Your basket is empty.


The last time I saw my marriage counsellor was at the boxing. By ‘my’ marriage counsellor I mean the fellow is a marriage counsellor and when my last marriage was falling apart I went with my wife to talk to him. It didn’t do any good. We still broke up. But I remember thinking at the time that marriage counselling as an occupation couldn’t be much fun; watching two people tearing each other apart day in day out, every hour another couple destroying itself. Compared to which the boxing must have seemed a relatively harmless entertainment.

Anyway he was definitely in my wife’s corner during our little bout and I probably harboured some small resentment towards him because of that fact. He might deny that he liked my wife more than he liked me. I can’t even blame him if he did because she has a very attractive personality. I remember him murmuring to her, between rounds, ‘You’re very good, aren’t you…’ That didn’t, from my point of view, help define him in the role of referee. Perhaps he saw himself as more than that. Perhaps, wild thought, he was at the boxing that night to watch the referees, to study their technique, though that’s doubtful. I think he was there for the same reason we all were, to watch the fights.

I hate fighting. I get dry in the mouth whenever violence threatens. I lost every physical fight I was in all through school. I remember clearly being knocked sideways by David Weataway, a raw-boned redhead. We were twelve. He apologised afterwards and explained that I had insulted him in some way, for which I then apologised. 

But for years I kept blundering into fights, either in myopic carelessness or just from being often out at night too late too young. I told myself that I was a lover not a fighter, but it wasn’t true. I was a losing fighter.

At fifteen I was punched to my knees by a lout at a bus stop. He got me in the solar plexus and I was winded and scared. I didn’t want to get up but his jeering friends shamed me into making some response. When I was on my feet the boy told me that he had hit me with an ‘average’ blow, one of many he had dished out that night, one, in fact, no harder than many he had received. Then he gave me another one as if to demonstrate more precisely the angle and velocity of the perfect blow to the stomach. I had my fists up but I couldn’t protect myself, let alone hit him back. I couldn’t seem to move my feet. 

I felt sick. I wondered whether if I started vomiting they would go away. I wanted them to go away. I wanted it to be over. 

I sometimes see a boxer lying on the canvas with glazed eyes and a look on his face that reminds me of that night.

There is the question of nicety. People hitting one another without good reason is generally considered by civilised societies a failure of some kind. Opinions and customs vary on what constitutes a good reason. I have been attacked in a night club for dancing with a particular girl, and once in Elder Park by a fellow in a check shirt who took exception to my haircut. Both these assailants felt wholly justified in their attitudes. Different countries and different age and social groups allow various degrees of freedom to the individual regarding the right to hit. But for adults in this country there is some kind of consensus that the defence of oneself or loved ones (or of those unable to defend themselves) is the only justification for inflicting personal violence on another. Because we don’t like bullies, and we excoriate the perpetration of violence against women and children. Yet still the history books and the business and sports pages of newspapers love a ‘fighter.’

There is a recognition within us that if you don’t have the heart for a fight you shouldn’t be in the game, whatever the game is. That the fighting spirit is an essential, even a desirable distinction. It’s a national characteristic, the reason we win at cricket. 

The awful folk wisdom has it that every single human interaction is, at bottom, either a fight or a fuck. That’s the blunt reduction of personal politics that we cover over with a veneer of social routine, but which demands to be acknowledged whenever those routines are for one reason or another put aside.

It is not just the folk who think that. Philosophers each have their own version of the simple truth. In Hegel’s world every interpersonal exchange is a contest from which one will emerge as a Master, the other as a Slave.

(Say it’s not so, we protest. Reassure us that life is not like that. Love is not like that. 

Love more so than anything else, he replies…)

All sport is a distillation of this contest, a coding of the power relationships between individuals and groups. Boxing is just the most naked statement of the underlying truth about people, stripped of nearly all the artifice that society imposes.

Roland Barthes called boxing a ‘Jansenist’ sport, ‘based on a demonstration of excellence’. Jansen, influential in Catholic France since the seventeenth century, taught that the human will is naturally perverse. We have no innate tendency towards goodness, he said. Good only comes from the love of God and God chooses only those he wants. 

