Antonio Monda stands behind the cutthroat sport—the last stage for the modern epic

Every time I declare my passion for boxing in conversation, I immediately detect a deep sense of shock: “How can you love such a barbaric and violent sport?” And then, at a climax, “It’s brutal, disgusting, and should be abolished.”

“This passion reveals something disturbing,” someone else adds, and the tone is worried, halfway between confusion and commiseration: a statement destined to leave a dent in our relationship.

It would be ridiculous to deny the long series of tragedies that boxing, with its violence, has generated, and ignore the devastation it wreaks on every boxer’s body and psyche. Nevertheless, I believe that this represents the reverse side, not the negation, of the appeal generated by a discipline which transcends the world of sport more than any other: It isn’t by chance that it is the most celebrated athletic discipline across literature, cinema, the arts. I have always been haunted by Barry McGuigan’s statement: “I can’t be a poet. I can’t tell stories”—asking myself what stories this Irish boxer, nicknamed “The Clones Cyclone,” could tell with his punches. And what stories legendary champions have shared through their own pain, their dreams and lives.

The first answer I give my baffled friends is that boxing, for most boxers, is an opportunity for endurance and redemption. As Rocky Graziano stated: “It’s a terrible sport, but it’s a sport… the fight for survival is the fight.”

Thomas Rocco Barbella, his real name, was in and out of jail since he was a kid and was trained by his father Nicola between his stays in prison. He was an excellent boxer, undoubtedly, able to destroy his opponents with a single punch. But he had the bad fortune of boxing in the years of greater champions such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. In his apartment, there was a magnificent photo of him flooring Robinson in the third round of their match. He showed it to me with great pride, emphasizing that he was one of the very few who was able to send Sugar to the canvas, skirting around the fact that Robinson immediately stood up and began to batter him with devastating punches. It was a frightening fight, full of fury and spite, one punch making his gumshield fly into the crowd, and the following putting him out of commission. The photos that he has never shown are those in which he is tangled in the ropes, with the blurry and impotent look of the defeated.

When I see all that fury, and consider their lives before boxing, I am tempted to invite my friends to imagine what kind of life these fighters would have had without the sport. What Mike Tyson once said comes to mind: “I try to catch my opponent on the tip of his nose because I try to punch the bone into his brain.”

“In the ring, you win or lose, like in life. And that doesn’t happen in an indirect way, with a ball or a pair of skis, but in the form of an essential, antique, and eternal fight.”

However, I am the first one left unsatisfied by these arguments, and, trying to delve deeper, believe that it is best to begin by not negating a painful but undeniable truth: Violence is inherent in human beings, and finds, in this discipline, not just an outlet, but also a code.

In an attempt to demonstrate that boxing is a unique and incomparable sport, I like to start by quoting George Foreman: “Boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire.”

With all due respect to Pierre de Coubertin, no one in the world practices sport just to participate; there is no athlete, amateur, or occasional practitioner who doesn’t want to win, or rather, demolish their opponent. Obviously, victory is often nothing more than an illusion destined to become a bitter disappointment, and sometimes it is only a dream lived not too seriously. Still, it is unrealistic, if not hypocritical, to sustain that this is not the common sentiment. And since we are all made of mud, and not only of spirit, victory goes together with the humiliation of the adversary.

I know, it is awful—but it is a hard and embarrassing truth that boxing leads to extreme consequences. There is no image more impactful of this horrible yet very human impulse than the winner with arms raised in the air, while the loser is on the canvas, beaten and filled with shame. Boxing makes us face ourselves, who we truly are, even in our ignominies, because it is the sincerest of sports.

The only other discipline that communicates this sense of domination with similar efficacy is track, and, in fact, the runners who have dominated it are legendary: Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt. However, boxing—for those who take part in it, and those who enjoy it as spectators—has an impact far superior to sprinting.

Leaving the world of sports, we can find something similar in the game of chess. It is revelatory, what Bobby Fischer said: “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” It’s a statement more presentable in form, but in substance, not very different from Tyson’s affirmation, who enjoyed seeing his opponents “cry like babies.” Monstrous statements, I know. But they are nevertheless inevitable in a discipline in which victory is gained through domination. We must ask at what point boxing becomes pure bestiality, and if the revelation of its horrible reality is enough to abolish it—or, instead, if the principle of codification and regularization of violence prevails.

Boxing not only transcends sport, but also ethics: The ring is the only place in the world where a man can kill another without being pursued by the law. Sadly, this has occurred many times, sometimes because of fury provoked by hate. This is the story of Emile Griffith, whose rival Benny “Kid” Paret called maricon (faggot) during the weigh-in. Once in the Madison Square Garden ring, an enraged Griffith punched him 18 consecutive times in the face, and Paret crashed into the ropes, dying after 10 days in a coma. Even a fan like myself is speechless and distressed by a tragedy like this, senseless and without justification.

