This will be about boxing, but let’s start with a college football moment: I am writing a book about Joe Paterno, and so last week I was at the Penn State-Alabama game, a game that Alabama won convincingly and with relatively little trouble. There is little doubt in my mind that Alabama is much better than Penn State, but there was an interesting play early in the game. Penn State led 3-0, and Alabama had fourth down and a yard from its own territory. Nick Saban called for a fake punt, which Penn State was obviously expecting. The Nittany Lions swarmed the ball-carrier and celebrated wildly after seeming to stop him short of the first down. The Alabama players seemed dejected. It was a scene. But then while all that was going on one Alabama player, I’m not sure who, wandered over to the ball and and realized that it was spotted beyond the first-down marker. And — I still smile thinking of this — he sheepishly signaled “first down” toward his sideline. Alabama went on to score.
The point, though, is not the questionable call. I don’t know if the officials marked it right or not; replays suggested that it was a generous spot, maybe even a magnanimous one, but hey, bad spots are a part of football. It might have been a bad spot on a Frank Gifford run that led to John Unitas’ famous comeback drive in the 1958 NFL Championship Game that changed pro football forever. My point isn’t the spot at all. My point is that after the play, the tackle, the celebration, the crew brought out the chains, stretched them out purposefully, and showed that it was indeed and inarguably a first down.
Of course, it wasn’t the chains that gave Alabama the first down. It was the spot. The chains in football give the game the ILLUSION of precision. The chains are exactly 10 yards long (I assume, though measuring them would be fun), and when you bring them out you offer the mirage of exactness. Is he short of the first down? Bring out the chains. Yes! He’s short by a half-an-inch! Amazing. You can see it right there on your TV screen! Short by a half-an-inch! But, of course, this is all ceremony and spectacle; if the official had spotted the ball half-an-inch more downfield, it would have been a first down. Nobody can believe that an official can see 22 bodies crashing and consistently mark the ball EXACTLY where progress was stopped. But it’s OK because those chains offer a precision we as football fans want to believe in.
At big-time boxing matches — like Saturday’s fight between Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz — many people wear tuxedoes. Have you ever wondered about that? It’s so odd, if you think about it: Hey, let’s go watching two people beat the hell out of each other … no, wait, hold on, I have to put on my tuxedo first.
Boxing is my father’s favorite sport by quite a lot, and so I have grown up with it. I have periodically loved boxing, hated boxing, been obsessed by boxing and ignored boxing. But all the while, I’ve been fascinated by its illusions and customs that somehow make it all feel more life-affirming than, yes, two strong, well-trained fighters beating the hell out of each other. The tuxedoes give boxing class. Furious punches have less than furious names attached to them — that’s not a flat, hard punch to the nose, it’s just a “jab.” A fighter doesn’t have his senses hammered out of him, no, he is “stunned,” as if he just heard the news that Charlie Sheen isn’t on Two and a Half Men anymore. The person responsible for stopping bleeding so the fight may continue has the childlike title of “the cut man.”
Boxing through the years — and with fading irony — has been called “The Sweet Science.” Two of the best ever were nicknamed “Sugar,” another was called “Marvelous,” which is the sort of upscale word to describe a particularly good bowl of potato salad. The biggest fights have tuxedoes, celebrities, luminaries, gorgeous women carrying cards between rounds — no, this doesn’t have to be two men beating the hell out of each other, it could be a Vegas show where people impersonate Streisand and Elvis. The only thing missing is Don Rickles to open; though if you think about it ring announcers really are like opening acts there to whip up the crowd.
UFC, in many ways, has stripped those conventions from boxing — along with much of the dizzying corruption and disorder — and has an intense fan base. But it’s not a mainstream fan base, not yet anyway. I know this because the Applebee’s near our old house in Kansas City put up a sign announcing it would no longer show UFC fights. I think the reason is that UFC celebrates its violence — a cage, quick finishes, open-fingered gloves.
But boxing dresses its violence in tuxedoes. Take boxing gloves. Many experts will tell you that the gloves actually make the sport much more dangerous because they cushion blows just enough to extend the battering, and it’s persistent battering that might cause serious damage. But, see, it doesn’t LOOK that way. The gloves give boxing the appearance of a gentlemanly pursuit. Look, they’re wearing gloves. They don’t REALLY want to hurt each other. Oh, right, of course, they DO want to hurt each other, they want to knock each other unconscious, they want to pummel their opponents body until they can no longer breathe, they no, not not really, not long term, it’s all just a show, see. If it was really about blood and mutilation and what Frank Deford once called “something dark in our souls,” then, uh, why would those guys be wearing gloves … and tuxedoes?
I thought about this Saturday night when Mayweather knocked out Ortiz in a rather unpleasant way. You know the details, but quickly: This was a much-hyped fight in an era where few boxing matches break through the sports filter. Mayweather has never lost a fight but he apparently has never gotten his due for various reasons that are too complicated to get into here. Ortiz was welterweight champion under under one organization or another, though it is probably true that YOU are champion of some weight class and just haven’t been told yet. There was a lot of effort to make this fight sound competitive, though people who know about boxing generally suggested that Ortiz wasn’t in Mayweather’s class. The only real mystery involved Mayweather, who had not fought in more than a year, still had his boxing skills. The gamblers thought so: Mayweather consistently stayed as an 8-to-1 favorite.
I did not pay the $483,439,268 dollars to get the fight on pay-per-view, but best I can tell from reports and discussion it went more or less according to plan. Mayweather battered Ortiz for three rounds, outclassed him, and even though the crowd was decidedly pro Ortiz, there was little to cheer. Then, in the fourth round, Ortiz had his first (and it turns out, only) moment of glory when he pinned Mayweather against the ropes, banged away, and this ended up, according to our own Bryan Armen Graham, “whipping the crowd into the white-noise wall of sound only championship fights can produce.”
But it was the end of that round where everything broke down. Ortiz — and I don’t want to assign motivation here because we can’t know really anyone’s motivation, but frustration seems as likely as anything — shoved Mayweather in to ropes and deliberately head butted him. The irrepressible referee Joe Cortez, who I believe has refereed every single fight of the last 20 years that Mills Lane could not attend, stopped the fight to give Mayweather a moment to recover and to take a point away from Ortiz. At that point Ortiz — who was either mortified by what he had done or wanted everyone to think so — went in to hug Mayweather and kiss him on the cheek. And in the next instant, they touched gloves, but Ortiz seemed to be waiting for Cortez to restart the fight. Mayweather did not wait. He crushed Ortiz with a left and then followed with a savage right that left Ortiz on the canvas for a long time after the fight was over and Mayweather was declared the new champion. All the while, the crowd screamed.
There has already been a lot of talk about it, about Mayweather breaking the bonds of sportsmanship, about Ortiz forgetting boxing’s first rule (protect yourself at all times), about Cortez taking his eye off the ball. I don’t think there’s much really to be learned about life in all of that. But I have to say, this whole thing kind of cracks me up. Think about the absurdity of it all. Two men hit each other over and over again for sport. This is fine. They hit each other again and again for the roar of the crowd that smells blood and, in its exuberance, all apologies to Bryan, can create a white-wall of sound that probably was also produced by fights between Christians and lions. This too is fine. Then, one of the two men purposely cracks the other with a head butt. This is not fine, but the man is punished for this indiscretion with the removal of a point so it’s all even. The culprit accepts this one-point punishment as just deserts and offers a hug and a kiss as an apology. The two men then touch gloves and the man who was head butted bashes the other in the face so hard that he cannot get up for a long time.
If you are scoring at home, it’s the last that is the sportsmanship faux pas.