Is this what Barthes means when he calls boxing ‘Jansenist’?

The best known Jansenist in literature is probably Julien Sorel, Stendhal’s hero in The Red and The Black. Julien is an outsider, almost an ‘existential’ character, but unlike the heroes of Camus, Sartre or Beckett, he is driven by a need to succeed, to get on, to claim his deserts from society. He fails. After a short life full of passion and intrigue he finds himself condemned to death. He faces this prospect with calm acceptance and a dispassionate analysis of his own culpability. He refuses to apply for a reprieve. In his own estimation he has met an appropriate justice.

‘What shall I have left,’ Julien asks his confessor, ‘if I despise myself? I have been ambitious, I am not going to blame myself for that; I acted then in accordance with the demands of the time. Now I live for the day, without thought of the morrow.’

Two days before the execution he tells his friend, ‘As to what my feelings will be, I cannot answer for them… But as for fear, no; not a soul shall see my cheeks grow pale.’

‘On the day on which he was told he had to die,’ Stendhal goes on, ‘bright sunlight was making all nature gay, and he himself was in the mood for courage… There now, he said to himself, everything is going well… My courage isn’t failing me.’

And at the end Stendhal tells us: ‘Everything passed off simply and decently, with no trace of affectation on his part.’

As Cus d’Amato, the famous trainer, taught the young Mike Tyson, heroes feel fear just like cowards. It’s just that the hero will get on and do what has to be done. ‘Not a soul shall see my cheeks grow pale.’

‘A boxing match is a story,’ says Barthes, ‘which is constructed before the eyes of the spectators.’ An epic story of conflict. The boxer is Achilles, the hero we all look to for deliverance. Or one boxer is Achilles, the other must be Hector, the noble loser, no less worthy. How does boxing help us deal with the ultimate metaphysical problems? By simplifying them to the personal test of courage. You either stand up to your problem (your nemesis, your enemy, your fear) or you don’t. That is all that counts. 

This might seem like a sideways solution. But Wittgenstein argued that most of the problems of philosophy are in fact problems of language. The insoluble dilemmas of metaphysics merely need to be restated in precise terms. When you do that, he said, you find these famous contradictions and paradoxes simply disappear. In similar manner, the utter immersion of the boxer in the physical world reduces the metaphysical to nothing, which is, after all, according to Wittgenstein, the aim of metaphysics.

A.J. Liebling, writing his years of columns for the New Yorker, often noticed the curious preoccupations of the boxer, from the odd jargons of training arcana through strange superstitions to full-blown mystical dementia. With Floyd Patterson you got all three. Liebling called it, ‘Patterson’s project of increasing the percentage of himself that he would get to be.’ 

When Patterson was asked, ‘How you coming along?’ he replied, ‘I’m a little bit off but I’m hopeful. If he gives me a good fight, I’ll be sixty per cent of me. Then I’ll take five days off, and before I drop under fifty-eight I’ll go right back into hard training. The time to catch it is when you come right off a fight. Like when I started to train back in November – I was no more than forty per cent of me. Starting at fifty-eight, I might hit seventy-five or eighty for Johansson. Once I find my whole self I’ll be satisfied.’ 

Champion fighters are all more or less loony, we know that from listening to them when they are interviewed after a fight, but we know it too from a moment’s reflection on the sheer lunacy of fighting for a living. Who in their right minds would do it? What would make you submit yourself to the pain and all that work? 

Ernest Hemingway in ‘Fifty Grand’ tells the story of Jack Brennan, an out-of-condition heavyweight champion who is persuaded to lose a big fight. As he expected to lose anyway he goes along with it and bets against himself. But the wise guys who have organised the fix double-cross him. They arrange for the other fighter to hit Jack below the belt. If Jack goes down, gives in to the pain of a low blow, he will win the bout and lose his money. Through the final tortuous rounds the reader’s sympathies are entirely won over to Jack and the awful, inescapable way he solves his problem. His triumph is to successfully lose the fight. 

