David Remnick on Boxing

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David Remnick, on tour for his latest, Reporting: Writings from the New Yorker, will be in our studio tomorrow night. When we told him we wanted him to talk about boxing, he wrote in an email

Of course we can talk about anything that suits your fancy but I suspect that all women and nearly all men no longer care about boxing or understand why I might; it’s like caring about epic poetry, but low, low, low—a forgotten thing. Wouldn’t there be more interest in politics (Gore, Blair, Katrina, the Middle East) or writing or….God knows what? But you choose.

David Remnick, in an email to Open Source, May 22, 2006

We chose. We want to talk about boxing, and we were relieved at what he wrote us, since we’re interested specifically in the death of boxing. Where is boxing today? Who does care about it, and why? Has pay-per-view changed boxing? Has Tyson? How, like epic poetry, is it becoming a forgotten, unheralded skill?

David Remnick

Editor, The New Yorker

Author, Reporting: Writings from the New Yorker and King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

Teddy Atlas

Boxing Commentator and Trainer

Author, Atlas : From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man

Bert Sugar

Boxing Writer

Author of over 80 books on boxing history, including Bert Sugar on Boxing and Boxing’s Greatest Fighters

Michael Santarcangelo

Boxing Blogger & Podcaster, Boxing Scoop

Max Kellerman

Boxing commentator

Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz

WBA Lightweight Champion of the World

Junior, University of Houston

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  • I’m sorry. Why *should* we care about boxing?

    I’ve been to a pro boxing match in London. I had been working there installing the computer publishing system for a newspaper. I had to work closely with each department, including Sports. They were constantly inviting me to events. I felt it was my diplomatic obligation to go. So, I went.

    I sat in the press seats immediately around the ring.

    It was horrifying.

    Horrifying to see someone’s fist meet someone else’s flesh. Horrifying to see the blood and the sweat flying. Horrifying to see the injuries forming on these bodies right in front of your eyes, realizing that some of these might impact them, disable them, for life.

    More horrifying was turning around to see the spectators. The front rows were filled with women in full out glitz. Slinkly long gowns, garrish jewels, pounds of makeup and hairspray. Men in silk suits. And all of them screaming for blood. “Break his nose!” “Hit his left eye again, make it bleed!”

    While some people may have some sliver of appreciation for the craft, I would say that overwhelmingly they were there to see the spectacle of one person pummeling another into oblivion. I witnessed the bases of humans, vicariously sucking some sense of power out of the man going down.

    At the end, when the British man did not win, the crowd stormed the ring. In the press seats we were crushed. Someone punched me in the ribs from behind. The entire place became one huge brawl. The pointless, almost cannibalistic nature of it has left me forever wondering about the future of the human race.

    Perhaps one way we can see a brighter future is through the death of boxing. Please, let’s just ignore boxing until it is gone. Please don’t spend a whole hour talking about it. Just let it go.

  • kidlefty

    People will forever debate the humaneness of boxing. They always have, and yet it has never gone away. Almost everybody has at least some base animal attraction to the kind of raw violence boxing promises and sometimes delivers. And it will always be around, falling in and out of fashion.

    But the point I want to make here is that boxing is NOT in fact, as many are proclaiming, dead or dying. In fact, it is thriving and growing at historic proportions around the world. That last part is the thing. This is happening all over the globe, but not so much right now in the US. Any pundit or “expert” that tells you that there is no interest in boxing any more is simply not keeping up on their subject.

    Sure, to most Americans, boxing is largely off the radar. But in Australia a week ago 30,000 people filled a stadium to watch Anthony Mundine defeat Danny Green. In the heavyweight division right now, three of the four major titleholders are from Eastern Europe – the former Soviet bloc is now one of the most fertile exporters of heavyweight talent. Recently defeated two-division champion Acelino Frietas is so popular in Brazil that his wedding was broadcast on national TV. The Ring magazine’s current pound for pound ratings of the ten best fighters in the world features three fighters each from Mexico and the US, plus one from the Philippines, one from Thailand, one from the UK, and a Welshman. The Americans don’t dominate the sport the way they once did, globalization has made its mark on the oldest sport, and despite the last rites being given stateside, it is doing just fine. In fact, reports of its demise in the US are also premature. 10,000 people showed up to watch a Jr. Lightweight title fight in Los Angeles last Saturday night, and more than three quarters of a million households plunked down 50 dollars to watch Oscar De La Hoya’s comeback fight. If these are the dark days, fight fans are in for a real treat whenever the sport gets around to bouncing back.

  • kidlefty:

    “Almost everybody has at least some base animal attraction to the kind of raw violence boxing promises and sometimes delivers.”

