The Long Walk of Curtis Harper
Quitting, they say, is boxing's cardinal sin. Just last week, as discussed on this blog, Alexander Dimitrenko's loss to Bryant Jennings was clouded by previous fights in which Dimitrenko had given up in the face of adversity, "quitting on his stool," as the saying goes. Though Dimitrenko fought gamely against Jennings, ringside commentators seemed determined to cast his defeat in the light of his past transgressions. What, then, can possibly be the future of Curtis Harper? During last night's Premier Boxing Champions card on FS1, Harper responded to the opening bell of Round 1 by rather nonchalantly climbing out of the ring and sauntering back to his dressing room, leaving a stunned opponent, Efe Ajagba, a befuddled sold-out audience in Minneapolis's Armory, and hundreds of thousands of bemused television viewers to grapple with his abandonment of the ring and its sacred rituals of violence and sacrifice. Ajagba was given the win on disqualification without ever throwing a punch, and veteran ring enthusiasts struggled to remember a similar incident in boxing's long and bizarre history. Was Harper a coward, or, as veteran trainer Virgil Hunter suggested, "the smartest man in the building"? Prior to Harper's stunning exit, I found myself gawking at the Florida heavyweight's portly and rotund figure, which cast a poor contrast with the chiseled Ejagba, a rising prospect with a string of knockouts to his name. Harper, by contrast, is a journeyman heavyweight who has fought--and been beaten by--noted heavyweights Chris Arreola and Gerald Washington. He does have 13 wins and 9 knockouts, but he's also been knocked out three times in five previous losses. He was, simply put, a sacrificial lamb to be fed to a young prospect to butter up his record a bit more. This is one of the oldest rituals of the ring, as wily managers look to prime their best prospects with easy wins to set up bigger paydays down the road. There is also a logic beyond mere marketing to such bouts, as they can help rising stars gain valuable ring experience before facing the beasts of their division. Perhaps that was the thought behind putting Ajagba in the ring with Harper, but based on appearances alone it looked to my eyes like pure farce. So Harper left, and in that moment, the magical powers of the ring to suspend the normal laws of society and to transform ordinary time into ritual time were instantly defused, and the sheer insanity of professional boxing fully exposed. What I will long remember from this night is not Harper's alleged cowardice, but his apparent ambivalence, even indifference, to the rituals of masculine shaming that fuel "the manly art." After his disqualification, Harper apparently told reporters that he left the ring because he wasn't getting paid enough money to be there. That might well be a mere excuse, but perhaps not. When I try to imagine the amount of money it would take to get me into the ring against a man such as Efe Ajagba, I am certain that the amount is substantially more than whatever Harper was being given. For once, a boxer's sense of self-preservation outweighed his commitment to the ring. In the moment of that decision, Harper ceasaed to be a boxer, and the spectacle of the sport collapsed in on itself. I have a feeling last night marked Harper's final
appearance in the ring. I wish him all the best in the future.