Hemingway liked the idea of a toughness beyond what is measured by referees or a ten-count. He was a boxer himself, but it’s hard to know how good he was because most of the people whom we read about going up against him were other writers. You somehow don’t imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ezra Pound being able to put up much of a fight.

Hemingway was a Jansenist in the same way as Stendhal. He had a thoroughly determined view of fate and destiny which he articulated in those famously terse sentences: ‘Life will break you if it can. If you are so strong that it can’t break you then it will kill you.’

It is the warrior’s credo. 

The warrior is the type who will be a fighter. He’s in the army or works for a security company or else he is in gaol or selling protection. What makes a warrior? Is it the desire to inflict pain, to triumph by force? Or a more-or-less noble sense of duty? Or are these two (sadism/self-sacrifice) successive stages in the same character? What does it mean to live like a warrior? Is it a state of mind or a career path? 

The mythic type that is a warrior is constantly celebrated in fiction, and particularly on film. The American Cinema is founded on the lone hero who through massive violence triumphs over the evil world. Dirty Harry. Die Hard.

In boxing writing ‘warrior’ is the term of highest praise. The Russian-born Australian Kostya Tsyu, we are now told by American commen­tators, is a warrior. Like Roberto Duran, Roy Jones Junior, Marvin Hagler. These are fighters who, though they may be beaten, are somehow indomitable. Perhaps it’s just hype. Roberto ‘Iron Fist’ Duran was better known for the one time he quit a fight (saying ‘No mas,’ to Sugar Ray Leonard in the sixth round of their second bout), than for the two-hundred-odd times he won. But then he came back to fight the flashy Leonard for a third time and Duran proved himself worthy. Thomas ‘Hit Man’ Hearns and ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler were certified warriors despite losing to Leonard. Yet though Leonard defeated the three toughest middleweights of the 1980s, he was never called a warrior. Mohammad Ali won the respect of the older boxing coaches not with his fourth-round knockdowns or his dancing feet and lightning hands, but by letting himself get horribly punched around for ten rounds by George Foreman in Zaire before recovering to put him down. He lost God-knows how many brain cells that night but he became a warrior.

There are elegant boxers who can’t put an opponent away. They look good but the killer instinct is missing. There are fighters who can’t really box, ugly-looking sluggers that nobody wants to face. (Television commentators have a favourite call: ‘Here we have a fighter against a boxer.’) 

Then there are boxers who are fighters. These are the warriors.

After years of writing about war and warfare John Keegan concluded that there will always be wars because there will always be warriors, a special genetically-determined sub-group within the species. 

The flesh has depths. Within the mysterious processes of the body are those infinitesimally small transformations that bring thought to action – by which the word is made flesh. To live inside those transformations is to live at the speed of your body. This is both a speeding-up and a slowing-down process. The man or woman who understands the secret life of the body, lives within its rhythms, lives therefore totally within the moment, is here now, as the western Zen school used to say. The boxer is here now. 

1963. My family lives in a comfortable house in a small town on the northern edge of London. Sitting in the lounge room with my father on a summer’s night I watch the television broadcast of the stoush at Wembley Stadium between Cassius Clay (as he was then) and the Englishman, Henry Cooper. Henry is the British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion, a cockney, well liked (as they say) but suspect for having a glass jaw. Commentators don’t think he has the class of his opponent. 

The American, on the other hand, is a brash loudmouth who strikes most British observers as not behaving as a sportsman should. He seems to lose control of himself at his various press conferences, shouting crazy threats and promising (in rhyme) to murder our Henry. Sportsmen, in this place at this time, are expected to behave with a certain amount of decorum. There is a widely-held ideal of diffidence, as if to say: Yes, we won the war but it was just a bit of luck. Yes, we lost the empire but we don’t want to go on about it. The affected humility is supposed to conceal, and at the same time reveal, a quiet self-confidence. Clay is a stranger to these behavioural subtleties. He is so sure of himself that people find him a bit off; so contemptuous of such conventional moeurs as ‘respect for one’s opponent’ that the public sympathy is united against him, and the national affection (a misplaced pride) flows in a surging wave onto Cooper.