    I don’t. I’m with Allison… ignore it til it dies.

  • kidlefty:

    “Almost everybody has at least some base animal attraction to the kind of raw violence boxing promises and sometimes delivers.�

    And this is why I wish it were gone. We don’t need to feed that attraction. We need to shift it to something that is not destructive of other human beings.

  • Joe Palooka

    Allison and peggysue:

    The great champ Max Baer once said “I got a million-dollar body and a ten-cent brain…”

    But Max had enough sense to notice those Hollywood women weren’t really ignoring him, even the ones who ‘abhored violence’. So he became an actor so he could play Hollywood playboy. See- this violent stuff doesn’t always work out so bad now does it?

    If it repels you, just ignore it and change the channel back to Oprah. Same thing with all that nasty Iraq and Afghanistan stuff. Positively dreadful, let’s just ignore it til it goes away shall we? Yes, that’s ever so much better…

    At what might be considered the zenith of boxing in the American sporting consciousness in the roaring ’20s, Jack Dempsey fought for the first $1 million dollar gate(100,000 or so live paying customers).The second biggest sports superstar of the time was

    Babe Ruth, who made a then astronomical $80,000 a year.

    Boxing will never die as long as there are Fighters: men with the athletic talent, mental discipline and raw hunger to survive in this most grueling of sports.

    Like Brando’s Terry Malloy or the nonfictional ‘Cinderella Man’, Jim Braddock, fighters often face some hard times on the way to the ring. It is still the nature of the fight game that they are forced to deal with some morally shady characters, who call the shots on career moves that can lead to contender status, or a one-way ticket to palookaville.

    No, there aren’t too many guys(and far fewer girls) out there willing to get hit in the face to make a living. It just so happens that most of them no longer come from the USA, though many of the best still train here, as America remains the Mecca of boxing worldwide.

    And boxers ain’t all so dumb as the casual fight fan screaming for more from the nosebleed section may assume. Maybe you have heard of the Klitschko brothers? They are two big Ukrainian heavyweights with PhDs. Big brother Vitali retired Lennox Lewis, and little brother Wladimir now holds a major heavyweight title. Gene Tunney, the man who took the title from Dempsey and retired undefeated, was a literary sort who hung out with George Bernard Shaw and authored several books(Look Ma, no ghostwriters!).

    The seeming fade of the sport into the background noise of popular multimedia culture in my estimation has less to do with any genuine lack of interest or fan base, than it does with the glut of channels and sports-related content currently competing for the ever-shorter attention span of the would-be fight fan.

    Kids of the ’70s may recall seeing Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran, and Sugar Ray Leonard fights on ‘free TV’ , back when the networks actually showed boxing on a par with current NFL or NBA playoffs. Don King and PPV cable spoiled it for the current generation of kids, who not surprisingly know more about fantasy football than who the heavyweight champ of the world is.

    Which brings up another problem: there are currently no less than 4 different ‘world heavyweight champions’. There is a WBC champ, but also a WBA, IBF, and a WBO champ. What is all this alphabet soup nonsense, you may well ask? There are now four competing ‘sanctioning bodies’, each jealously guarding its own turf, with no regular tournament to decide who is really the best, i.e., Undisputed Champion of the World. Of course this is aided and abetted by the Don Kings and Bob Arums of the game, who profit enormously from it. Only in America indeed. No wonder fight fans are confused.

    Boxing is not really on the ropes in the USA as some like to think. It is merely playing ‘rope-a-dope’. The elementary gladiatorial nature of mano a mano single combat is still at times the most dramatic and compelling event in sports.

    There are now other ‘combat sports’ with large followings , most notably the MMA(Mixed Martial Arts) tournaments such as the UFC, in which fighters come from varied backgrounds such as Greco-Roman wrestling or Brazilian Ju-jitsu and combine boxing with grappling skills in the course of a match. Boxing has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the MMA arena, as more wrestlers and martial artists find boxing skills essential to winning. Even the late, great Bruce Lee studied the works of Gene Tunney in developing his eclectic fighting style.

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  • nkay

    To me this is very simple. Watching and enjoying two people try and beat the living tar out of each other is barbaric. End of story! Sort of like the definition of pornography… I will know it when I see it. Three pages of justification for man’s history of brutality does not change what it is. Why would anyone man in his right mind even want to emulate such a low status male activity by embracing such stupidity?

    What scares me is that we have a culture that glorifies, rather than abhors the display of senseless human aggression. We are saturated in the media with senseless violence and displays of humiliation of the “opponent.� Gladiatorial sports like hockey, boxing and football saturate out culture. Young men are taught win at all costs, even if it means beating your opponent senseless.

