How Boxing Lives and Dies
Yesterday I was in a place where there were TVs going with the sound off. I was doing something else, so I only paid attention to the TVs out of the corner of my eye. But I began to pay closer attention when I noticed that there was a fight on one of them. It was the middle of the day, and the camera kept cutting away from the fight to show people emoting in the crowd, so I assumed that it was a soap opera. Also, it looked like a soap opera. It had the flat appearance, the stodgy camera, the profusion of inert middle-distance shots, the look of cheapness that all says "soap opera" from a mile away. When the camera cut away from the fight to characters in the crowd, they were standing in little pools of bright light, with the area around them left dark for contrast. They waved their arms and tried to look caught up in the action, but they appeared to be overacting like silent-movie stars, complete with gnawing lips and widened eyes to indicate suspense. It didn't look anything at all like a real fight scene. They weren't even cursing the ref.
But the fighters looked like real fighters. You couldn't see enough of each round to score it--just flurries of action lasting a few seconds--but they were really fighting, and they showed at least basic competence. I got to thinking that it spoke well of this soap opera's producers that they had gone to the trouble to get a couple of real fighters to go through the motions so strenuously. Usually, from what little I've seen of them, the action sequences on soap operas--say, a band of unshaven foreigners rushing in to capture the beautiful young nurse and imprison her on a desert island until she can be saved by the square-jawed doctor who is, in reality, her long-lost amnesiac husband, who suddenly remembers all when struck on the head by a falling styrofoam boulder during the big rescue scene--are as gloriously contrived as a seventh grader's self-produced action-movie spoof on youtube. But these guys were really fighting. I started wondering how it had come to pass that they were on a soap opera, and I started wondering if there was maybe even an interesting magazine piece to do on it...
Then I realized that what I was watching was a rerun of The Contender. I had successfully avoided it so far, but it had caught up with me at last. I think I know now why I have been avoiding it, and why I found it so depressing. The Contender is a reasonably thought-through effort to make boxing attractive to regular TV viewers. The formula makes a certain network sense: take appealing young men, generate melodrama by exploring their hopes and fears and family lives and backgrounds, then put them in the ring with each other, reducing the actual fight to just the "good parts": exchanges, scoring blows, action that looks like action even to the most casual viewer. Use fighters and fights as the raw material out of which to construct a story, in other words, that cuts out the day job, the waiting around, the endless repetitions in the gym, the learning, the clinches, the long stretches in which two opponents' styles fail to mesh explosively.
Makes sense, sort of. But what's left isn't boxing. Action without context is a higlight reel, and even a highlight reel of edited-together knockout punches--supposedly the most exciting thing that can happen in a boxing match--is interesting for at most twenty seconds; then it's thuddingly dull. A knockout punch without the context of the fight around it is like a home run without the baseball game around it--not just the game's superficially exciting parts, but also the breaks between half-innings, the long futile foul-ball-filled at-bats, the pause while a relief pitcher trots in and warms up, all the routine texture of the game from which the well-hit ball suddenly soars free, elevating everyone as it rises.
So, to come back to Frank's post about the long-discussed demise of boxing, I would agree with Charles and others that boxing isn't going to die anytime soon, and may be no more unhealthy today than 20 years ago, but I will say that The Contender represents one way in which boxing might die: to the extent that it's reduced to "material." The Contender represents what happens to boxing when it falls into the hands of people with money and influence who are fundamentally afraid of boxing--afraid that nobody would want to watch a real fight, afraid that it's too much work to endure the parts when somebody isn't getting nailed right on the jaw or at least staging a crying jag, afraid that people would get bored in the same way that, say, the crowds attending NBA games are assumed to get bored during even a minute-long time-out if clowns aren't bouncing on trampolines while shooting nerf balls into the upper deck with rocket launchers. But, of course, The Contender is not the only boxing on TV. If it was, boxing would by dying. Try the Spanish-language channels, for instance. There are some hard-ass little guys boxing up a storm over there. You don't need to be able to speak Spanish--nor do you need to see any trumped-up footage in which the fighters fake their way through soul-baring assessments of their own hopes and dreams--to see that.