Boxers Fight Too Long

Boxing has to be one of the most cliche-ridden sports in existence, which makes sense since it arguably has to be the oldest sport there is. The entirety of human dialogue is littered with boxing cliches, just in an etymological sense. But boxing also has cliches that are more literary in nature, and none is more poignant than the boxer who keeps fighting after he should stop.

Ali’s fantastic career in the early 70s, after he came back is well documented, most famously with the Rumble in the Jungle and his fights with Frazier, but people don’t remember he fought until 1980, getting shattered and knocked out. He didn’t know when to walk away, and when he finally did, it had long been expected.

His final fights didn’t change his legacy, in fact they created a new wrinkle for boxing enthusiasts to look back on over the years every time yet another boxer didn’t hang it up in the denoument of their prime. But it also brings to mind, what about all the boxers who didn’t have a prime?

There are hundreds and hundreds of boxers training right now, working their asses off for the chance to fight professionally. God, why would they do that? Why, when there are any other thousands of ways to make a living rather than to stand in front of people for the express purpose of their beating you, and all in front of as many people as you can get in a stadium, all of whom might cheer you or boo you based on their capricious whimsy? But they do it, they fight for the chance to be humiliated, because within that chance to be humiliated is the chance to be a hero, to be cheered.

Also, for a lot of these guys, they might be engaging guys, they might be entertaining guys, but they aren’t incredibly smart. Maybe they didn’t graduate from high school even, regardless, they probably don’t have college diplomas. Maybe they don’t have any money, or any way of making money. Maybe they have kids, or desperately want to have kids, and the only skill they have is to stand in front of someone and get punched while a crowd of people decide how well they are doing.

The worst is the guy who trains to be a fighter, but can’t quite bring himself to do the things he needs to do in order to get a title shot. Maybe the years start slipping away from him while he’s trying to figure out what kind of fighter to be. Maybe he’s a puncher, but he really wants to be like Sugar Ray. Maybe he’s a light weight, but he keeps trying to get into the higher weight classes. Maybe he can never get down to a fighting weight that gives him a puncher’s chance.

So how does he know when to hang it up? Ali won every fight, and then he started losing. He still didn’t know to hang it up, he still tried to fight. What if you never really won? This guy’s been fighting exposition fights, just to get seen. Getting beat up, or maybe even winning spectacularly, as the fight before the main event. Maybe he even gets a purse now and then, but mostly he’s just trying to get his name known.

It’s got to dawn on him eventually. Even if he’s a great boxer, even if he has enough skill for a title shot, his twenties slip away due to mismanagement or fighting in the wrong weight class or a couple of really hard to swallow losses to competitors he should have known how to defeat, and he starts looking at his thirties. He’s in his mid-thirties, he’s got a man’s responsibilities now, and he’s still fighting in exhibition fights.

Maybe he still loves it. I’ve heard that once the art gets in your blood, you can’t put it down. Maybe being in the ring is the best feeling he has, the only time he feels good and whole. But his timing is off. Too long between bouts, too little actual training as a young boxer, habits too calcified to be as good as he might have been. And he’s fighting for exhibition, he’s doing it in front of the tiny crowd that comes early, comes really because they are a fan of boxing pure and simple, they don’t care who’s doing the fighting.

Maybe he’s lost so many times that he doesn’t even recognize that this loss should be his last, that he never really was a boxer. He was a body to throw in the ring while the fighters he fought built their records and went on. He counts his life in steps removed from greatness, the boxers he’s beaten that went on to beat great boxers, the kids he was in the ring with as a young man who are now fighting in big venues. He even tells stories of fights he’s won and lost, and those stories are fun to hear. But as he gets older, the fights won’t give him any more stories of winning.

This fighter can retire, but the crowds won’t even know. He can walk away and all that happens is his wife and his family and friends breathe easier because he won’t get hurt. He does have to decide what to do with his life, how to make a living, but the beautiful thing is that he never really made a living as a boxer anyway. His life has been happening while he was boxing a couple of times a year. And if he could just find the strength to walk away, he might make a living, might find a job, might not be distracted by a dream that only existed when he slept.

But boxers fight too long. They never know when to walk away. And really, who can blame them?