On The Ledge: Patterson, Holyfield, Morales and Lee

What draws me to boxing might not be what you think. The easiest way to put it is that the truest forms of beauty lay among simple things, especially those decidedly wonderful and universally admirable qualities like courage, honor and valor.

But I love lots of things about boxing. I love that boxing is simultaneously base and pure. I love that straight punches almost always beat round ones, except when they don’t. I love that both the winner and the loser usually look the same after the finish. I love that that the stakes are so high and the consequences of apathy are so great that a fight can end in a moment’s notice.

What I love most, though, are the fighters in the sport who give everything they have no matter the expected outcome. Whether or not these men happen to be celebrities is irrelevant, because in that one moment, they are simply human beings who pour themselves into a chosen craft without pausing to reflect on what they might receive in return. Where others would retreat, relent or move on, these men move forward.

There is no more lovely place to find this quality than in some of life’s most brutal moments, and it is precisely within the violence of existence that I find the most honorable and noteworthy things present. Such is the case with boxing.

So it was when Floyd Patterson faced Sonny Liston in 1963 for the heavyweight championship of the world, just one year after the mammoth Liston had clubbed the crown right off poor Patterson’s head inside one round. Patterson fought him again anyway, and things didn’t go much better for him the second time. Liston battered Patterson to the canvas again early in the first, only this time it was even faster. The ferocious, bear-like man with the telephone pole jab was just too big, too strong and too skilled for the diminutive Patterson.

Yet, despite all this, Patterson rose to his feet anyway, meeting the menacing Liston head-on like a sea gull diving headfirst into a tidal wave. Down again he went after Liston caught him with short, heavy punches that must have felt like they were made of steel. No matter. Patterson got back up again. He moved forward, racing towards the scariest fighter he had ever encountered, and threw a one-two combination as hard as he could muster.

When the fight was over, Patterson had lasted a total of four seconds longer with Liston than he had the first time around. Some would say the four seconds didn’t matter. I’m not sure I agree.

In 1992, Evander Holyfield lost the heavyweight championship to Riddick Bowe. But Holyfield won another crown that day, one for courage and perseverance. In Round 10, after being shellacked for the better part of the fight by the bigger and stronger man, Bowe did his worst and snapped Holyfield’s head up into the air like a jack-in-the-box. Holyfield was out on his feet. Bowe cracked Holyfield with several more bone-rattling punches, and the champion staggered around the ring like a newborn baby deer, covering up only by instinct.

But that’s when it happened. First, Holyfield shot a right hand out to prove he still had something akin to his wits about him. Next, he was bouncing up and down again as if to say he was ready to get back to work. He was. Holyfield landed another hard right hand, some body punches and two vicious uppercuts to have Bowe finally back off of him. A looping right hand punctuated the moment. Holyfield would ultimately lose the fight but he would win something more important: respect.

In 2012, Erik Morales endured the last moments of his career in a particularly brutal and unkind fashion, especially considering his stature as such an accomplished champion. Seven months after losing a unanimous decision to Danny Garcia, Morales met him again in a rematch but was brutally thrashed inside four rounds.

The first match was competitive, but the second one was just an old-fashioned beating. Morales had no answer for the emboldened Garcia’s speed or power. He went down in Round 4 as if he truly belonged there. But down on the blue canvas something beautiful happened, too. With his head lying slightly askew outside the ropes, his body a heaping mess of aged frailty, faced with insurmountable odds, Morales tried to get up and fight on anyway. Thankfully, his corner stopped it before he could do so, but not before we could see him try.

Finally, Andy Lee went down hard in Round 1 against the brick-fisted John Jackson earlier this year, but the hard luck Irishman quickly rose back to his feet after as if he hadn’t. It didn’t matter. Jackson was too much for Lee on this night. Where Lee looked awkward and unable to time his punches with any sort of rhythm, Jackson was powerful, confident and at ease.

