April 28, 2015

Friday night fights.

My father’s favorite boxer is Sonny Liston. At least, I think it is; I haven’t asked him recently and my memory from childhood is often fickle. I do remember him extolling the virtues of Liston’s fighting technique, however, when we’d boxing matches together, so I have a feeling that I’m remembering correctly. Liston must be my dad’s favorite fighter.

My dad grew up watching Ali and Fraser and Leonard and Liston fight. When I was a kid, he’d regale me with stories all about their epic battles, and how they’d stand up in the ring and take punch after punch, waiting for the right time to strike. He’d tell me about how each fighter had their own style, their own finesse, and how those styles faced off against each other.

Soccer was my dad’s first love—arguably, field hockey and cricket followed behind that—but boxing is what he shared with me when I was young and we had first moved to Canada.

Knowing my history with the sport, everyone assumes I will be watching the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight this weekend. I’m not sure I will.

On some Saturday afternoons, after I had returned from my weekly religious education classes, my dad and I would watch ABCs Wide World of Sports. In that hour or so where we’d watch television together, I’d get a chance to see fascinating displays of athletic endeavor that I wasn’t necessarily seeing anywhere else: I was mesmerized by the coverage of slalom skiing, or sumo wrestling, or weightlifting, or even jai-alai. The best episodes of Wide World of Sports, however, were the ones where we’d get to watch a boxing match.

The boxing on Wide World of Sports was always of high intensity. I imagine that producers specifically picked bouts filled with intrigue and athleticism to showcase in that short time-slot. My dad and I would watch, transfixed, almost ignoring the announcers and focusing on the sounds of feet shuffling on the mat, or gloves hitting the opponent’s chest.

While I loved those Saturday afternoon fights, my favorite bouts were the ones we occasionally caught on Friday night.

I don’t quite remember how or why, but there would be some weeks when, after we had returned from Friday evening prayers at the mosque, my dad and I would find a boxing match on television either on TSN, or NBC, or some other station that we got in our basic television package in our apartment. We never really knew the reason for why the fight was on broadcast television—most of the time, they were young and up-and-coming fighters in featherweight and welterweight divisions—but my dad and I would watch the bouts even if we didn’t recognize any of the names.

On those Friday nights, I learned to truly appreciate the art of boxing. Watching two unknowns use not just their physicality, but their mental acuity to beat (literally and figuratively) their opponent over multiple rounds, despite their exhaustion, was a lesson in drive, motivation, perseverance. It was an acknowledgment that sheer force would never prevail, but instead a mix of strength, endurance, strategy, training, and artistry.

Friday night fights, even more than the Saturday afternoon ones, were when I started to see boxing as a metaphor for life, as a lesson on picking yourself up when you’ve been knocked down, and having the grace to acknowledge you’ve been bested by someone more skilled than you and use that as motivation to make yourself even better—lessons made even more poignant because I shared them with my father.

If I watch the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight this weekend, what does that say about those lessons that I learned?

Most of the kids in my elementary school had never heard the name of George Chuvalo. This baffled me, because not only had I heard of the Canadian boxing legend, but I could rattle off some of his more impressive accomplishments by the time I was in second grade. This came in especially handy when I realized that, for a few years in elementary school, I was in the same class as George Chuvalo’s granddaughter.

We were friends, back then, her and I, and I never did pester her about her grandfather or his career. (We sadly did lose contact after middle school; I learned recently that she passed away a few years ago after a battle with cancer. My thoughts and condolences are with her family and friends.) There were, however, days when George would come to pick her up from school, and on those days I would make him linger a little longer. I’d get him to put up his hands and I’d punch them, pretending to be one of the heavyweight champions he had fought. We’d pretend-spar a little, and then he’d laugh and ruffle my hair and head back home with her.

It was a story I told well into high school: that as a child, I had sparred with a boxing legend. For the rest of the kids in class, he was a grandfather picking up one of our classmates; for me he was someone whom, had I just been a little older, I could have watched in the ring, circling and dancing and boxing, on Friday nights with my dad.

This weekend, two boxing greats—even bigger in the sport than George Chuvalo—face off against each other in the ring. I’m having trouble convincing myself to watch.

I love boxing. It is a sport—like horse racing, which I also enjoy—that has fallen out of favor in the past few decades, whether through poor coordination and promotion, or just because people are wary of watching other people being punched in the face. Still, I love it.

Boxing, when done by people at the pinnacle of the sport, is art: it is a study of movement and agility and strength. It is a metaphor for life in that it is about hard work, preparation, and the ability to withstand a few hard knocks when things don’t go your way. Boxing is art, it is metaphor, and for me, it is nostalgia. It is remembering those Friday nights and Saturday afternoons with my dad, and realizing that though the luster of the sport has faded, I am still transfixed, like I was as a child, by those intricate movements in the ring.

I am exactly the audience for this weekend’s big fight, and yet, I’m conflicted.

My conflict is like that of many others: the person who stands to gain the most from this fight is, by all accounts, a despicable human being. Floyd Mayweather, Jr is, by his own admission, not a good person. His record on domestic abuse is long and abhorrent. His mistreatment of women makes me feel viscerally ill.

He is also the best fighter in the world, and one of the best the boxing world has ever seen. He may not be exciting, but as a fan of the technical side of boxing, watching Mayweather fight is entrancing. He is a master inside the ring, and every one of his bouts is akin to witnessing a masterclass in the art of the sport.

That is the very essence of the conflict: inside the ring, Mayweather is godly, while on the outside, especially when it comes to his treatment of women, he is akin to the devil himself.

Watching this weekend’s fight is not just a tacit endorsement of Mayweather, but instead of direct benefit to his wallet. Every bar and household that purchases the rights to air the pay-per-view event stands to enrich a man who shows blatant disregard for the wellbeing of women in his life. 

(The pay-per-view model means that the money goes directly to Mayweather, rather than to some sort of league or commission that pays him a salary. Unlike other sports where there is a middle, governing layer between the paying customer and the athlete on the field, this dis-intermediation is at the core of the problematic relationship between viewer as enabler of the boxer’s behavior.)

Sarah Spain, in an article written on ESPNW last fall, was vociferous in her argument against paying for a Mayweather fight:

If sports fans want to take a stand against domestic violence in a powerful way that will undeniably have an impact, they should boycott Floyd Mayweather’s fight this weekend. Particularly now, when domestic violence has taken over our daily news cycle, we should have a visceral reaction when a convicted abuser asks us to pay $78 apiece to watch him fight.

How can one watch him box without picturing his fists pummeling not his opponent, but a defenseless woman? How can one acknowledge his fighting prowess without wondering how many women have fallen victim to it outside the ring?

I love boxing. I grew up watching it with my father, and have admired the skills of its athletes all my life. This Saturday’s fight promises to be the biggest boxing event of our generation, if not of the history of the sport.

I will probably not watch it.

I will miss the pomp and circumstance. I will miss the mastery and artistry of both Mayweather and Pacquiao in the ring. I will miss being witness to an event that is being heralded as the fight that will return boxing to the American popular consciousness.

Despite that all, I will probably not watch. I do not judge those that do, but I can not personally rationalize paying $100 directly into the hands of a man who will use those hands to hurt a woman. 

For those that can create that necessary cognitive and emotional distance, enjoy the fight. I’ll most likely wait for the next one, with another boxer, to enjoy watching with my dad.

Further reading: