A BEAUTIFUL UGLINESS

Tyson chews human ear!…Don King  fleeces heavyweight Tim Witherspoon!…Big John Tate panhandling!…Duk-Koo Kim dies!…Multiple champions!…

I’m sick of hearing how horrible boxing is.  Corruption, scandal, fraud and outrage are the essence of boxing.  Just accept it.

Embrace it.

And while you’re embracing it, embrace its virtues.

 I’ll give you 10 boxing virtues:

The beauty.  Jack Newfield said it best: “I still find watching a film of Sugar Ray Robinson as exhilarating as reading a poem by Yeats, listening to a spiritual by Mahalia Jackson. Or hearing a soliloquy composed by Shakespeare.  Artistry is artistry, regardless of the calling.”

…Jerry Quarry suffers brain damage…Blinky Palmero fixes fights!…Panama  Lewis doctors boxing gloves!…Muhammad Ali–punch drunk!…

  Sure, boxing is a train wreck, but boxing gives a kid like me a stab at nobility.  I never showed courage or skill in school, but I did in the ring.  My left hook was a perfectly tossed equation and my right was a simile of violence.  My educated teachers could never do what I did.

Without boxing, the world wouldn’t have hard-punching Ernie Shavers, champ Barney Ross, or Sir Henry Cooper.  We’d have a railroad worker, a delicatessen employee and a lorry driver. Boxing gives people like us an opportunity to shine and become more than we are.

…Joe Louis smears mayonnaise on cracked hotel ceiling to stop poisonous gas…Sandy Saddler signs autograph—a straight line…Jake Lamotta throws fight!…The victimization of Primo Carnera…

I have great respect for a sport that offers a rebellious kid a healthy alternative to crime and a life on the streets.  Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, and Roberto Duran are poster children for boxing.  Vito Antuofermo, a middleweight champion once said, “When I got in the ring for the first time, I listened to the crowd.  It was the first time in my life I ever heard people cheering for me.”  My teachers always bought tickets to cheer me on when I fought in Madison Square Garden.

…Notorious Don King!…Corrupt Tex Rickard!…Ring Magazine accepts bribes! …The dementia of champ Bobby Chacon…Roberto Duran’s “No mas!”…Sonny Liston tanks against Cassius Clay!…Ad Wolgast ends up in sanatorium!…

Sure, boxing has major character flaws.  But boxing reaches out to help people with major character flaws. “Give me your poor, tired and sick!  Give me your huddled masses!” shouts boxing.   I paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates:  The world inside a boxing ring is less economically unfair, less socially sick, and less racially cruel as the world outside the ring.  If it weren’t for boxing, many of us would be running down streets throwing grenades in people’s faces.   My character flaw?  A mind marbled with anger, hate and self loathing.

 …Welterweight champ, Mickey “The Toy Bulldog” Walker, is “unidentified   vagrant” wandering NYC streets!…Billy Graham robbed!…Al “Bummy” Davis murdered!…Harry Wills blacklisted!…The infamous color line… 

 Boxing develops confidence. It enables a shy, unconfident boy to reach down into his soul to see what is down there.  Only by digging down deep, said my coach, can you reach up high.   The one-on-one nature of boxing is profound because it breeds self-reliance and promotes personal growth.  “Average” men and women become potential champions.

…Benny “Kid” Paret dies!…George Foreman’s farce–He fights 5 men in one night!…Riddick Bowe is slurring words!…Tony Ayala, Jr. guilty of rape!…

Boxing offers a healthy right-of-passage.  Boxing is a bar mitzvah.  Or communion.  Men become boys in sports, but in boxing, boys become men.  Sure, stepping into a ring and getting my nose broken hurt, but it was far more meaningful than driving to a tattoo parlor to get my arm tattooed or tongue studded.  Years of jumping rope, running, pushups, sit ups, chin-ups, sparring made me physically strong.   And proud.

 …Tyson convicted of rape!…Jack Johnson violates The Mann Act!…Cassius Clay refuses draft!…Barney Ross—heroin addict!…Jersey Joe Walcott robbed!…

When Sally Jessie Raphael, the NYC radio and talk show host interviewed me about my recently published book, Confessions of a Fighter, she said, “I’m a vegetarian-pacifist who loves boxing.  Why?  Because in boxing there’s resolution.”

“Boxing is frequently inspiring,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates.  “It is wordless drama; an artistic story, a unique and highly condensed drama without the moral and political complexities of society.”

 …Trevor Berbick murdered!… NBC’s Contender boxer, Najai Turpin, commits suicide…England’s Randy Turpin commits suicide…

Boxing counter balances today’s impotent, effete, Microsoft lifestyle.  Boxing honors anger.   Anger is an appropriate response to many intransigent facts of life.   When anger and hate squirmed inside my young brain, boxing helped puke it out.  That’s healthy. Unexpressed anger is not healthy.   Doctors hypothesize bottled up anger causes cancer.

