Boxing is an arduous and often merciless undertaking. It rescues souls, the broken, the lost and plucks the willing from chaos and poverty. This is the romantic trope we swaddle the sport in. The fable those vested in the sport’s continuation dispense in response to difficult questions in the aftermath of a boxer’s death. Like many mantras or acts of faith, repeated enough, the conviction in it’s validity can grow. Manipulating the meaning of events, seeking out evidence to fit the convenience of the narrative and in the doing so, soothe the twitching needle of our collective moral compass.
There is truth within the fables of course. Pugilistic folk lore is laden with examples of those who found a pathway to self-respect, control and, occasionally, financial security but even their stories barely conceal the reality of the long term damage fighters accrue. Boxing, the sport, the game, the occupation, is, at its core, a transaction. Give and take. An inescapable yin and yang. Success for x, means pain for y.
The deaths of Maxim Dadeshev, 28, and Hugo Santillan, 23, following punishing contests last weekend brought the eyes of the world and a tsunami of familiar disdain to boxing’s door. Visitors to our peculiar eco-system should be embraced, not eluded or dismissed, for their potential for objective perspective could be cathartic for a sport betrothed to ‘snake-oil’ salesman and spivs.
Once described by George Foreman “as the sport to which all others aspire”, boxing continues to fail in its attempts to self-regulate. Market economics and self regulation are rarely a partnership to serve the greater good. The sport’s establishment preys on fighters, on their weakness, selling their strength and courage as a commodity while failing to protect them or catch their tears.
For far too long there has been little journalistic rigour at work in the sport. Malevolence, incompetence, opportunism. All three are rampant predators to the well being of fighters. A body of men not without sin themselves of course, they may be portrayed as the “hooker with a heart’ but it is only the fighter who ingests illegal substances or dehydrates themselves to make weight after all. A choice, only they can ultimately make. In an era of marginal gains, the camouflage of pseudo-science has brought forth an epidemic of performance enhancing drugs, if they were not always present of course. It would be remiss to exonerate the fighters themselves.
Dependence on main stream media, as it is in so many walks of life, is over. In to this vacuum, where once media of independent means could pose uncomfortable questions, promoters and sanctioning bodies are able to manicure content to suit their agenda and curate the ‘media’ permitted to access their fighters. This creates a perverse landscape in which promoters ask all the questions at press conferences and sanctioning bodies adapt their own rules to suit the commercial imperative. The fedoras and violin cases may have gone, but it remains an unruly mob at the helm.
Boxing ‘news’ is now largely conveyed to the public via the conduit of social media and video interview, the latter especially subservient and compliant to the whimsy of those they cover. Death does still have the power to prick the balloon of this unsavoury status quo. Forcing introspection. A re-calibration of outlook. But the pause is all too fleeting.
It will not bring about the death of boxing. Nor would I advocate it should.
However, it would insult those who have fallen in pursuit of their dream to deny that the inherent danger, the risk, isn’t quintessential to its enduring magnetism. Words have always been used to sanitise the violent reality at boxing’s heart. The ‘noble art’, the ‘sweet science’ are both affected descriptives that seek to disguise the truth. To persuade dissenters of the skill and geometry required to succeed. In times of crisis the sport’s advocates, and I’m one, construct a notion of nobility by pointing to the sacrifice required to compete and succeed, but in doing so succeed only in substantiating the accusations. Sacrifice is easy to expect if you are not connected to those who endure it.
Danger is inherent to participation. Damage the incidental music to boxing’s barbaric dialogue and while boxing offers security to some, a patriarchy that empowers, but, like the Athenian mythology with which it shares its birthplace, it an inevitability of the plot that it also kills it’s sons.
Death, the most unwelcome villain, is thankfully rare. Nevertheless, the reaper’s presence is manifestly felt. A looming menace the principle characters are forced to acknowledge only in the event of a preceding tragedy but one which differentiates boxing from almost all other sporting pursuits.
The deaths of Davashan and Santillan need reverberate linger than the traditional day or two. Demand of all of us a reassessment of the sport”s infrastructure, process and regulation. Requiring those with the power to make change to return fighter safety to the primary position in decision making and to ensure the creep of commercial interest doesn’t obscure that priority.
For while the greater good of boxing’s bigger picture, the message we preach at these points of tragedy does hold true, Maxim and Hugo were fathers, husbands, brothers and sons.
For their families and loved ones, they were the greater good.