THE BLOG

Is This the Last Hurrah For the Noble Art?

05/03/2015 11:59 | Updated 04 May 2015

This is the big one, the defining match of this generation, the one they've been waiting for all of these lean years. It'll be up there with Ali versus Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard versus Marvin Hagler, and it may very well be the last of its kind.

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When suddenly last week news broke from the US of how two boxers, who have circled each other for almost a decade, will at last climb through the ropes at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on 2 May to decide who is the best welterweight of the modern era, fight fans could scarcely believe it, having for too long scanned the sports pages with febrile eyes for signs that the entertainment that was once the sweet science was on its way back to its former vaulted position in the sporting firmament.

With the match between the world's two best welterweights - Floyd Mayweather Jr and Manny Pacquiao - now made, a thrill has run through the millions of hibernating fans the world over, for now there comes the remembrance of a form of communal entertainment that today has no equivalent.

Boxing was once the purest form of entertainment with the ears of men and women all attuned to what Norman Mailer called "the fell thonk of fisticuffs" (The Fight, 1975), as were their eyes calibrated to the highly stylised, almost balletic form of combat known as prizefighting.

Men fought under the blaze of TV lights, watched at ringside by A-list film stars whose eyes were no less avid than those of the armchair fans strung out across time zones around the world. When Muhammad Ali fought Frazier in Madison Square Garden in 1971, Burt Lancaster was the fight commentator while Frank Sinatra was the official photographer. And when Ali later fought George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, Soul Brother No.1 James Brown was compelled to attend to headline the musical extravaganza. Similarly, the Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler contest in Las Vegas in 1987 found at ringside Clint Eastwood, Joan Collins and Jack Nicholson among others.

Only boxing has had the power to whip up a frenzy like this, so much so that celebrated masters of literature have also been drawn by the sport's power to mesmerise, be he Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer.

Legendary trainer and tactician Cus D'Amato endorsed Mailer's belief in a similarity between fighters and writers, claiming that a writer has to have discipline, that it was just like going into a fight: "Discipline is the whole thing: you make yourself do what needs to be done no matter how you feel."

Screen legend John Barrymore also once joked that when archaeologists discovered the missing arms of the Venus de Milo they would find she was wearing boxing gloves.

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But such a pan-generational appeal requires some explanation. Perhaps the answer lies in how a boxer risks humiliation to succeed and, in doing so, does what we would rather avoid. Therein lies the attraction: that someone other than ourselves can take the risks that we choose not to, with guts and in search of glory. We can live vicariously through the boxer in a way no other celebrity can inspire. The boxer's ambitions are undisguised and we wish we could all be as dedicated, courageous or as assertive as he. His refusal to quit is to be admired. He springs from the pages of the fable that Aesop neglected to write.

"Boxing unites people across the social spectrum," said the late Dean Powell, and the excitement currently being whipped up that will reach a crescendo by 2 May is ample proof of the enduring appeal of this entertainment of entertainments, despite the nature of entertainment having changed over the decades as, perhaps, the power of cinema has been diminished by a resurgent television industry.

The purse of $300 million, to be split between Mayweather and Pacquiao, is almost an abstraction, a figure named more as an insurance policy than as a bounty, and if the record-breaking box office receipts for the Mayweather/Pacquiao rumble is a sign of the sport's everlasting appeal, then perhaps author Joyce Carol Oates was correct when she surmised that "boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity...which is all the more trenchant for its being lost".

But all things considered, there can be only one winner on the night of 2 May, and it comes by the name of Entertainment.

Photo 1 of Floyd Mayweather Jr by DeWalt Power Tools Fight Night Club 2010
Photo 2 of Manny Pacquiao by inboundpass