Then there is style. Clay does not box as a heavyweight is expected to box. He doesn’t lumber out of his corner, doesn’t ‘control the ring’ or throw his weight around, not at this stage of his career. Worst of all, he refuses to ‘take the fight’ to his opponent. Instead he seems to be constantly moving backwards, staying out of reach of Cooper, skipping away from trouble, hardly throwing a punch.

My father is disgusted at the exhibition. 

‘That’s not boxing,’ he says.

I wonder where his expertise on boxing comes from. He was in the army but I am unaware of his ever having climbed into the ring. The person with whom I see him most often in physical conflict is me, and against that opponent at least, I can attest that he is of the ‘never a backward step’ school. Whether from having been shelled in North Africa or from marching about on the South Downs carrying sticks for rifles, he brought out of the army experience an uprightness of bearing and an air of knowing more than anyone else about anything you care to name. Now he pours himself a scotch whisky with a little water in it. Every one else in the house is in bed. We are sitting together watching a fight, but he doesn’t offer me a drink. 

He now expresses the opinion that Clay is clinically mad. He is not the only one who thinks that. Some six months later even Clay’s own doctor, after examining the fighter before the first Liston bout, announces, ‘He is emotionally unbalanced. He acts like a man in mortal fear of death.’ 

Is this fear or madness we are watching, I wonder, or something else again?

I am hoping that Henry will catch up with Clay and land one on him. In an early round he does just that, though it hardly seems to hurt. My English heart is pounding with fear and anticipation. As someone who could never fight his way out of a paper bag I admire those who can. These men have so little truck with fear. They are so good at fighting that they have transformed it into an art. They play with it! I relate to boxers much in the same way that teenage girls relate to characters in a television soap opera: impossible role models. They (the boxers and the television characters) do the things that we (me and the girls) only dream about. We want the best for them, or, in some cases, we want them to get their come-uppance.

The braggart and the bitch we want to see fail. And the ones we like, we fear for.

My father writhes on the sofa in annoyance. He points out the deficiencies in Clay’s technique, bewails the inability of Cooper to take advantage of the situation. Strangely, despite the sentimental hope attached to the Londoner, I find myself fearing for both of the fighters. It will be painful to see either of them humbled, though one of them will surely be so.

Clay is still dancing, still moving backwards. Cooper is doggedly following him around, occasionally throwing out a jab, when suddenly, ‘out of nowhere,’ Clay hits him with two punches, a left and a right, and Henry goes down. 

(I recall the image on the little black and white TV; still remember, allowing for the distortions of time, the snarl on Clay’s face, my father jumping as if he had been hit himself, the groan of the BBC commentator, the shock we all feel, shared in that instant; a catharsis, the recognition of defeat.)

Cooper never gets back in the fight. In the next round, the fifth, he is hit again and it’s over.

The pity replaces the pride. The next morning’s newspapers recognise Clay’s unconventional skill, celebrate his burgeoning greatness. I read these stories in snatches, folding them up to put through letter boxes, sliding them under doors on my paper round. Henry was brave, they say, but he never had a chance. All day at school I think about this event, what it means. At length I sort it out. Cassius Clay wins by not playing the game of being a fighter. He does not ‘act tough.’ He acts like a madman and talks more than any fighter has ever talked. He is not on the same planet as Henry Cooper. The ‘nowhere’ that his punches come out of is the place of ‘not-fighting.’ 

We still have myths: narratives which strike us with an ineluctable ‘rightness’; unshakeable beliefs that are not really provable. The warrior is important in that belief system. So important that men get nervous about women boxers or women in the army. Ever since the Amazons men have had problems with the idea of women as warriors. Xena The Warrior Princess is a good joke, but despite the almost domestic character of what modern armies actually do, particularly the peacekeeping functions at which, theoretically, women should be as good as men, most of us believe that an army without warriors is asking for trouble. 