    We even elevate rapists and ear chewers to superhuman status and provide them with impunity from the law. I won’t go into the filth that is organized crime that goes hand in hand with this waste of time.

    It has even invaded and is now the direction of our present foreign policy. How easy for us to take the next step and make an entire country an opponent, then send our young men to slay the evildoer, only to die on the altar of our addiction to violence.

    It invades our lives with increasing aggression and cruelty in the workplace. We endure senseless aggression and cruelty at the hands of our employers. The Queen of Hearts had it right. “Off with their heads!� Oh sorry, I meant… “You are fired!�

    Why not dog fighting or chicken baiting. Well, one can say that humans make a decision to do this. What about all those young men who believe this is the only way out of poverty who get their brains bashed and lose any chance of achieving anything meaningful because they were not a Mohammed Ali? Where are the meaningful heroes that they need?

    I abhor aggression and do not believe it is anything more than one facet of the complex human personality. We are so inured to it that we cannot even see the lies in our own reality that it covers up. Where are the mentors for cooperation, grace, beauty and peace? They are the ones that I want to support and see flourish. I say let it die. Consign it back to the low class trash where it belongs.

  • jazzman

    The fact that there are people willing to personally engage in physically violent behavior for money and glory (glory = more money), and people who gladly exploit those who engage in violence, and people, for whom atavistic bloodlust or vicarious violence is part of their worldview (I can’t beat the crap out of someone who pisses me off – so I’ll dissipate the adrenalin by watching violence), are willing to financially support it, forms of socially sanctioned violence will exist. It may be that without the dissipative effects of vicariously engaging in violent physical competition that society would be more violent than it already is but the jury is out on that one. I believe that it is documented that violent incidents against spouses increase during highly charged sporting events like the Super Bowl, so that isn’t dissipating the hormones as much as increasing them. Soccer generates violent passions elsewhere in the world, and hockey is well known for causing fighting among players and fans. (A referee was killed by a hockey dad here in Massachusetts.) As long as violent behavior is condoned and rewarded there will be no end to the varieties of violence on the menu for those that wish to support it. Boxing may require athletic prowess, finesse and stamina to avoid being seriously injured or killed but I don’t believe that it is the best way (or even an acceptable way) to demonstrate athleticism. I doubt that boxing enthusiasts are generally introspective but it would be interesting to know what it is that attracts them to the “sport.�

    Allison, would you please check your e-mail and forward my message to Birdbrain? Thanks – Jazzman

  • jazzman

    Nkay: Well stated!!!

  • Joe Palooka – I think ignoring boxing is a lot different from ignoring Iraq and Afghanistan. I have an obligation as a citizen to be proactive about what I want my country engaged in and how we go about it. I would appreciate it if you didn’t take such a condescending approach to my perception. (I’ve never watched Oprah.

  • maotalk

    Is Burt Sugar working on a boxing movie screenplay with Spike Lee?

  • Allison: ditto

  • demolitionwoman

    I’ve never been to a boxing match. I don’t get into physical fights. Blood makes me a bit queasy.

    But I love my boxing fitness class. It’s a great sport for women, in terms of learning to feel powerful in one’s body, the sheer joy of the solid impact of my fist on the bag. the way that every single muscle aches gloriously after a workout.

    I think Nkay’s argument in the first paragraph is a bit of a slippery slope. Many people do many things that others find objectionable, abhorrent, etc. What’s pornography to one is eroticism to another. What’s barbaric to some is an exuberant embrace of our most primal urges.

    I take the view that we all have impulses which our culture and society find objectionable. The challenge is to channel these impulses in a way which does not cause nonconsensual harm to others. So…we can channel physical aggression into sports, sexplay. Not sure if I’m articulating myself to my satisfaction, but there it is.

    As far as the institutions of boxing, that’s a whole ‘nother race and class argument.

  • demolitionwoman

    and speaking of women, why has there been no discussion of the rise of women in the sport? they’re talking about the death of boxing without a mention of the growing participation of women in boxing.

    what about Sue Fox, Laila Ali? the movie Girlfight?

  • thomas

    “Boxing is the art of the people, like making love.”

    I am enthralled by the archtypal overtones of this topic. There is something elemental about the sport and our attraction to controlled violence- an artistic display of violence.

    How does boxing, which seems to be a western phenomenon compare to the ancient eastern martial arts? The allure of boxing, when talking to Baby Bull and Teddy, seemed an artistic one–prefecting techniques, relying on the self, training, learning patience and self control.

