IT was clear 30 seconds into the fight that it was a mismatch. You can always tell these things. Ricky Hatton, in one corner, arrived looking like a ghost, skin stretched tight and grey across his face, heart sinking in foreknowledge of the future past to come. It’ll be a miracle if he gets out of this one. And then there was Manny Pacquiao across from him, compact, lithe, light, perfectly contained within himself, smilingly oblivious to the context now surrounding him, presiding over his dominion. In the first round Hatton is knocked down twice, stumbling both times to his feet in a state of blind shock. In the second, he is knocked out cold. No one looks away for a second.
What does it mean to look away? In boxing, to look away is frequently to acknowledge that one should never have been looking in the first place. This is to say that averting the eyes, in one instant, is both an escape from and admission of guilt, the acknowledgement, too late, that the violence served up before one’s eyes is sufficiently one-sided as to be unfair. The parameters for fairness in boxing, as one might expect, are commensurately narrowed, but that narrowness produces a basic and yet severe sense for what is just and what is not. We expect our fights to be violence, yes, but we expect that violence to be just. And the only justice is in knowing that both men might hit each other and be hit thereafter in return.
Some do avert their eyes when sat before a mismatch. Thomas Hauser quotes Dave Kindred, in his biography of Muhammad Ali, watching Herbert Muhammad during Ali’s loss to Larry Holmes: “I sat next to Herbert Muhammad during the fight. Herbert never said a word. Mostly, he just hung his head and looked like he was in pain. Right before the fight ended, he signaled to someone. I don’t know who it was, but Herbert shook his head and Angelo stopped it. Herbert must have missed half the fight, the way he was looking down.”
Holmes’ drubbing of a corpulent Ali remains one of the dreariest examples of an unfair fight in recent memory (with Ali’s subsequent history a legacy of the damage such match-ups can involve). Other accounts in Hauser’s book describe the fight in the same terms one might call on for a particularly grisly film noir, “like watching an automobile accident that kills someone you love” (Kindred), “like watching an autopsy on a man who’s still alive” (Sylvester Stallone). Like seeing a Diane Arbus exhibition, Ali’s beating by Holmes results in two responses: either to avert the eyes and look down, shellshocked, to the floor, or else to keep them locked in mute panic on the horror unfolding ahead.
Ali’s loss to Holmes was a mismatch of the body. Worn down by a toxic combination of drugs — which included Benzedrine and a treble dose of Thyrolar medication — as well as a lifetime of in-ring abuse, Ali was an old man, “weak, fatigued, and short of breath from round one,” as Hauser put it, competing in a young man’s game. Hence, as a result, the acute physicality of Kindred’s and Stallone’s descriptions: whether this was a car crash or a living autopsy, they were watching a man’s body being torn to pieces, or else they were trying not to.
This sort of mismatch — which vaunts itself as a passing of the torch but is really nothing of the sort, is really the organised torture of the old by the young —is also the most common refrain through the history of boxing. The older fighter, which is to say the older fighter and all the many others with their stakes in him, cashes out his chips, his body, in exchange for a pummelling. Ali’s thrashing by Holmes is merely the most hyperbolic example of the genre.
But there are other sub-headings under the title of mismatch. There is, for instance, the psychological mismatch, where one fighter is so clearly endowed with better psychological equipment for the event of competition that the fight’s conclusion is foretold in advance. Audley Harrison lacked much of the repertoire necessary for a heavyweight champion, but his fight with David Haye was especially mismatched precisely because of the difference in psychological terms between the two fighters. To see Harrison wobbling down to the ring before fighting Haye, knees weak with terror, was to see a fighter singularly unready for the scale of the fight at hand. Grotesquely ill-equipped for someone with Haye’s total self-assurance, Harrison, who would probably have made an interesting case study for Freud (to go somewhere in between Little Hans and Dora), stopped looking like a trauma victim only when the fight was eventually stopped.