Some women like to fight and some of them are good at it. Fighters like Mischa Merz and kickboxer Rebecca (The Wrecker) Russell are stylish and graceful and can take care of themselves. But I don’t particularly want to watch them and I can’t quite work out why that is. When women fight, especially when they get emotional about it, I feel the earth shift on its axis, the heavens rent. In the same way, and despite all I learned from feminists in the 1970s, I cannot help but feel an obscure pity for those men who elect to stay home and look after the kids. That’s not to say we should stop anyone doing what they want to do. But watching women fight I am like that boy watching Clay and Cooper on television. I don’t want to see either of them get hurt.

Women don’t like boxing, mostly. They find it primitive, atavistic, needlessly harmful. Irrelevant to what they think is important. The atmosphere at a boxing match is not one that appeals. The uninhibited way that men hoot and whistle at the Round Card girls. The very existence of these girls, parading around the ring, holding up their cards. They are usually skimpily dressed, except in Wales where they wear Welsh national costume, ankle-length, amply cut. Other countries have their own way of dressing Round Card girls. It is considered polite to allow some acknowledgment for the trouble these girls have gone to with their appearance. Some men hoot and whistle. Others lean back in their seats and murmur to their companions an agreeable witticism or a small word of appreciation. Some women at the boxing also share a witticism or two, others do no more than narrow their eyes. There is a sexual undercurrent that is not just to do with the card girls or the half-naked fighters. Nor is it about dominance and submission. Mike Tyson reportedly once had (consensual) sex with twenty-two women at a party. Is it possible? Sonny Liston supposedly said that the blowjob was the white man’s greatest invention. A recording engineer told me that he took a girl to a fight at the Hordern Pavilion. This was in 1982. ‘I didn’t think she liked me,’ he said. ‘But she gave me a knee-trembler in the car-park afterwards.’ He thought that the excitement of the event had ‘warmed her up,’ and recommended the venue to anyone on a first date. ‘We didn’t even get out of the car-park,’ he said again, looking at me with calm wide-set eyes.

Boxing is for men about men by men, said Joyce Carol Oates. And the reason is that it gives pleasure to men. Organised sport has become such a soulless pursuit – the work ethic, the Protestant influence, the fetishisation of all activity in advanced economic society – that it’s easy to forget that sport comes out of games. The people who like running like it because it’s fun and part of that fun is seeing who is fastest. Kids like kicking a ball around because it’s a gasser to do so, not so that they might one day play for Essendon or Arsenal. My dogs chase each other round the porch to see who is top dog. It’s more fun to do that than to lie around watching TV. Or it is for dogs, at any rate, and for some poor low stumbling fools of men too. The great thing about boxing-gym culture is it allows men to play with the idea of fighting, it reminds them of the warrior code without putting them in too much danger. Mild men practise fighting just to keep in touch with a deeper reality. Most of us (readers, desk-people) are not going to be physically threatened in everyday life. If it ever did happen we would most likely be too surprised at the event itself to do anything about it. So to spar in a gym at least gives us an idea of what a fist aimed at the head looks like and feels like. The true warrior will take a punch to give a punch. The gym bunny doesn’t have to. 

But some men don’t like the whole thing; they genuinely feel a revulsion for organised combat, for the spectacle of two men hitting each other to see who is best at it; they despise those who take pleasure in watching one man beat up another man. Doctors, for example, don’t seem to like it.

The hard part to deal with in boxing is the harm that it does to those who make a career out of it. Sugar Ray Robinson (whom some call the greatest-ever boxer) suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the last few years of his life. He suffered in private, unknown to his fans. Mohammad Ali’s struggle with Parkinsonism is more public. Wherever he goes he is applauded. The way he has dealt with his affliction has finally brought the brattish youth into a near universal affection. (The exception to that universality being, of course, Joe Frazier.) 

Boxing is not the most dangerous sport on a fatality count. You can die driving fast cars. More people get killed every year falling off horses than in or near the ring. But in those other sports there isn’t someone following you around trying to hurt you, bent on causing you pain. That brutal fact, the essence of the sport, makes each contest a primitive event. A boxer can toughen up his body, but the many blows to the head that he incurs over the years do irreparable damage (or perhaps it is just one blow, one time) making the boxer in effect a human sacrifice.

