WHETHER participant or spectator, a relationship with boxing requires a certain amount of delusion, the kind typically mastered by either a stuntman or a footballer’s wife. It requires an ability to ignore signs. It requires an ability to always find the silver lining.
From a boxer’s perspective, they must delude themselves into thinking they are invincible, infallible and will, despite the history of the sport and all the evidence available, never become one of the boxers either injured by it, broken by it, or, sadly, killed by it. To train, and to focus, and to then hold it all together on the night, they must suspend disbelief and they must, in time, become experts in the art of lying to both themselves and everyone around them.
Similarly, for those who watch these fighters and call it either sport or entertainment, we must put to one side the reality of what it is we are actually watching and concentrate instead on those two things: the sport, the entertainment. If, after all, we were unable to delude ourselves in this way, and suspend our own disbelief, we would likely quit watching people fight after the first serious injury or death we witnessed in the ring. Or maybe, who knows, we would check out at the first sign of performance-enhancing drugs being used in a sport in which the primary goal is to render an opponent unconscious.
That we don’t tap out in those moments says a lot about us, and a lot about the sport, too. The sport, more durable and persistent than most, has developed a habit over the years of pushing the enswell hard against every black eye it accrues, as well as stuffing petroleum jelly into each of its gaping wounds, to then appear as good as new once the storm has blown over and a new fight needs to be sold. Yet it is us, the ones who return, who have a greater capacity to create distance from it and remind ourselves, maybe, that a sport involving human beings hitting each other in the head is perhaps not the healthiest and most productive of pursuits. Still, though, we watch, again and again. We watch fights the weekend following a serious injury or death and we watch fights involving boxers we know for certain have failed performance-enhancing drug tests and are therefore, by anyone’s measure, forever untrustworthy, tarnished, and dangerous.
We watch, I suppose, because we are every bit as deluded and obsessed as those who call boxing their profession. We watch, moreover, because what, frankly, is the alternative? To not watch? To watch cricket instead? Perish the thought. Regardless of the risk involved, and regardless of how many drugs have been taken by the competitors, a fight is still a fight at the end of the day and we all love fights, or so we are told.
If, say the promoters, you focus solely on that, the fight, everything will be okay. Increasingly, in fact, I find myself these days writing reports of fights featuring a boxer who has failed a PED test and having to pretend that this information is somehow less relevant than the belt at stake. Frequently, too, when writing these reports, I am attempting to express some sort of admiration, albeit of the begrudging kind, for this particular fighter’s latest performance and victory, a task that becomes all the tougher when the fighter in question is widely celebrated and achieving big things in the sport.
In that situation, what is the right course of action? Do we ignore the PED transgression entirely and just let bygones be bygones? Or do we petulantly mention it, thus undermining their recent win? Admittedly, I’m partial to the latter approach as opposed to the former, but it still doesn’t make me proud or in any way satisfied when I employ it. It is merely an unwanted reminder that many of the great feats we witness in the sport today, and have witnessed in years gone by, are spoiled by an asterisk and a “Yeah but…” line written somewhere in the small print.
Even worse than that, there is now too much mystery surrounding boxers’ diets and training camps for us to suspend our disbelief as we await the first bell. For me, the introductions before any so-called superfight have regrettably become more a question of “Right, then, which of these boxers is clean?” than, as was the case when I was young and dumb, “Right, then, which of these boxers is going to win?”
That, I guess, has a lot to do with growing up and gaining insight and experience in the sport, more so than it simply being a consequence of the sport revealing its green screen due to its own incompetence regarding PEDs. (Or maybe, in truth, it’s a bit of both.) Certainly, though, with a greater knowledge of performance-enhancing drugs and a growing number of failed tests, we have all in recent years had to come to terms with the sport’s dirty secret and accept, as painful as it is, that a lot of the boxers we grew up admiring were on fight night not the lean, mean and clean fighting machines we were led to believe. More educated now, and with sharper eyes and pricier binoculars, we have a better idea these days of what we see, and what we saw, and it is hard as a result to see so much smoke and continue pretending there isn’t a fire burning somewhere. The smoke may get in your eyes and the smell may stay on your clothes, yet at least, in 2023, we know the reason why.
We have, let’s face it, all had someone we admired whom we knew, deep down, deceived us with their actions and, worse, risked permanently damaging another human being to get rich and stay ahead of the competition. But what, ultimately, did we do with this knowledge or suspicion? We sat and watched. We celebrated. We believed in them and the dream.
Then one day we woke up.