But Lee kept fighting anyway. While his counter right hooks and overhand lefts were not finding their intended target, Lee kept on throwing them anyway. The same went for his jab and uppercut. Nothing worked. The rounds passed easily for Jackson. He was surely on his way to the finest win of his young career. All Lee could do in the meantime was his best, and so he did it.

In Round 5, after getting slammed up against the ropes, Lee was hit hard by Jackson and stumbled backwards. Lee was in trouble, but he didn’t give up. He reset his feet and readied himself for whatever was next. Eyes squinting with determination, Lee walloped Jackson with as perfect a right hook as you’ll ever see. As easy as it was up unto that point for Jackson, he went down to the canvas even easier. Despite long odds, Lee had done it. The knockout win came out of nowhere simply because he stuck to it and believed.

These are just a few examples. There are many more.

I didn’t always fight back like that in my life, but I did when it counted most. I remember that moment better than any other in my life. There I was, torn, tattered and frayed by my own hands, shoeless, heartless and hopeless, standing more than 10 stories above the hard concrete ground that would surely have been my end. I wanted to jump. I wanted my life to be over.

I didn’t remember how or why things had gotten so bad, but I didn’t care anymore. I had been up for more than three days on meth, and I had just eaten a gram more of it in the bathroom of a bus station because I was paranoid and delusional enough to think people were after me.

I was ready to die. I stood across the other side of the barrier, dangling between life and death, held there only by the parts of my feet that fit on the ledge, my heels. My toes hung over, pointing downwards to my destruction. I leaned forward, arms stretched far behind me, only holding onto life by the grips of my fingers.

I wanted to make it easy on me. No one else had. My fingers would give out soon. I wouldn’t have to jump. It would be so much easier. All I needed to do was let go. All I had to do was fall.

My life was nothing then. I had nothing and no one. That’s what I believed anyway. I don’t know. I don’t remember anything but feeling alone and desperate. I remember all the bad things I did to people I loved so I could get more drugs. I remember all the good things I wish I had done but never did. I remember not knowing what to do or say to people anymore. I remember feeling dead inside. I remember not caring anymore about living. I remember feeling helpless and hopeless. I remember feeling like there was no reason to carry on. Life would be better without me.

Let go, Kelsey. That’s what I wanted to do. Just. Let. Go.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I’m not sure why. Something or someone told me not to. Was it me? Was it God? I don’t know, but I heard that voice as if someone was standing there on that ledge with me, someone better than me, someone more compassionate and more kind than me, someone who wasn’t afraid to die but wanted to live anyway.

“No. Don’t.”

I don’t know what goes on in a fighter’s mind when things seem so bleak. But, in part, I might know a little more about it than the average person, because I know what went through my mind when I was about to let go of everything. I found it there in that one moment of time, wedged somewhere between the brutality of life and the promise of tomorrow. I didn’t want to see tomorrow until I heard that voice. It was very quiet but came from somewhere deep.

I can’t say for sure, but that has to be something similar to what fighters hear or feel when everything seems so lost. I’ve seen it on some of their faces when things look their worst. It was in Holyfield’s eyes against Bowe. It was what made Patterson rush forward against Liston. It was what fueled Morales when he was trying to climb back to his feet against Garcia. It was what gave Lee reason to believe when everyone else in the world thought he was done.

It’s such a simple thing, but it is so very beautiful. I am not sure where my life will lead, if I’ll end up being as appreciated as men like Patterson, Holyfield, Morales and Lee. But the truth of the matter is that it really doesn’t matter to me. Because the part of these men I admire most has nothing to do with how much applause and adulation they receive for their achievements. In truth, those things mean very little in the end. Everyone loses. Everyone dies. No, the thing I admire most in them, and others in our sport like them, is what they choose to do in their weakest and most fragile moments.

It’s such a simple thing, but oh so very important. Taking the easy way out is never the right choice. That’s why I love boxing. It is because there I can still find moments like that, moments like mine, where the still, small voice who lives deep inside of us whispers what to do when all seems lost and hopeless, when it seems better to just give up and give in.

“No. Don’t.”

And I love to see people listen.