Occasionally people ask me why I like boxing. Usually I don't have a very good answer, because I am astoundingly slow on my feet when it comes to talking about things I like. But after some thought, I think I can come up with a pretty decent list.
This is that.
1. It's historical: Over a century ago, boxing ruled the sporting landscape (along with baseball and idk, horse racing or whatever) and was in turn ruled by white men. Black boxers who might have been every bit the equal or the superior of their white counterparts were categorically denied the right to fight for championships, especially boxing's Holy of Holies, the World Heavyweight Championship. That would change in 1908 when a savvy, quick, and hard-punching black boxer by the name of Jack Johnson ended his long chase of the Heavyweight Championship in Sydney, Australia, defeating Tommy Burns and breaking the color barrier in sports decades before Jackie Robinson, merely becoming one of the most hated men in America in the process. Johnson's subsequent defense against all-time great James J. Jeffries (billed as the first in a long line of "Fight[s] of the Century") was memorably covered by Jack London, who practically begged Jeffries to come out of retirement to restore the honor of the white race. Johnson defended his title successfully in 15 rounds.
Unfortunately, unlike Muhammad Ali half a century later Johnson would never make the transition from villain to hero in the eyes of the public. Johnson's victories were more than once followed by wide-spread race riots, whereas Johnson himself was hounded by the feds on prostitution charges and largely disowned by black civil rights leaders, who did not look fondly on Johnson's flashy lifestyle and taste for miscegenation.
Nevertheless, in the depths of the Jim Crow era, Jack Johnson would provide the blueprint for making a statement for civil rights by punching people in the face. His spiritual successor would only be a fringe titlist of little repute--Muahmmad Ali. (Further viewing: Ken Burns' documentary, Unforgivable Blackness.)
2. It's dramatic: On the evening of May 7th, 2005, Diego "Chico" Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo met in Las Vegas for a title fight to unify Corrales' WBO and Castillo's WBC lightweight titles. What transpired was an all-time classic by any measure, but moreso for Corrales gutsy, come-from-behind KO victory in the 10th round.
After nine brutal rounds of the proverbial fight in a telephone booth, Castillo began the 10th round with a bang by finding "Chico's" chin with a perfectly timed and authoritative left hook. While on the canvas Corrales spit his mouthpiece (which under boxing rules had to be taken over to Corrales' corner to be washed off and put back in the fighter's mouth), but the few extra seconds afforded to him did him no good, as by the end of the first minute of the round Corrales was back on the canvas. Again, Corrales spit his mouthpiece, this time being penalized for his obvious act of gamesmanship. Nevertheless, he was taken back to his corner, where his trainer Joe Goosen gave him some of the greatest advice in boxing history:
"You gotta fuckin' get inside on him now."
Battered, bruised, but by no means broken, Corrales managed to summon up whatever fight remained in him and scored the knockout victory in that same round to complete a sudden and dramatic comeback perhaps impossible in any other sport. (Further viewing: Corrales vs. Castillo I, full fight [Vimeo].)
3. It's savage: The name of the game, after all, is be-hit-and-hit-back. I think deep down most people respond to the ritualized violence of combat sports whether they admit it or not, but as a fan of boxing who also loves kickboxing and MMA, I can tell you nothing compares.
Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti were two well-traveled journeymen (both fringe titlists at one time or another, but neither by any means a world-class fighter) who met on HBO's Boxing After Dark on May 18th in 2002 to make history by beating the shit out of each other.
It wasn't a technical fight by any means (though Gatti showed some nifty boxing in the early rounds before succumbing to his instincts to brawl); both fighters were largely gassed by the later rounds, there was very little defense on display, and no one would refer to the fight as an example of "the Sweet Science," but there's something that happens when two fighters step into the ring ready to pay any price to have their hands raised at the end. Over nine grueling rounds Gatti and Ward tested themselves in a way that is not possible in any other sport, absorbed numerous punches that would make hard men crumple like tissue paper, and subjected their bodies to punishment that would leave lasting marks... and for what? Well, because the name of the game is be-hit-and-hit-back. (Further viewing: seriously Gatti/Ward just watch that if you don't like it there's nothing I can do for you.)
There are other reasons to love boxing that I'm not going to get into, of course. There's a physical artistry to Pernell Whitaker's defense or Roy Jones Jr.'s offense* that I probably can't do very much justice to, and I don't think I can fully explain why boxing's heroes and villains seem to be much more fully realized than their counterparts in the wider world of sports. But at the end of the day, and for all its flaws (and good God are there a lot of things wrong with boxing) there's something universal about boxing. After all, who doesn't like to see people trading punches?
*Yeah, I know, it's the same song in both reels, but that's what happens when a boxer drops a fondly-remembered single.