Thom Jones in his book of short stories The Pugilist at Rest is relentless in his detailing of the things that happen to boxers. The ‘black lights of oblivion’ (a phrase made popular by Thomas Hauser in his book about boxing), the broken ribs, the constant headaches, the pissing of blood for weeks at a time, the fever, delirium, and finally the left-temporal lobe epilepsy. 

How can we tolerate a sport that treats its practitioners so harshly? Aren’t the rules there to stop that happening? Or do we accept that boxing is actually about self-destruction?

‘He fell down almost before he was hit.’

When Joe Frazier got knocked down by George Foreman he jumped in the air like a vaudeville enactment of a man being knocked out. It looked, from a distance, as comic as the actor Joe Pesci looked getting knocked on the floor in Raging Bull. But what Frazier was experiencing was, one supposes, more awfully real. He wanted it to end.

Virginia Woolf noted that the pleasure of reading Sir Thomas Browne is made somewhat keener by the realisation of the gulf that separates the Elizabethan sensibility from our own. She quotes Browne’s casual witnessing and reporting of an episode of torture, notes the way the writer can watch a person being torn to pieces without appearing to feel any sympathy, nor expecting any in his fellow witnesses. This marks them off from us, she says. She cannot imagine any writer from the twentieth century, in the presence of pain, failing to identify with the victim of violence.

Perhaps boxing for us is like torture or public execution for the Elizabethans. Perhaps future generations will class us all as primitives, we who take pleasure in a primal contest that involves the deliberate infliction of pain on the one hand, on the other the boxer’s abandonment of himself, the offering of his own body as a gift to ruin. 

We share a pleasure in observing these fights that already borders on the illicit. The pleasure perhaps of watching what we shouldn’t watch.

Stendhal: Everything can be acquired in solitude, except character.

‘He walked into it.’

The really big fights happen somewhere else, in Las Vegas or Atlantic City (or maybe Tokyo or even Zaire) and we watch them on a big television at a local pub or one of the clubs. World Championship bouts: Chavez or De La Hoya or Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson. I was always surprised at how many people actually liked Mike Tyson. Men in Sydney pubs in the middle of a Sunday afternoon would cheer the television screen as he walked (thousands of miles away) from his dressing room to the ring. Tyson had learned from Ali that the important battle to win is the mind game. But Tyson put an unfortunate slant on it. When he said he wanted to kill his opponent he had nearly every other fighter in his division believing him. It got boring. Personally I was rooting for Evander Holyfield and was delighted to watch him humiliate Tyson. Typically this great triumph, a feat of courage and skill, was followed up by a bizarre post-bout interview in which Holyfield raved about God and His Purpose and seemed incapable of dealing with any other thought. I suppose it’s asking a bit much to expect fighters to do what they do and then be amusing. (Athletes, said Richard Ford, are people who are happy to let their actions speak for them.) But some do well enough. Kostya is always modest and natural. Barry Michaels, the champion middleweight, was asked after a fight in Melbourne how he felt. ‘Alright,’ he said, ‘But Jeez, mate, it’s a hell of a way to make a quid.’ Shannan Taylor (‘The Bulli Blaster’) is quite insane, grabbing the microphone and shouting at the audience about how misunderstood he’s been, what a hard life he’s had, thanking the people who’ve stood by him, imagining, for some reason, that any of us want to hear about any of that stuff. 

Marrickville Town Hall has fight nights every couple of months, which is where I met my marriage counsellor again. I say ‘met’ but I might as well say ‘saw’, because he didn’t speak to me apart from saying hello. This was a pity, because I wanted to talk to him. I had just been reading about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and had been struck by the way they described their marriage. ‘A fight to the death,’ Hughes called it. ‘One of us,’ Sylvia remarked more darkly, ‘is done for.’

The prescience of poets. She died and he came undone more slowly. I wanted to ask my counsellor about the marriage-as-fight-to-the-death analogy. I wanted to test my positive notion of ‘not-fighting’ against his critique of ‘passive aggression’. I thought he might have acknowledged that it was okay for me to have messed up my marriage, to tell me, in this male environment, that everyone does it. I suppose I wanted him, in some way, to forgive me. But he kept ducking away and I didn’t chase after him. 

