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The Year of Boxing

2018 was, in most respects, a difficult year. After years of struggle, I finally abandoned the profession of academia, convinced of the hypocrisy and empty elitism of the professoriate. With that disillusionment, I was cast into a sea of tremendous uncertainty and financial insecurity, from which I thankfully emerged in November with a new job and a new sense of daily purpose. Meanwhile, the world continued on its insanity; from our hermetically-sealed social media worlds, we denounced each other and created a thousand new shibboleths without actually convincing anyone of anything. Looking around at this landscape, it was hard not to conclude that humanity now has the world--in all its violence and confusion--that it deserves. And meanwhile, the seas continue to rise. It was within this maelstrom that I returned to boxing, a calling that has beckoned to me sporadically throughout my life, but never as resoundingly as it did in 2018. I fell in love with the ring again--its history, its madness, its rhythms and rituals. Most of my Friday and Saturday nights were consumed with the televised fights, and my other days were often spent reading compulsively about the history of prizefighting--from Elliott Gorn's The Manly Art to the first trio of books by Springs Toledo and concluding with biographies of Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and Mike Tyson, to name just a few. My obsession with boxing didn't stop there. I spent much of the year memorizing lists of Hall of Fame fighters, champion fighters, and collecting boxing cards from the early, mid, and late 20th century, and even a few from the twenty-first. I also started stockpiling DVDs of old fight films, in the hopes that one of them will give me the inspiration for my next book--and my first on boxing--which I hope to start researching and writing in 2019. Stay tuned for that. What was it about 2018 that brought me to this place, this obsession with boxing? Ultimately, I think that in an age of profound disillusionment, the futile heroism of the ring has renewed my appreciation for the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, both of which were major themes of my academic work in my last job. Boxers bruise, bleed, and sometimes even die fighting for themselves. They don't do it for flag or any recognizable ideology. They do it because they think they see a way through our world of corruption and violence, one that doesn't chase the fool's errand of transcendence but instead argues for the possibility of victory within the rules and logic of the very society that brutalizes and dehumanizes them. It is, almost always, an impossible ghost that they chase, but when they are in the ring trading punches and testing the limits of their own strength, courage, and endurance, we are privileged to witness the audacity of that dream. And it is a beautiful and sacred thing.

I want to close this piece by sharing my most poignant memories of boxing in 2018, and to give out my own rewards for the year, which are based not on any objective criteria but simply on the values and lessons that I find most enthralling about boxing. Fighter of the Year: Isaac Dogboe, super bantamweight division. In 2018, Dogboe scored two unforgettable TKO wins, over Jessie Magdaleno for the WBO championship in April and Hidenori Otake in defense of that belt in August. Emerging from the boxing backwoods of Ghana with a distinctive cry of "neho," Dogboe was a heavy favorite going into his match against Emanuel Navarrete in December. But Navarrete--bigger and more relentless than Dogboe--battered the champion from pillar to post, claiming the title. Seeing Dogboe's bruised and beaten face after that bout perfectly encapsulated the beauty of boxing for me. I hope to see him regain his title in 2019. Fight of the Year: Wilder v. Fury. Unlike most observers, I had Deontay Wilder winning this fight by a score of 114-112. Fury, for my money, made Wilder miss most of the night, but didn't throw enough in the early rounds to gain the victory, or to overcome the two knockdowns he suffered in the second half of the fight. Though everyone has rightly talked about how Fury managed to get up from the second knockdown in the 12th round, I was most impressed by Wilder, who simply refused to give in despite a long night of frustration. Wilder is, in my view, the most entertaining boxer in the world today, and I hope to see him face both Fury again and Anthony Joshua next year. Revelation of the Year: Maurice Hooker. For me, there's just something about this guy: perhaps it is the long, Hearns-like reach. Or perhaps it is the all-action style. But Hooker's destruction of Alex Saucedo in November was the most breathtaking performance of the year in 2018. I can't wait to see him in action again.

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