipated that they will have sold close to 1.5 million Home Box Office television sales, further enriching the fighters by at least 10m and 5m respectively. Chasing a girl, as Ali would no doubt reflect ruefully after his expensive marriages, was never so profitable.

What Hatton and Mayweather are reestablishing so lucratively for themselves and their promoters is the sport's capacity to survive year upon year of decline (Liebling was right that TV's appetite for free weekly screenings of fights would wipe away the audience for young prospects, who fought in the clubs and small arenas of every town in America) and from time to time arrive at a night when it indeed could round up so many of its old clientele. Some hard judges will say that what is happening in Las Vegas is in reality no hard evidence of an untrammelled future.

While there is a surge of interest in Britain, built on the success of such fighters as Hatton and the undisputed world super-middleweight champion from Wales, Joe Calzaghe, the old barometer of boxing's appeal, the heavyweight division, is touching zero with the departure of men such as Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield.

In America, boxing has been virtually abandoned in its old heartland of the ghetto. Certainly, it is unlikely today that a young athlete of great physical talent would now choose the hazards of the ring, as the great superstars such as Ali and Leonard did so unhesitatingly, over the more assured, and relatively risk-free, potential of careers in basketball, baseball and gridiron.

Where health campaigners have failed, social development has been a more insidious enemy. Henry Armstrong, who held three world titles at separate weights in the space of two years and was rated by many as the greatest fighter they had ever seen, described the dawning of his vocation during the Great Depression in a way that gathered in all of the old mythology of the ring.

The man who was christened Homicide Hank said: "I was looking at my pay as a railroad worker one day, I had the few dollars in my hand, and I thought to myself, this is no good this isn't getting me anywhere and just then a wind blew up and left a newspaper at my feet. The sports page was staring up at me. The headline said 'KidChocolate earns 75,000 for half an hour's work.' It was a kinda of a miracle and I said, right then, 'that's me I'm going to be a champion."

On such a premise, the actor-producer Sylvester Stallone launched his ludicrous, box-office smashing series of Rocky films, but they were a parody of work which had brought such distinction to so many writers and film-makers.

The scriptwriter Schulburg's haunting evocation of a failed prize fighter blighted by his brother's connections with The Mob provided superb vehicles for Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in On The Waterfront, and the work of director Elia Kazan was hailed as a technical and artistic masterpiece. The film attacked trade union corruption but at its heart was the noble, inarticulate rage of the thwarted fighter, and to its nuances Schulberg, son of a New York movie producer who once had the challenge of chaperoning an impossibly drunken F Scott Fitzgerald when Hollywood sent them to research a film script, brought a deep well of knowledge and passion for boxing.

Many years later, in Las Vegas in 1985, Schulberg briefly stopped and sat beside me at ringside as he made his way from the tumultuous middleweight title fight between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns. Schulberg, who had seen so much, could not disguise a tremor of emotion.

The fight had lasted less than three rounds, but those who saw it will never forget it. It was a like a shooting star burning through the sky, and after Hagler had absorbed an astonishing assault from Hearns, and then borne down on him as relentlessly as some fiercely programmed robot, there was general agreement that few fights in history could have generated such ferocious drama. Schulberg said more than that. He shook his head and said: "I never ever expected to see anything as dramatic as that not outside of war."

****

That was the uncomplicated glory of fighting, and if neither man sustained serious injury that night, Hearns, particularly, caused worry with a slurring speech that had developed long before the end of his long and ferocious career.

It was different when Gerald McClellan lost a longer but also intensely waged middleweight fight against Britain's Nigel Benn in the London Arena 10 years later. Then, no memory of the combat could be left unclouded by the fact that the rest of McClellan's life would be spent in darkness, half deafness and a wheelchair. Then, the lines scrawled at ringside said: "When they gave Gerald McClellan his fourth injection in the corner of that zoo of a ring, when they put the brace on his neck and the oxygen mask to his face, when all the demons of a brutal business crowded in, you were left with the question that will never go away: 'How long can the old game go on?'"

Twelve years on, some of us will go on asking that question, even as we check into ringside and feel the old swirl of emotion and anticipation that comes when the fighters make their way into the ring, mostly with extraordinary front, sometimes with the naked apprehension displayed by Frank Bruno when he went into the ring for a second time with Mike Tyson, and crossed himself repeatedly.

It is a matter of fact that, just a year after some of us were recording our dread at the impact and the meaning of the McClellan tragedy, we were attending Tyson against Evander Holyfield and stomaching the claims of some of the former's entourage that Holyfield would be leaving town in a coffin. We also returned to see Tyson bite into the ear of Holyfield in the second fight, and watched the members of the Nevada Athletic Commission wriggle as they balanced the grimness of the former champion's behaviour with his undoubted status as the gambling city's surest source of instant income.

How do we explain boxing's durability? How to square the cynical match-making, the relentless greening of the raw courage of brave and often ill-advised fighters, with the certainty that their efforts will so often carry us on to another plane of experience?

Perhaps nowhere in life is a man's basic nerve and courage so regularly examined nowhere is ambition so hazardous but so capable of drawing out every fibre of a man's body and spirit. Liebling attributed some of his fascination to physical contact, of an admittedly playful nature, with the old fighter "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien, who the writer quotes at the start of his seminal work, The Sweet Science, on the subject of Stanley Ketchel, a middleweight much loved by Ernest Hemingway.

The O'Brien quote reads: "I heard that Ketchel's dynamic onslaught was such it could not readily be withstood, but I figured I could jab his puss off... I should have put the bum away early, but my timing was a fraction of an iota off."