I was with a couple of friends. The three of us usually go if there’s something on. Marrickville is close to where we live but the boxing there is of a variable standard. Parramatta Stadium once had Kostya Tsyu (January 20 1996 v Hugo Pineda in the pouring rain). Another time we drove to Newcastle (again for Tszyu – though that was the first time we saw the great talent of Lovemore Ndou), and once to Wollongong for Shannan Taylor. We are fight fans. 

One night we go to a club in Newtown.

When we arrive there is a fight, an unscheduled one, in the ground-floor bar. The bouncers (who normally break up these things in fairly expedient fashion) are all upstairs watching the boxers. We skirt the mayhem, climb the stairs. The room where they have the fights, when we get there, is relatively calm. 

A local notable, Tom Domican, a ‘colourful identity’ with the reputation of a thug, walks into the club, a smile on his smooth square face. He moves through the crowd with a proprietary air like a country squire in his vineyards. This is his turf.

Some of the younger boxers from early bouts are brought up and introduced to him. He speaks to them in a kindly knowing fashion, the old warrior, the brother in arms. He encourages them and gives them a tap on the head. The gesture of a confident man. It is not enough to be a good fighter. You also have to be connected.

Boxing is indivisible from the marketing machinery which surrounds it, just as the art world, the literary world or the world of pop music contain within themselves both the nobility of the enterprise and the crassness of its exploitation. Indeed their nobility is framed within and defined by the structure of reward and recognition bestowed by their respective milieus.

Both Mohammad Ali and Mike Tyson are forever linked with Don King. The blatant manipulation of the market by which King boosted his own dominance (and that of his fighters) is no worse than the tactics of corporate warriors or the hypocrisies of politicians. But we resent the machinations of King Promotions even more than the meanness of bankers, perhaps because of that feeling which fight fans share (one to which Oates refers in On Boxing), that boxing is the truest of sporting contests, that it is somehow more real than life itself. In this most fair of sports we want fairness to rule. We want to see the best fighters matched against each other, not watch champions spend years avoiding their challengers. 

The last thing most of us want is to see someone get beaten up. Sport has rules to determine exactly how you get to win, to make it equally possible for anyone to win, and to protect the losers. When things get too rough, when one brawler is punishing the other and the other has lost the ability to defend himself, the referee is supposed to jump in. The marriage counsellor, by way of contrast, can send you to your corner, can even force a round break, but he can’t stop one combatant hurting another. He can’t stop the fight. That’s the difference between sport and life.

‘He didn’t see it coming’

There is another brawl in the audience just before the feature bout at Newtown. A couple of the flimsy chairs we are sitting on get thrown around. Under the hot lights in the gilt- and red-lined room there is an atmosphere of anticipation and apprehension, which only settles once the contest begins. When one of the boxers goes down – it is Mick Beattie, a local favourite – he goes down hard and he doesn’t get up. Not for a long while. The fellow that knocked him down is an honest bruiser from South Australia called Garth Cussion, and he knocked Beattie down with a good solid hook that bashed the senses right out of his head. Garth is wandering round the ring in a state of suspended exhilaration. He has just won the Australian Light-Heavyweight Championship with that punch, but the other bloke doesn’t get up. The referee can’t make the announcement. It should be Garth’s big moment but all anyone can think about is the fighter on the ground. 

When Beattie finally manages to raise himself and leave the ring the whole room breathes out together, a collective sigh of relief. We are all guilty if he dies. All of us share the responsibility for putting the boys in the ring, exposing them to this danger. If we are not there, don’t buy tickets, are not interested then it wouldn’t happen. Would it?

More from this issue

That Oceanic Feeling

HEAT 2. Fitzroy to Freo
Above all other obstacles, it was fear that had held me back in surfing and later, kept me out of the water. Fear of failure, fear of being an imposter, fear of being out of control. All these fears coalesced in the tell-tale corrugations of a big set looming out the back, that unstoppable phalanx of pure, liquid energy from which there was no escape.
Read more