Very few boxers die of cancer.

…Nigel Benn attempts suicide…Johnny Tapia attempts suicide…Light heavyweight, Gabriel Hernandez, 27, hangs himself…

Boxing is a great mixer of peoples.  Three tough rounds of sparring makes two dissimilar people pretty much the same.  The racial harmony and camaraderie within a boxing gym is beautiful.  Sweetpea Whitaker said is best:  “When you’re in the ring with someone, your souls kinda touch.”

…Rubin “Hurricane” Carter guilty of murder!…Davey Hilton rapes!…Macho Camacho guilty of grand larceny!…Bobby Halpern arrested for arson…Leon Spinks loses front teeth!…

Boxing is an art form for the artless.  A fighter is a different type of painter who paints on a different type of canvas.  His paint is red anger and black rage.  I get goose bumps remembering an angry kid I used to train in The New York Golden Gloves. Anger squirted out of him.  It was his art form, a gift from God that flowed from him like melody flows from a musician.  Anger was his muse and it ran through his body.  I could die of love watching him punch. If God was revealed to Dostoevsky in seizures, why can’t boxing serve as a portal to the beyond, or the unknown, to my angry fighter?

 …Ike Ibeabuchi rapes exotic dancer!…James Toney uses illegal substances!…Golata is a Foul Pole!…H.I.V. Tommy Morrison allowed to fight!… 

I’ll give you an 11th boxing virtue:  Women boxing.  Boxing for women has moved beyond the tidy, mirrored confines of aerobic studios.  The sound of a woman landing a punch is the sound of a shattered taboo. I’m not a big fan of women boxing.  I’m confused and mystified by it.  But if a woman wants to get a broken nose, let her.  Watching a gutsy woman battle is, I admit, inspiring.

As you can tell, boxing holds a powerful ambivalent appeal for me.  It did for Jack Newfield, for Sally Jessie Raphael, and Joyce Carol Oates.    I smiled when I learned that Nelson Algren, an intelligent, peace-loving NYT writer in the 1930s, was a boxing fan who, after watching Barney Ross fight, tattooed two boxing gloves on his shoulder. 

Perhaps there is a natural human interest regarding aberrant behavior, and boxing might be–just might be–aberrant behavior. But I so want to believe boxing is art, beautiful, and healthy.  I hope I am not a prisoner of a false belief.  I hope I’m not trying to inflict you with misplaced optimism. I had 35 amateur fights and if I was dabbling in aberrancy, fine. But boxing was definitely virtuous for me.  It was my sick way to get healthy.

The weirdness, wildness, and wonder of boxing is why I still remain on the edge of my seat every time I watch a fighter punch out his, or her, drama.

Boxing is edgy and smutty.  Visceral and real.  Dangerous and aggressive.   So be it.  Let boxing cannibalize itself.  That’s part of the attraction.  Boxing is inherently offensive.  It’s ugly beauty.

Hobo Jack Dempsey, a young, gutsy saloon fighter in the 1910s, called for federal intervention in the 1960s.  John McCain calls for it in 2007.

No way.

Don’t harness boxing with headgear, dilute it with dictums, pollute it with politics, weaken it with whining, or neuter it with niceties.   Leave boxing alone.

Keep boxing pure.

…Joe Louis donates entire purse to U. S. Army…Alex Ramos’s creates Retired Boxers’ Foundation…Barney Ross’s heroics save 29 Marines in Guadalcanal…Larry Holmes owns half of Easton, PA…“Million Dollar Baby”  box office smash!…George Foreman donates to Houston’s flood relief fund…“Rocky”!

 The End

(Peter Wood has written for Ring Magazine, Sporting Classics and The New York Times.  He is the author of two memoirs, “Confession of a Fighter” and “A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion”.)

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Street Café: “POW! An evening of readings and photography with punch!”

Celebrate PROOF’s sports issue—and meet the boxer who inspired Sylvester Stallone’s original Rocky film!

What:Readings and a photo show featuring: PETER WOOD’s report on minor-league boxing in New York City, BRUCE J. SCHULMAN’s talk on baseball evangelist Billy Sunday and MICHELE HERMAN reading from her short story, “Oh, Thing of Beauty”.

Plus:On hand to sign copies of the sports issue, in which he’s featured in a photo-profile, will be retired heavyweight boxer CHUCK WEPNER, also known as the “Bayonne Bleeder”, who fought Muhammad Ali in 1975 and inspired the original Rocky.

Where:In NYC’s Greenwich Village, at Cornelia Street Café (29 Cornelia St., between 6th Ave. and Bleecker St.; 212-989-9319). Click here for a letter-sized flyer with directions or here for a PDF version.

When:Tuesday, July 24th, from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Admission is $9, and includes one free drink. Copies of the sports issue will be available for purchase for $4.95.

Join us for this celebration of fiction, photography and sports!