"It was through Jack O'Brien," Liebling explained, "that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. Jack had a scar to show for it. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan with the bare knuckles and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It's a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose."

Ketchel, Gentleman Jim Corbett and John L Sullivan all made it to movie celluloid, Corbett played by Errol Flynn, who sometimes portrayed heroism better than he lived it at least according to those who say he made one of the slowest ever descents of the Cresta Run. Ketchel was murdered at the end of his brief journey through turbulent days, which provided ready-made material for the writers and the film makers.

Jack Johnson, after displaying the temerity to become the first black world heavyweight title holder and sparking race riots across American fled to Europe after being harassed for his liking for the company of white women. It was a role played with distinction by James Earl Jones. More recently, Russell Crowe was similarly impressive in Cinderella Man, the story of Jimmy Braddock, a poor man who fought his way out of the Great Depression.

As movie credits come and go, as novels such as The Professional, by WC Heinz Hemingway's favourite and Fat City by Leonard Gardner can be re-read for their depth of feeling and characterisation of men fighting the heaviest of odds, there is one certainty. It is the one proclaimed by Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas on Sunday. It is that the source material will never go away. You can stop many things, for many reasons. But not included among them is a man's instinct to fight and that equally compelling urge to watch.

Art of the Noble Art: 12 best boxing films
By Tim Walker and Ida Bergstrm

Rocky
(John G Avildsen, 1976)

Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky when he was an out-of-work actor, struggling to find parts he could play as an Italian-American. He was inspired by the story of Chuck Wepner, a club boxer from New Jersey who went 15 rounds against world champion Muhammad Ali in 1975. Sadly, the memory of the Oscar-winning film has since been sullied by incessant duff sequels.

Raging Bull
(Martin Scorsese, 1980)

The movie for which Scorsese should have won his first Oscar was beaten to the award by Robert Redford's now largely forgotten Ordinary People. Raging Bull is the true story of prizefighter Jake La Motta, played by Robert De Niro, who made up for the myriad mistakes in his private life by taking a beating in the ring.

On the Waterfront
(Elia Kazan, 1954)

Kazan made On the Waterfront at the height of Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witch-hunts in the 1950s, an episode which saw the director outcast by many of his peers for naming names. The film is the story of Marlon Brando's disgraced prize-fighter, who has thrown a fight for a corrupt union boss, and becomes determined to redeem himself by speaking out against the mob.

Teen Wolf Too
(Christopher Leitch, 1987)

Jason Bateman, the star of cult sitcom Arrested Development, still lives in fear of being accosted by fans of this teen comedy sequel, in which he plays a college boxer from a family of werewolves. By the end of the movie, Bateman's character realises he can be a champion without being a wolf.

Ali
(Michael Mann, 2001)

Mann raised eyebrows when he announced that rapper and comedy-actor Will Smith would take the title role in his biopic of Muhammad Ali. But the picture, set between Ali's first title victory (against Sonny Liston) in 1964, and the famed "Rumble in the Jungle" a decade later, exceeded all expectations. A fitting tribute to The Greatest.

Cinderella Man
(Ron Howard, 2005)

Howard discovered boxing's allure with Far and Away (1992), in which a bare-knuckled Tom Cruise fights Colm Meaney and a horse. The director returned to the theme with Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe as heavyweight champion James J Braddock, who gave up boxing during the Depression to feed his family by working as a longshoreman, then made a spectacular comeback to win the world title in 1935.

When We Were Kings
(Leon Gast, 1996)

One of the greatest boxing movies, this feted 1996 documentary covered the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle", when Muhammad Ali reclaimed his world title from the fearsome George Foreman in Kinshasa (in the days before Foreman became a cuddly culinary-appliances salesman). The film focuses on the build-up to the fight, and showcases not only Ali's fabled ring-craft, but his legendary wit and charisma to boot.

Million Dollar Baby
(Clint Eastwood, 2004)

Eastwood directed and starred in Million Dollar Baby, another Oscar-winning movie set in the ring. The veteran actor played a boxing trainer in the twilight of a somewhat undistinguished career, who agrees

to help a young female amateur turn professional, with tragic consequences.

Girlfight
(Karyn Kusama, 2000)

A polemic to girl-power, literally. Angry, 18-year-old Diana has just lost her mother, and is about to be kicked out of high school for fighting. Then she meets a trainer, learns how to box, and the rest is history. The film marked the screen debut of a young Michelle Rodriguez, who in her first ever audition was chosen from over 300 candidates.

Blue Blood
(Stevan Riley, 2006)

A beautifully shot documentary, featuring abundant nose bleeds, Blue Blood follows the plucky amateurs competing in 2005's Varsity boxing match, with touching results. Students from Oxford and Cambridge have squared off once a year for more than 100 years, and Blue Blood was named 'The Ultimate University Movie' by the New York Post.

Play it to the Bone
(Ron Shelton, 1999)

Ageing boxing buddies Vince (Woody Harrelson) and Cesar (Antonio Banderas) get a chance to redeem their careers when a Vegas promoter is short of fighters for a Mike Tyson event. But they have to fight each other first. Though predictable, the fight scene is historic.

The Hurricane
(Norman Jewison, 1999)

Denzel Washington trained for more than a year in a spit-and-sawdust gym before taking on the part of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, an African-American middle-weight champion wrongly accused of a triple murder and sentenced to life in prison. Though criticised for allegedly "bending" facts, Jewison produced a powerful and moving true story of racism, injustice and corruption.

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