Boxing has always fascinated laymen and intellectuals alike because it is a sport of high contrast, and contrast attracts the intellect, which always enjoys a good long stretch. Of all boxing’s contrasts, the most attractive of all is the contradiction between the sport’s physical surface and its spiritual depths. No fighter today represents this contradiction better than Bernard Hopkins.
If boxing were the brutal, physical sport so many take it to be, how could a forty-nine year old body compete? And not only compete, but dominate? Forty-nine is old for a golfer. Or, let’s take it further: forty-nine, truth be told, is old for a chess champion.
But forty-nine is not old, not really. In fact, forty-nine usually marks the very prime of a man’s life. Plato in The Republic said a man’s peak lasts from twenty-five until the age of fifty-five. The average age at which Nobel Prize-winning physicists make their discovery is forty-eight. Bernard Hopkins is no different from other men.
If boxing is no different from physics, that is –which is just what some have claimed. Plenty of writers have made grand comparisons between boxing and the artes liberales (grammar, rhetoric, logic; arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), but writers are prone to exaggeration –especially boxing writers. Norman Mailer called Muhammad Ali not only the world’s greatest athlete, but the most beautiful man alive. AJ Liebling, to do Archie Moore justice, compares him to Orson Welles and Winston Churchill, then, perhaps unsatisfied at stopping so short, throws in Faust and Ahab for good measure.
It’s an open secret that boxing writers wish they were boxers. Hemingway, Liebling, Mailer, Plimpton–they recount their meager experences in the ring with relish, and it’s hardly difficult to see through their stylized self-deprecation and appreciate that deep down, these men considered themselves fighters. And so they employ all the machismo of a champion promoting himself: they make grand claims and sweeping statements, they try to grab your ear with poetry, they move fluently between the incredible and the marvelous, and they announce themselves with rodomontade –anything –to make you notice –anything –to make you believe what they believe: I Am The Greatest!
Nor is this tendency toward hyperbole limited to members of the press corps. Managers, trainers, and above all boxing fans enjoy the same license with the truth, and delight in cheering on their imaginations as they run swift and wild. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the real sport is one of fists or words.
And here I am guilty of the very same pleasure, because all this is to say that for whatever high ideals I’ve espoused about boxing being foremost a cerebral or spiritual contest, I never fully believed it. There’s truth to it, no doubt –one would have to be a fool to believe boxing happened purely on the level of clay. But is boxing really an art? Is boxing really a science? Come now, don’t hold me accountable for my words –I was just having a bit of fun!
If boxing were truly an art –if boxing were truly a science –then a forty-nine year old man could stand atop his sport just as a forty-nine year old physicist could stand atop his field. If boxing were truly a discipline where mind conquered matter, then a forty-nine year old fistic artisan could defeat a thirty-year old force of nature. If boxing were as much about spiritual will as it is about size and speed, then an old man on a mission could overcome a young man with yeanling legs and hands of stone.
And so Bernard Hopkins has me thinking. Perhaps my verbal indiscretions were not so indiscreet? Perhaps what I always wanted to be true but never really believed, was true after all. Perhaps there’s a reason boxing never gets boring. Perhaps there’s a reason why boxing, like the Ocean, offers revelation after wonder to those who break beneath its surface and dive its depths. Perhaps boxing is a spiritual discipline –not metaphorically, not in part –but literally and wholly. Perhaps boxing is an art. Bernard Hopkins has me thinking.
He should have Sergey Kovalev thinking too. Because if Sergey’s not thinking, Sergey’s going to find himself on the wrong side of the mind-body problem –and as the sages attest: mind rises while bodies fall –which is just a grandiose way of saying that Sergey’s going down.