Article first appeared in Big Write Hook Magazine: Round 2
Heart. Every successful fighter must have it. Not the pumping organ of all human kind. The intangible metaphor; heart as the mythical adjective for the invisible and yet essential quality all fighters are assumed to possess.
Other terms are coined to define this unquantifiable; courage, guts, balls. Words you will read and hear in the tumult of a boxing match and in the aftermath, when the cups and broken dreams are swept away in search of the reasons and excuses for success and defeat.
Beneath the spotlight of a more dispassionate scrutiny, away from the heat of the moment, from the promoters hyperbole, ‘heart’ proves a more elusive quarry.
What is it? How can it be proven, can it be measured, developed, lost or restored?
Convention dictates that true greatness demands a fighter must summon, more than once, this inner force, delve deep within. If his career does not require it, if his own brilliance or favourable match making doesn’t expose him to the requisite crisis, does not insist on the demonstration of its presence, then the fighter’s reputation is forever qualified by the absence of its use.
However luminous the career, irrespective of a fighter’s dominance, the question of whether he has heart always remains. The ‘heart’ question never stops beating. “Yeh, but has he had a gut check? Has he dealt with adversity? When has he had to dig deep and show heart?” It is why the untouchable Roy Jones Jnr. was maligned even at his zenith, it was all too easy for him, and it is an asterisks which haunts his natural successor, Floyd Mayweather, too. Without a display of heart, of grit and gumption in the eye of a storm, fighters like Jones and Mayweather can fail to reach us, the fans, on a sensory or emotional level.
Perhaps this disconnection reveals more of the observers’ weakness and vulnerability than ever it can of the subject, on those on whom we impose the demand. Every fighter who steps between the ropes, from the gladiators of the past to artisans of the modern day, by definition are daring to venture to places we fear to tread whether they are ever required to rally from a knockdown, a cut or a standing count or not. Faced with physical confrontation, with the threat of harm prizefighters walk toward, many of us, as nature decrees, will take flight or freeze and a few will choose to fight. These few march toward the danger, volunteering themselves to the risk when most feel compelled only by survival. Escape. Self-preservation.
Boxers claim our interest through this willingness to fight. To endure. Most of us have kicked or thrown a ball or run a race but few have donned the gloves or even had a fist fight in the playground. Boxing is an absolute, both in its individualism and the simplicity of its premise. A solitary metric of one man being better than his opponent. Stripped to the waist, beneath the glare of the lights, offering himself and what he has, what he is, to an unknown congregation. There are few escapes from the jury of triumph and loss. Boxing offers none of the hiding places afforded by team sports and the pain and suffering of victory can look remarkably similar to that of defeat. And a contest is often an individual and unique moment in time. Few rematches. No seasons. No leagues. Knockout sport. By name and nature.
And it is in the avatar of that which we wish to be that these fighters exist in our minds. And why they are afforded such reverence. In their willingness to fight, to risk, to dare and to sacrifice, our hearts are captured in their display of their own. It is why we loathed Chris Eubank until he leapt two weight classes to fight the thunderous Carl Thompson and lost, why we adored the sight of Nigel Benn climbing back up the stairs to walk down Gerald McLellan when bludgeoned down and out of the ring by the fearsome American and why Sir Henry, his face a veil of blood, was Our ‘Enry. Despite the odds, despite themselves. When they acted on heart, with heart.
To go forward when all is seemingly lost, to persevere in the face of immeasurable danger, to resist the clamour of the body to stop, to continue in the most brutal of all sporting operas, that is where the heart of boxing is, where greatness is revealed and the associated awe we feel is found.
It is why no fighter’s career is entirely complete until they’ve shown it, it is why Arturo Gatti is beloved in a way the technically superior Floyd Mayweather can never be.
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