Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The brutality of pugilism

Oscar de la Hoya, the once-Golden Boy of boxing, and Manny Pacquiao, the leading pound-for-pound boxer in the world today, met last Saturday night (December 6/08) in Las Vegas in what was dubbed as the “Dream Match.”

The younger and much-faster Pacquiao battered the aging Golden Boy into submission when de la Hoya refused to come out to fight in the ninth round. It was a brutally dominant performance by the popular Filipino boxer who defied a huge disadvantage in size by capitalizing on his dizzying hand-and-foot speed together with his awesome punching power in landing stinging shots to de la Hoya’s head, shutting off the ex-champion’s left eye by the end of the eighth round.

Each boxer has been guaranteed millions of dollars, win or lose, more than enough for de la Hoya to ease the healing from all the heavy blows to his head and body, including the welts, bruises and cuts he suffered from the quick hands of his young conqueror.

For the two pugilists, boxing is a combat sport, it was a battle for the ages although no championship belt was at stake. In the end, the better boxer emerged as the true champion and only the future will tell how many more millions of dollars Pacquiao will bring home next time against another marquee opponent.

Who would have thought that pugilism, a.k.a. boxing, introduced by the Greeks as an Olympic sport in 688 B.C., would be a million-dollar raker? For poor, uneducated but muscle-steeled and rumble-tested young boys from rough neighbourhoods in the inner cities of America, or in the slums of Mexico, Panama and the Philippines, boxing is the only way to make a living, and if you’re lucky, to be one of the greats in the pantheon of boxing history. It will bring big cash to a great fighter and the adulation of fans and celebrities who patronize fights in Las Vegas or at Trump casinos.

Boxing, also known as the sweet science, however, is a brutal sport. Professional boxing is a million-dollar brutality. Its brutality is unique because it is the only one in which a contestant achieves victory by knocking out an opponent into a state of unconsciousness. It encourages actions that, if they had occurred on the street, would warrant assault charges. More than a thousand fistfighters have been killed in boxing matches worldwide, and many professional boxers who survive the brutality of the boxing ring must cope with some degree of brain damage.

Boxers who are often hit hard on their heads may end up with long-term mental impairment known as dementia pugilistica. This is often characterized by permanent deterioration of the mental faculties, psychosis, personality change, and tremors. Just observe the once nimble-and-quick heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, who also suffers from Parkinson’s disease, as he struggles to talk and walk, and one can’t stop thinking about the toll of a career’s worth of head trauma.

It is no wonder that as early as 500 A.D., Theodoric the Great banned boxing because it was an insult to God for disfiguring the face, the image of God. Bare-knuckle boxing, the predecessor of prizefighting in 18th century England, was declared in an English case, R. v. Coney in 1882, as an assault with actual bodily harm, despite the consent of the participants, thus marking the end of bare-knuckle contests in England.

Boxing crossed a milestone of shame in 2003. A Florida mother of two became the first casualty of the world of women’s professional boxing. Her family would later sue the promoters by claiming she was goaded into a “vicious, unregulated, bloody slugfest.”

It seems ironic that in a place like America where it is illegal to drive a car without wearing a seatbelt, it would be legal for an industry to profit from two people knocking each other unconscious.

The underlying premise of boxing is barbaric. “Iron” Mike Tyson was once quoted describing his boxing technique: “I try to catch my opponent on the tip of his nose because I try to punch the bone into his brain.” Tyson was so brutal and relentless that nobody viewed him as a regular human being. Everyone thought of him as an animal.

Those who defend boxing argue that many other sports are more dangerous and the rate of a life-threatening injury in boxing is lower than in car-racing, skydiving or mountaineering. But this argument misses the point completely. There is no legal sport, other than professional boxing, where the primary intention is to put your opponent down on the canvas in a comatose state. Hockey or football has its share of fisticuffs among its tough-and-rugged players but it was never their aim to knock each other unconscious. It is an anachronism in modern sport that one athlete attacks another on the head until he is knocked senseless, and then consider it a normal part of the game’s strategy.

There is so much violence around us today, of vivid reminders of man’s inhumanity to man, yet we still continue to tolerate an activity that venerates violence primarily for fun and entertainment. With glitzy celebrities occupying boxing ringside seats only, our society revels in this vulgarity that reflects back the dark images of gladiators who preyed and fought like beasts in Rome of yore.

A New York writer, after getting it right about boxing, wrote:

“For too long a time, I loved the brutal sport of prize fighting. But I’ve arrived at last at that cold morning. You cannot love anything that lives in a sewer.

“Looking at the casualties, I’ve come to believe that boxing is one of those leftovers from a more primitive past that should be finished off and killed. I don’t love it any more ... No more kids should be reduced to zombies for the entertainment of people who lead safe, well-defended lives. People who still hear the roar of Ah-lee, Ah-lee. People like me. People like us.”

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