Then there is also the mismatch in terms of size, which, of course, so many expected Pacquiao’s fight with Oscar De La Hoya to prove. At least then, however, Pacquiao came into that meeting as the leading fighter in the world. When Vinny Paz — 5ft 7ins, formerly a lightweight, with a reconstructed neck — fought Roy Jones Jnr in 1995 at super-middleweight, the fight resembled a matador sparring with a charging bull, with the sole exception being that the matador, on this occasion, looked twice as large (and was thrice as quick) as the bull. Jones would win a heavyweight title against John Ruiz eight years later. The equations were somewhat different when Kell Brook and Amir Khan chanced their arms against Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez at middleweight (soon, at last, to fight one another), insomuch as Brook and Khan were at least quicker than Golovkin and Alvarez, but the size differential was such that no one in their right mind expected an upset.
Finally, of course, there is the mismatch of talent, which modern day boxing, despite itself, seems so to specialise in. One thinks of Rod Salka’s clash with Danny Garcia, which no one in the world had ever demanded, and countless fighters on the way up, even champions on top, feasting on inferior fighters.
Why does one watch a mismatch? Mr Crummles, in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, gives something like an answer: “It’s the essence of the combat that there should be a foot or two between them,” Mr Crummles says when asked by Nicholas why he stages such uneven fights. “How are you to get the sympathies of the audience in a legitimate manner, if there isn’t a little man contending against a big one?” The mismatch, that is, is designed to enlist the sympathies of the audience for a little man, in much the same way professional wrestling stacks its odds against the crowd favourite. Crummles reasons, in turn, that his audience watches for a story, the fight becoming as a result a narrative of good versus evil, small against big, hero versus villain. The audience watches to see the big man take a kicking.
Still, Crummles’ reasoning hardly suffices for the age of television. This is to say that because television involves viewership at a distance, where Crummles’ mismatch relies on the physical presence of a live audience, as well as repeated exposure to the facts of life (namely, that a little man very rarely gets especially far against a bigger man), television makes for a far worse platform for such unevenness. And when there is so much else to watch elsewhere, why be a connoisseur of injustice?
All mismatches in boxing are the same, as George Orwell almost wrote, except some are more mismatched than others. More than any of the mismatches listed above, the most egregious, surely, is the mismatch of profession. In a sport like boxing, there is no violence more unjust than in watching a boxer beat up a non-boxer. But there is also no sales pitch so absurd as demanding boxing fans pay out to watch a spectacle carried out under the veneer of sport. At least when Floyd Mayweather [inset, right] gives Conor McGregor the shellacking that is coming to him, McGregor will have asked for it.
And on this occasion, hopefully no one will be looking. There’s too good a fight a few weeks after, when Alvarez meets Golovkin, for anyone to bother. Still, when Mayweather does start hitting McGregor, who has looked painfully inadequate even when sparring, it might prove difficult to keep watching.
To look away in boxing, then, is to look away too late. Herbert Muhammad ducked his head while Ali was being pummelled from pillar to post by Holmes not because he couldn’t cope with the spectacle of such violence, but because he should never have been watching that sort of damage in the first place. The mismatch converts the audience from spectator to voyeur, precisely because it finds itself watching something far too intimate and knotted — the revelation of the body’s limit — than the action of a fight should contain. We see a mismatch and we recognise that we shouldn’t be there.
No one looks away as Hatton lies there, suspended in a state of half or quarter consciousness, because the shock is real. Before it begins, the possibilities seem endless: Hatton has never lost at 140, De La Hoya was a wreck when Pacquiao tortured him, up close, Hatton is a dynamo. And only when it starts do those possibilities wither into an answer, as Pacquiao mows over Hatton: it’s a mismatch. And so you keep watching, shocked, excited, appalled, in the luminous glow of a just violence you never saw coming, as one knockdown becomes two, and Pacquiao whacks him this way and that, until time is running out and the second round is ending and then Hatton, suddenly, is gone. “Though we do tire of the delirium in the streets, we are only tiring of the disorder,” Ted Hoagland wrote. “Make it concise, put ropes or white lines around it, and we will go, we will go, just as people on vacation go down to the roaring sea.”