“My nose was broken six times, my hands six times, a few fractured ribs. Fifty stitches over my eyes. But the only place I got hurt was out of the ring.”

If the climax of provocation, challenge, and vengeance has a narrative of a formidable and tragic impact, violence is far from finding a code and possibly a rule book. In fact, in the ring, it has found its alibi to become unpunishable.

Sometime later, Griffith crossed gloves with Rubin Carter, who destroyed him in a single round; “Hurricane”—Carter’s nickname—was considered by everyone to be the future champion of the world. But not too long after, he was jailed for 18 years for a robbery he didn’t commit. “Here comes the story of the Hurricane / The man the authorities came to blame / For somethin’ that he never done,” sings Bob Dylan, ending his song with, “Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been / The champion of the world.”

Again, it is an outcome with a formidable and tragic narrative impact, that clearly demonstrates what the stories of these boxers really are—proving that boxing is constantly tied to racism, injustice, social discrimination, and, particularly in America, the history of immigration. However, it is tied to redemption, as well: I cannot forget the words of Larry Holmes when he became champion: “I was Black once, when I was poor.”

To this, I will defy anyone to prove to me that the battle between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling would have had the same impact if it had taken place on the tennis courts or in the fencing arena: When “The Brown Bomber” physically demolished Schmeling—championed by Hitler as the example of Aryan superiority—everyone in Harlem took to the streets to celebrate. The radio broadcast was listened to by a hundred million people. What value could we give this event from a political, anthropological, and symbolic point of view? What impact did it have in terms of emancipation? And what to think of the spasmodic search for “the great white hope” among the heavyweights, dominated for decades by Black athletes?

With very rare exceptions, in boxing, a draw is never contemplated: In the ring, you win or lose, like in life. And that doesn’t happen in an indirect way, with a ball or a pair of skis, but in the form of an essential, antique, and eternal fight. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul speaks of boxing to demonstrate the emptiness even in those most extreme of moments. And there is a long list of great authors who have written about what happens inside the ring—putting their characters in a situation in which their choices will forever mark their existence. It is as if boxing, remaining within a human dimension and not above it, takes upon itself the spasm of a world condemned by its own impetus. You can triumph, against everything and everyone, but there is nothing eternal about it, as sooner or later the body decays, and redemption is the prisoner of time. That’s the reason why boxing belongs to the dimension of the epic, as understood by the writers who have written about its most fragile moments: Jack London’s literary gem “A Piece of Steak” is a moving portrait of a man under primordial pressures—hunger, poverty, and honor. Same with “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway: “My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything.”

Even more telling is the way in which boxing is narrated in cinema: Some films are quite extraordinary, while rare and almost modest are the ones about other disciplines. Take Raging Bull: What intrigued Martin Scorsese about Jake LaMotta was that he had only one gift—that of making other people suffer. In the ring, this talent got him the world title; outside, it dragged down his life into tragedy. In his own words, “My nose was broken six times, my hands six times, a few fractured ribs. Fifty stitches over my eyes. But the only place I got hurt was out of the ring.”

“It is as if boxing, remaining within a human dimension and not above it, takes upon itself the spasm of a world condemned by its own impetus. You can triumph, against everything and everyone, but there is nothing eternal about it.”

I have always found masterful how Scorsese transforms into images this intuition, beginning with the opening titles—Robert De Niro warming up before a fight as we listen to the intermezzo of Cavalleria Rusticana. The fighter is still in his robe, and we are unable to see his face, while the background seems an indistinct and hostile place from which explodes, occasionally, a flash: With a touch of genius, Scorsese uses the sound of gunshots. And it is nothing less than anguishing to think that, even in the ring, LaMotta found his nemesis in Sugar Ray Robinson, who defeated him four times out of five—never, however, managing to floor him. “You never got me down, Ray,” he yells, covered with blood and on his feet only through sheer pride. Later, when he ends up in jail, LaMotta punches with fury the cell’s walls, yelling, “I am not an animal!” Few films, like this masterpiece, have synthesized how monstrous, but also how intrinsically fascinating, this discipline is—extreme in its sincerity.

The list of films that recognize the boxing ring as the ideal place for a drama would be long. But the same could be said about figurative art, beginning with George Bellows, who like no one else managed to capture its power and ecstasy. He painted unknown fighters as well as champions like Jack Dempsey, thrown from the ring by Luis Ángel Firpo. Regarding this painting, I have been fascinated by the fact that Bellows shows the fight’s most spectacular moment and not the truth: Like Robinson with Graziano, Dempsey climbed back into the ring and punished without mercy the Argentinian fighter, who, even today, is remembered exclusively for that misleading moment of glory. At this point, I ask myself how we should interpret the expression of the fighter immortalized in the masterful sculpture attributed to Lisippo. Or even Rodin’s: fear, melancholy, pride, concentration? Perhaps all these emotions, and even in this variety dwells the greatness of a sport that demands the truth.

