Odd copy for an old fighter, but his international style assures him of the Olympian higher ground in the battle for futurity. Of course, solid footing on the high ground doesn’t assure him of winning, but just ask your dad: real estate is always the best investment.
The great actor Ric Royer described the point of boxing: “to touch your opponent in the face with your gloves while avoiding being touched.” It’s an explanation that maddens most fans, because it sounds clever but misses boxing’s most basic ingredient. Boxing’s most basic ingredient (as the actor well knows) is mortality.
But the future is not just gluten-free and fat-free, it’s also mortality-free. Too much mortality, and it wouldn’t be the future. In boxing, mortality is symbolized by the knockout. And the knockout’s days may be numbered.
I could well be wrong, but all the hand-wringing over violence in the big four sports keeps moving the odds against dystopian prophecies of a New Roman Empire where jaded citizens cheer blood-sports in a modern Coliseum. We are moving in the very opposite direction.
Royer describes boxing not as a blood-sport, but as a harmless game. In a future where you can’t smoke, can’t drive, can’t camp or even die without a permit, he’s describing the boxing of the future.
However, we live in the present, and we aren’t satisfied with the idea that boxing is a game even though it’s “a competition governed by rules,” and is “accompanied by the awareness of a different reality,” as sociologist Roger Caillois puts it. We aren’t satisfied because the game so often breaks down, allowing reality to seep in like a stirring evil which enters an unlatched window. And never are the game’s fissures more apparent than when a boxer dies –not a symbolic knockout death, but a real mortal death.
There is no place for death in the rules of boxing, which means any real death happens outside its structure. But the fact so many boxers die makes one wonder whether the rules of boxing are strong enough to separate fiction and reality. A fighter’s death makes headlines about once a year, and more than 500 deaths have been blamed on the sport since the introduction of the Queensberry Rules of 1884.
But if men are perfectly protected by the rules, can they be heroes? I don’t buy the notion that Lebron James or Peyton Manning is a hero. We bestow them with laurels, but what do they risk? They are protected by the rules of their games the way a law-abiding citizen is protected by the rules of society. And a hero isn’t just another do-gooder citizen, no matter what Ford commercials try to tell you. A hero lives on the very borderline of society, and knows what’s on the other side of that border.
Boxers live in the borderlands. Every player parading into the game of touch-without-being-touched knows he might die during the game –if he’s touched in that rarest way. They are no mere players, and it’s no mere game.
But the future works to make sure nothing seeps through the structure of its rules. Bigger gloves, fewer rounds, maybe headgear –whatever it takes to keep reality out. If boxing is to survive, it will more and more resemble Olympic boxing, and the sweet science could wind up as the least physical sport of all. Championship boxing used to be 15 rounds, before that it used to be 100 (the future always shortens “the distance,” ironically enough).
And this is where Bernard Hopkins comes in. He reveals the lie behind my cynical attitude about a sterile and mortality-free future, because he can take boxing to a land of no knock-outs, a land where a 39-year-old can be champion, and a 49-year-old man can be champion, a land of immortality: the one and only future. And I’ll be happy to come long for the ride because he can do it with style, and he can do it with art.
I love watching Bernard Hopkins. I could watch him not knock out a guy forever. Watch him clinch, hip-check, pot-shot, counterpunch, body-block and aim for the abdominal brain. Watch him render his opponent harmless as a charmed snake by scrambling his rhythm, and then hit him. And then hit him again in disdain.
Bernard Hopkins is the future of boxing because his art is strong enough to expand the game’s borders. His art can elevate symbolic violence beyond real violence. He is the answer to the conundrum that If boxing is all about brutal kayos, it will be pushed to the margins of society and into extinction, but that if it becomes “too safe” it will lose its audience and fade away. His art is strong enough to give us symbols that rival reality and satisfy our passions.
I believe Hopkins thinks about himself in a similar fashion. In an interview with The Boxing Voice (Aug 21, 2014) he expresses scorn for fight fans who just want to see knock-outs. A kayo is simple and vulgar compared to the higher precepts of the sweet science, he explains. A man like Kovalev is a fan favorite not only because he’s white, but because he’s a knockout machine, a one-trick pony. Hopkins, on the other hand, is anything but a one-trick pony, but he’s considered a “boring fighter,” and this infuriates the champion. And it should.
Hopkins has long viewed himself in heroic conflict against society –in this case, a conformist society which favors spectacle over true greatness (his greatness). It’s the same mentality that underappreciated artists have always had. In interviews, he says he’s fighting two fights: one against Kovalev, and one against the society that wants Kovalev to prevail. And he’s going to win both.
Bernard Hopkins is already living in the future, and he takes advantage of any opponent who’s still living in the past. If your plan is to kayo the champ, you have as much chance as a Neanderthal in the age of Homo-sapiens (or a Homo-sapien in the age of aliens, as BH would have it).
On November 8th, to achieve immortality in the game of boxing, Bernard Hopkins faces a player who killed a man. If he wins at age 49, he will prove that boxing is not a good game ,nor a bad game –it is an art. It is his art.
Long live Bernard Hopkins.