A few Saturdays ago a stocky 32-year-old went to mass at the quaintly named Gaylord Texan Convention Center in Dallas, Texas. Later that day he had an altercation with a 34-year-old Ghanaian. Records show that he threw over 1,000 punches at the older man during a half-hour scuffle. Countless bystanders witnessed the brawl but not one called the police.
Why not? Because the violence was sanctioned by the World Boxing Organization. The welterweight title fight between Manny Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey attracted almost 60,000 spectators, the third-largest audience in boxing history. Days earlier a raucous crowd had filled Oxford Town Hall for the 103rd Varsity boxing match. The event drew one of its biggest ever crowds, despite ticket prices as high as £60. Should we worry that our finest young minds are forking out to watch medical students wallop economists and chemists pound the skulls of historians?
It’s still slightly embarrassing to admit to liking boxing in nice, middle-class circles. It’s like confessing to a fondness for steak tartare at a meeting of the Vegetarian Society. But perhaps that’s about to change: the sport is undergoing an unlikely revival, just as observers thought it was going the way of bear-baiting.
My love affair with boxing began, like many a young nerd’s, at the cinema. In Rocky IV the plucky but ageing Sylvester Stallone takes on the seemingly invincible Soviet fighter Ivan Drago. The film had two basic messages: communism is evil and boxers represent the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I absorbed them both eagerly.
I could barely contain my excitement when I first pulled on a boxing glove. It was at a pierside amusement arcade in front of a machine that tested punching strength. I wound up what I hoped would be a devastating blow, swung, and missed the target completely. A toddler was sitting behind me in a coin-operated car. As I span around I accidentally grazed his back with my fist. After a shocked silence, he began to cry. That’s when I noticed his father: a big man with tattoos and spiky hair. I can’t deny that it looked incriminating: I was standing over his weeping son wearing a boxing glove. The father blinked and, to my surprise, jogged over to comfort his son rather than to chin me.
I needed some training. So I joined the local boxing club, which met in a glorified shed with a ring and a few punch-bags. I learnt some important lessons there: being punched in the face hurts; punching someone else in the face isn’t as fun as it looks; and after a few rounds of sparring your brain gets slightly scrambled. My trainer soon decided I was ready for a bout. To pass the medical you needed near-perfect vision. The trouble was, I was so myopic I had to hold Ring Magazine in front of my nose to read it. Unless they were going to create a division for Woody Allen lookalikes, my career was over.
It was only later that I realised boxing had a dark side. It was 1995, to be precise: the year of the Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan fight. I enjoyed it right up to the tenth round, when McClellan dropped to one knee, blinking, then staggered to his corner and collapsed. Eleven days later, he woke from a coma, blind, deaf and unable to walk.
Professional boxing, it turned out, was so corrupt it made the Catholic Church look scandal-free. Wily promoters made millions from poor, maladjusted young men beating each other to a pulp. Lazy champions fought journeymen, while second-rate fighters scrapped for third-rate titles. It’s hardly surprising that even the late Harry Carpenter, the voice of British boxing for nearly 50 years, found the sport ‘very difficult to defend’.
By the end of the century, boxing was washed up. Meanwhile, a new challenger was emerging: mixed martial arts, a fusion of kickboxing, wrestling and every other combat sport known to man. If you’re unfamiliar with MMA, I recommend a YouTube video called ‘MMA Brutality Best Knockouts Ever’. A creepy German heavy metal track plays as a man repeatedly smashes his elbow into another man’s head, another crunches his knee into his opponent’s face, while yet another knocks a man unconscious then continues to clout him on the floor. In the 1990s the sport was banned in most American states. Today MMA is one of the country’s fastest-growing spectator sports. Its poster boy is Fedor Emelianenko, the ruthless heavyweight champion who looks like an escaped Siberian convict.
There’s something very 21st century about MMA: it has few rules, is spectacularly destructive and has a distinct homoerotic subtext (bravely satirised by Sacha Baron Cohen in Brüno). By contrast, boxing seems decidedly last century: it’s rule-bound, demands patience, and rewards skill over animal aggression. Boxing takes our fallen human nature — our enjoyment of people clubbing each other senseless — and elevates it, through grit and discipline, into something noble. MMA takes our fallen nature and gratifies it as quickly as possible. Boxing, for all its faults, is a civilising force. MMA isn’t.
That’s why American evangelicals trying to capitalise on MMA’s popularity look pretty foolish. Preachers are using the sport to reach out to young men put off by ‘feminised’ churches that present Christ as a wimp. Pastors hawk T-shirts with the slogan ‘Jesus Didn’t Tap’ (‘tap’ is the MMA term for quitting), promote the ChristJitsu training programme and host bouts in which church members smite each other with an Old Testament ferocity.
Contrast this with the unshowy piety of Manny Pacquiao. At the Gaylord Texan Convention Center he prayed for his opponent’s wellbeing. And the morning after he dispatched Clottey, he went to a thanksgiving mass. The Filipino fighter was born into extreme poverty but became the first man to win seven world titles in seven weight divisions. Sports Illustrated describes him as ‘a one-man stimulus package’ who is often seen on the streets of his hometown handing out food and cash to the poor. Pacquiao is a godsend to boxing: an all-time great who has never been to jail or bitten off an ear. His long-awaited bout with the undefeated Floyd Mayweather could be the biggest fight of the 21st century and cap boxing’s remarkable comeback against its younger rival, MMA.
Win or lose, Pacquiao is likely to retire and concentrate on politics. Given his massive support among the poor, he could be president of the Philippines in a few years. Could you imagine Fedor Emelianenko, his MMA counterpart, running for office? Well, actually, he wouldn’t look out of place in the corridors of the Kremlin.