The roots of this evocative and telling power are based in an essentiality which is varied and scientific, despite its appearance of brutal simplicity: A. J. Liebling entitled his most insightful book on the Noble Art The Sweet Science, and explained why boxing is always and foremost epic, beginning with its rituals. No sport can boast of a similar moment as that in which the referee gives the last instructions to the two rivals, who fix each other in the eyes: These are a few seconds of incomparable intensity, that go back to something ancestral, ancient as history and violence itself. In that moment, the two fighters are promising each other nothing else but pain and humiliation, and the match will be won by who manages to withstand the gaze of their rival: a solemn representation of what Sun Tzu theorized in The Art of War: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win,” and also, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Muhammad Ali threw his opponents off balance in this very moment of maximum tension, making fun of them with a scornful smile. He, however, was the greatest genius of boxing, proven by the fact that he was able to defeat fighters almost always stronger than himself, beginning with George Foreman. In every match, even the poorest and most provincial, boxers repeat the challenges of knights and soldiers, ready to do anything for their country, for their honor, and sometimes, for survival. And in every ring are the deeds of Hector and Achilles, of Aeneas and Turnus, of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, repeated. Every boxing fan can have fun, trying to liken each fighter to his literary archetype; I will only say that a great champion like Joe Frazier was fated to find himself before a demigod like Muhammad Ali, and that in every face-off, it is not only the victory or title at stake, but also dignity, and sometimes life itself. Gay Talese’s melancholic portrait of Floyd Patterson is certainly a classic—a fighter with too gentle an expression to be truly great. He was missing the so-called “killer instinct,” and when talking about his losses, he stressed that, “I was never knocked out. I’ve been unconscious, but it’s always been on my feet.” The substance of this story, like the ones by London and Hemingway, shows a reality that is even more poignant in a passage from Joyce Carol Oates’s memorable On Boxing: “I know I’m not a bad fighter. I try so hard at something I like doing. I love boxing. I dream of being a fighter. I see myself winning the title. I don’t know which one. I see myself being picked up, carried around, getting my belt. Sometimes I see it in slow motion.” She adds to this description, only: “A thirty-four year welterweight who has lost nearly all his fights, usually by knock outs.”

“No sport can boast of a similar moment as that in which the referee gives the last instructions to the two rivals, who fix each other in the eyes: These are a few seconds of incomparable intensity, that go back to something ancestral, ancient as history and violence itself.”

I ask myself: What does this fighter love in boxing, and above all, how can he continue to love it? Despite those who are horrified, Oates knows perfectly that, at the heart of every match, even the most brutal, there is out-and-out science, and no one has ever been able to show it like Ali. “The Greatest” was able to change strategy depending on his rival and on his own age: From the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” of his youth—when he annihilated Cleveland Williams in the most perfect fight of all time—to the “rope-a-dope” with which he, 32 years old, faced off with the 25-year-old Foreman, forcing him to the canvas. In When We Were Kings, filmed two decades later, Norman Mailer remembers that, before the fight, all of Ali’s entourage was convinced that his pride would lead him to death through the terrifying blows of Foreman, who had previously destroyed, without any fatigue, both Frazier and Norton, who had defeated Ali before.

There was an atmosphere of mourning, and there were even those who hoped for a last-minute withdrawal. But Ali responded to everyone, “We’re gonna dance tonight.” From that moment on, he was able to enchant even the evening itself, confronting his much more powerful opponent with a strategy different from everyone’s expectations. From the very first round, he attacked without covering himself, burning up Foreman with his speed, with cruel blows, stinging, ceaseless. Then he began taking blows, answering each with a mocking smile and repeating in disdain, “Come on George, show me something. Can’t you fight harder? That ain’t hard. I thought you were the champion. I thought you had punches.”

Mailer wrote The Fight with oozing enthusiasm for that artful strategy, evident from the first exchanges: “He is hitting him with rights. Ali had not punched with such authority in seven years. Champions do not hit other champions with right-hand leads. Not in the first round. It is the most difficult punch. Difficult to deliver and dangerous to oneself.” And then, “Ali darting his expression in one direction while cocking his head in another, then staring at Foreman expression to expression, holding him in the eye, soul to soul, muntu to muntu, hugging his head, peeking through gloves, jamming his armpit, then taunting him on the verge of the ropes, then flying back when Foreman dove forward, tantalizing him, maddening him, looking for all the world as cool as if he were sparring in his bathrobe, now banishing Foreman’s head with the turn of a matador…”

Mailer’s excitement was that of all the spectators present in the Kinshasa stadium, which Ali—with another masterpiece of manipulation—was able to bring on his side, interpreting the role of the brother of the African people in opposition to Foreman, transformed by his narrative into a hateful, brutal Yankee. At every interruption, he fueled the public to yell boma ye—“kill him”—and there wasn’t a spectator who wasn’t united in that chilling cry. After humiliating him, he finished Foreman with a prodigious combination of rights, sending him to the canvas, to quote Mailer again, like “a six foot sixty-four-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news.”

