Today is Super Bowl Sunday, and since I despise American football with the intensity of a thousand dying stars, I have been on YouTube for much of the day, watching old fights. Somehow I settled upon the great lightweight champion of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ike Williams, and his July 12, 1948 defense of his title against Beau Jack. In the sixth round, Williams--rated as one of the hardest punching lightweights in boxing history--drove Jack to the ropes and then unleashed a fusillade of unanswered blows that, by my estimate, easily exceeded 25 punches. By the 30th punch, and with the helpless Jack stuck against the ropes in the corner, Williams turned to referee Charley Daggert and asked him to stop the fight. Daggert did not move in, and so Williams threw two more shots--one to the body and the other to head--before Daggert finally ended the punishment and called a halt to the bout. Incredibly, Jack not only survived the assault, he would go on to fight Williams three more times, claiming one draw and two losses by decision.
How much times have changed. If the Williams-Jack 1948 bout were held today, you can be sure that many boxing analysts and ringside commentators would be calling for the suspension of the referee. Just last night, watching ESPN's Texas card headlined by upcoming uber-prospect Teofimo Lopez and the return to glory of Sergey Kovalev, the announcers repeatedly second-guessed and excoriated multiple referees for, first, not ending Richard Commey's demolition of Isa Chaniev sooner, and then allowing Diego Magdaleno to take seven rounds of punishment from Lopez. In particular, Max Kellerman (who, it should be noted, as a 45-year-old boxing commentator is scheduled to drop off a cliff any day now), ranted against the incompetence of referees Laurence Cole and Gregorio Alvarez for allowing Chaniev and Magdaleno to take unnecessary punishment. Yet in neither fight did Chaniev or Magdaleno receive anything like the accumulation of blows that Jack faced in the ring with Williams in 1948. Frankly, I find all this show of compassion a bit out of place coming from boxing enthusiasts, who often love to pride themselves on worshipping a sport that is more than a sport; as they like to say, one doesn't "play boxing." Boxing fans want unbridled violence, until they don't, and where that line is seems to change minute by minute. After all, a referee is just as likely to be criticized for an early stoppage as he is for a late one. Of course, the ultimate truth of boxing, the source of what Joyce Carol Oates has called its "historic madness," is that all punishment in boxing is unnecessary. As a test of strength, endurance, courage, and guile, boxing unleashes the masculine urges in a society that otherwise seeks to restrain and suppress them. It is only within the confines of the ring that bludgeoning another man with your fists is not only lawful, but actively encouraged and celebrated. We maintain this odd juxtaposition by telling ourselves that the ring civilizes our violent inclinations. Put on gloves, abide by a few rules, respect the craft of boxing, and we somehow transcend the normal consequences of celebrating butchery. Except, we don't, as a thousand boxers permanently disfigured by the sport constantly remind us, let alone the dozens who have died in the ring. So on this Super Bowl Sunday, when Americans celebrate another sport that destroys the bodies of young men, I remind myself why I watch boxing: not because it is more or less violent than football, but because it incentivizes violence in the service of the individual, rather than in service of the team or a game plan that protects some players at the expense of others. In boxing, the agenda is the individual, in victory and in defeat, whether he ends the day with his fists raised in triumph or inert and lying on his shield. At some level, all boxers know that any fight could end with either scenario, and it is their courage to take that risk that I celebrate. But when the perfectly foreseeable does happen, when a fighter is permanently injured or worse (and we all know what that euphemism "or worse" means), I am not going to try to rinse the blood off my hands while pointing my reddened finger at a referee. I watch the fights, and so therefore I am a dues-paying member of this club.