    Boxing, like an eastern martial art, some ways is our western version of a martial art which teaches an artistic honing in, refining the body’s strength, its power. If art is a refined version of the sublime, then a boxing match becomes breath-taking, refined display of human skill and control.

    That’s overblown and very abstracted.

  • jfrank

    interesting discussion. but kind of shallow based on my experience listening to lydon, who typically interviews with a unique mixture of precision and broadness that makes his show special. anyway, the discussion missed a key point about boxing that informs the best of all boxing movies: raging bull. many boxers are masochistic. they don’s just tolerate being hit, they enjoy it. when afflicted with this condition, choosing to box is not so much a decision as a compulsion. if we are honest, many of our choices — whether we box or knit — are more compulsive than we care to admit. therefore, boxing can’t die off. for many people, it is more like making love than they know.

  • I am more concerned about the people who want to watch. The age old phenomenom of the masses enjoying the blood – and demise – of another human being. This is not engaging in an activity that is harmless to others. And, as Jazzman, points out, the adrenaline levels evoked do lead to higher incidents of violence. So, again, it is not harmless to others.

    I am, also, concerned about the treatment of the fighters themselves. Some of them may be masochistic, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldd exploit that, much less nurture it. Some may be intelligent and never get a permanently damaging injury, but there are people who smoke that manage to avoid lung cancer. That doesn’t mean we should pay people to smoke.

    I’m all for learning an art of self-defense. And I can see the value of sparring, though I have never taken it this far myself. But these things are not done with an audience in mind. Nor does anybody – other than the trainer – make a living off of it. It is a self-satisfying activity not done for someone else’s entertainment. Once you are hitting someone else for money and entertainment, any art is gone.

  • zeke

    There was mention of boxing fitness class and professional wrestling as possible alternatives –for different reasons– to the brutality of boxing. No mention was made of amateur wrestling which is both a scholastic, collegiate and Olympic sport. It combines many of the attributes that were cited in defense of boxing: solo responsibility, intense physical demands, a goal of complete domination of the opponent (via the pin), etc.

  • thomas

    I don’t necessarily agree with you allison when you say once you are hitting someone else for money the art is gone. The artistry of an act or an object is disconnected, it seems to me, from the amount of money one gets from it. Its like saying a painter stops being an artist when someone starts paying for her paintings.

    I don’t know why I’m arguing here, because I agree with anyone that publically sanctioned violence could or may lead to other forms of violence. But I think it might be a little to easy to say if we didn’t sanction boxing publically, violence would go away in our society.

    Boxing or football or futbol all seem to me ways for us to metaphorically work out an elemental need humans have to compete against each other, to position the best of my ability and the best of your ability and see who wins.

    Competition lies close to whatever it is that we call human nature. There are white collar versions of competition and violence which might have nothing to do with throwing a punch, but every thing to do with hurting, even destroying another person’s spirit, that are filled with brutality –I’m thinking of a cold corporate world, I’m thinking of politics, or the way Wall Mart dominates the economies of small towns, or foreign policies where a country invades and kills people that, for the most part were innocently attempting to live their lives.

    I say these things not to argue this or that political position or policy but the merits of our decent and humane way of dealing of things in non-violent ways.

    There is something wholly beautiful about two people, or two countries, or to regions putting it out in the open and fighting, however brutal and inhumane as it may be, in the open, in a metaphorical field.

    When Real Madrid played Barcelona in the 1960’s and 70’s it was about too teams on the soccer field trying to kill each other it was a more poetic battle between Franco and Catalonia.

    I also hate that individuals get exploited for fighting, but I don’t think that it makes the beauty of a competition any less beautiful or artistic. You could make a case for Nike exploiting Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, or the Catholic Church exploiting Michelangelo.

  • thomas: “But I think it might be a little to easy to say if we didn’t sanction boxing publically, violence would go away in our society.”

    Well, no one said that.

  • The difference between paying someone to make an art piece and paying someone to pummel someone else, is that with boxing, you are paying for people to get vicarious pleasure out of someone else’s demise. For me, the art is gone when the point becomes one of letting others revel in the personal destruction of a human being. As scientists know, the nature of observance impacts the observed.

  • Jeremiah

    Sorry for the late reply, just listened to the podcast today.

    One major point contributing to the current demise that was not brought up on the program is the rise in popularity with Mixed Martial Arts combat. I’m sure some have heard or even seen the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). This is full contact fighting, but does have it’s own rules and regulations to ensure safety of fighters.

    I also think it’s important to point out that whether we’re discussing boxing or MMA, it’s consenting adults of free will choosing to compete with one another. If you don’t agree with it, you have the same abilities to not watch it as those who chose to watch and compete.