Standing in front of Joe Louis’s gravestone with my dad, we both took a moment. He, because a kid born in to a poor Geordie mining community had come so far and was now stood before an idol’s grave in Arlington Cemetery, Washington D.C and me, because I love and respect my dad and know boxing and this moment, meant so much to him.
When I was a child, ITV showed fights on a Saturday night; Mike Tyson, seemed fearless in the face of all challengers, like a super-charged Scrappy Doo, using his right fist to send Michael Spinks crashing to the canvas – one of many mind-blowing knock outs; a little before my time but still in my consciousness were fights between Hearns, Hagler, Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard and I watched ‘Rocky 2’ on a loop.
But it is brutal, bloody and sometimes almost bestial. I hate seeing a scrap in the street, I don’t watch horror films and yet I am drawn to boxing.
It fascinates me that two people can step in a ring and inflict pain upon each other when they may not know each other and certainly haven’t done anything to warrant such violence and then after pummelling each other, can shake hands, hug and walk away.
It is one of the oldest sports and one of the most straightforward, having little of the complexity of rules that govern cricket, football or golf. But, it is above all about fairness and that is a significant appeal of it to me. It may not have an equivalent of the offside rule, but it does have a weigh in and at that, you make weight or you don’t fight. It was from boxing that the Louis-Schmeling paradox was born. Referencing two great fighters of the 1930’s and their two bouts. Joe Louis knocked out Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938 and with it inspired a nation and served as a metaphorical blow to Hitler and his hate-filled march across Europe. The paradox says that whilst business aspires to monopolies for profit, sport needs fair competition, both sides having a chance, both having a hope, to then generate income and arouse public interest. Whilst Muhammad Ali would undoubtedly be remembered regardless of the three fights with Joe Frazier culminating in the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’, they irrefutably enhanced his story. Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano fought three times; Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson fought six times; Jack Britton and Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis fought twenty times and would Anthony Joshua have been taken to the national heart to quite the same extent had he knocked out Klitschko easily in the first round and had there been no speculation of a rematch? I suspect not.
It is sport at its most elemental, raw, basic, pure. In Formula One you can buy a better engine, in a team sport if you’re having a bad day you have team mates who can take up the slack. In boxing, if you’re having a bad day you can end your day in hospital or worse.
None of this is to suggest that boxing is simple or simplistic. It is incredibly tactical and perhaps more akin to chess than many other physical sports. My dad taught me to play that, so there is pause for another moment. A boxer must read an opponent, study and be prepared to alter a planned approach. This in some respects will be the biggest test for Anthony Joshua this Saturday in Cardiff. Having prepped and planned for Pulev, with 12 days to go, off pops Pulev and in struts Carlos Takam. It’s not that I doubt for a second Joshua’s ability, I’ll be there and I believe I’ll see him win, but it must’ve caused a few ‘back to the drawing board’ moments.
Boxing training is gruelling; strength and cardio; running, skipping, weights and if Mickey is to be believed, chicken chasing, are all the bread and butter of a boxers day to day.
But above all, it is the mind that most fascinates me about boxing. You are alone and when that bell rings I can only imagine if you let the thought creep in to your mind, it must feel incredibly lonely. Not as lonely as the feel of the canvas against your body when facing defeat. You have fought and you are down, there is no one and nothing to help or to blame, you are exposed and it is this point where the myth, the drama, the emotion, the fighter and above all, the warrior in you is writ large and becomes a legend or loser. You don’t train to be battered and lie on the canvas and figure out what to do. Returning to Joshua v Klitschko, arguably Joshua’s determination to get back up, carry on and achieve victory was his Rocky V Apollo Creed moment. He passed from boxer to national hero and why, when I am stood in the Principality Stadium on Saturday night, I think I’ll see him beat Takam and then dominate his division for years to come. Because what boxing is about above all, is our character, our flaws and our failings, irrespective of legend, myth and star status, boxing at its most raw and brutal, with nowhere to hide, shows the true human being inside, as Maya Angelou said, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.’