Of course, boxing is violent, barbarous, cruel, even bestial, but it is profoundly, unmistakably, tragically human. And, as such, it reveals our meanness—but also our payback, manipulation, courage, and folly. And blood, domination, fear, and illusion. I don’t believe there’s been any other sport spectacle of the same intensity as the one I just described, and I would say the same of the three matches between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the five between Ray Sugar Robinson and Jake LaMotta, and the two between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, the latter of whom was born a beautiful name, not strong enough to generate fear: Arnold Raymond Cream. And I cannot forget the only fight between “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Thomas “The Cobra” Hearns—three rounds fought by both with the awareness that, in that moment, they were living the most important act of their entire existence. In the ring, boxers adopt war names, like warriors: Mike Tyson becomes “Iron,” Ray Mercer “Merciless,” James Toney “Lights Out,” Larry Holmes “The Easton Assassin.” And if we go back in time, we see that Jack Dempsey presented himself as “The Manassa Mauler,” and Rocky Marciano—who had already changed his name from Rocco Francis Marchegiano—“The Rock from Brockton.” The list is never-ending. Another formidable dramatic element is the distance between the promise of the name and the athlete’s reality, especially with mediocre boxers like Carl Williams, who had chosen “The Truth.”

“Boxing is violent, barbarous, cruel, even bestial, but it is profoundly, unmistakably, tragically human. And, as such, it reveals our meanness—but also our payback, manipulation, courage, and folly.”

This epic dimension is also sealed by labels like “The Rumble in the Jungle” or “The Thrilla in Manila,” the third and most emotional fight between Ali and Frazier. Or “Judgement Day,” which presented the Tyson-Berbick match that lasted only two rounds. It’s evident also in the title Facing Ali, a fascinating book by Stephen Brunt, who narrates what it means to fight a legend.

The epic quality of boxing is recalled even by the defeated, both real and fictional. In the most heartbreaking scene of On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando reproaches his criminal brother, played by Rod Steiger: “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contenda. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Again, boxing is seen as an opportunity, a hope, a proud description of oneself—and it is certainly not casual that Raging Bull ends with Jake LaMotta, who makes a reference to that very film.

Recent stories of bribes that have affected soccer have shown that it is not just boxing that is corrupted. But it doesn’t escape me that the sport has always been tied to criminality. Just think about Frankie Carbo, a gangster affiliated with the Lucchese family, who became a powerful boxing promoter and, together with Blinky Palermo, controlled 12 of Sonny Liston’s matches. It is very likely that the mysterious death of the champion, who Ali called “The Ugly Bear,” was due to his failure to comply with orders received from these two bosses. And about this tragic antihero—one of the most powerful fighters who had ever stepped into the ring—Nick Tosches wrote a book with another epic title, The Devil and Sonny Liston.

Some of the public protagonists have a chilling background: Don King, the most powerful organizer between the 1970s and the 1990s, was jailed for two homicides. In the first case, he shot a guy called Hillary Brown who tried to steal money in a gambling den that he controlled; in the second, he killed with his bare hands Sam Garrett, an employee who owed him $600, whose last words were, “I will give you back the money, Don.”

It was in jail that King fell in love with boxing and had the idea to convince Muhammad Ali to appear for free at a hospital fundraiser in Cleveland. As soon as he left—through a pardon obtained with the support of Jesse Jackson and Coretta King—King began his unstoppable rise in the world of boxing, where he distinguished himself by his ruthlessness, cynicism, brutality, scams, and geniality: This time, I will resist the temptation to consider again what path he would have taken without boxing.

I had observed new sports that seemed a spectacularized degeneration of the Noble Art, if not a pathetic copy. But then, almost abruptly, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder conquered the stage, and in three magnificent fights, reminded us that there still exists a place dedicated to pure epic—not interpreted by saints, but by men capable of heroic and despicable acts, as Homer already had taught us.

While I wait for new epic moments, I don’t know if I have been able to demonstrate why I think boxing is the ultimate sport, and why I continue to follow it with sincere passion, despite being horrified by its corruption and unending tragedies. If my arguments have failed in their intent, I cannot do more than close them with the words from another of my passions, this time literary. Jorge Luis Borges ended “The Shape of the Sword” with the words: “I have told you the story this way so that you would hear it out. […] Now, despise me.”