The great delusion of boxing

Suspending disbelief is par for the course for fighter or fan in this fantasy world

Updated: January 22, 2014, 4:44 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

It has been said that the truth will set you free, but in boxing an axiom often attributed to the Talmud is far more appropriate: "We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are."

I had never really thought much about these opposing worldviews until 1988, when I published an article in The Ring titled "The Horror Of Kid Chocolate." British journalist Jonathan Rendell, who was going to Cuba to cover amateur boxing for the BBC, wanted to know if there was something he could write for The Ring while he was there.

At first glance, it seems a great irony that an undertaking as terrifyingly tangible as prizefighting is such fertile ground for make-believe. But it's the in-your-face violence and the primordial nature of boxing that fires the imagination and creates such an intoxicating mix of fact and fancy.

The answer popped out of my mouth before I had a chance to think. I told him that I wasn't really interested in the amateur scene, but if he could find Kid Chocolate, I would be thrilled to use the piece.

Not only did Rendell and photographer Andrew Palmer find Chocolate, they combined their considerable talents to create, in my opinion, a brilliant piece of journalism and, in all likelihood, Kid Chocolate's last interview. The former junior lightweight champion, whose given name was Eligio Sardinas Montalvo, died on Aug. 8, 1988, just a few months after it was conducted.

After several false starts, Rendell and Palmer discovered the erstwhile "Cuban Bon Bon" in a pitiful state, sick and living in squalid conditions in a decrepit mansion that smelled like a sewer. The old fighter agreed to an interview in exchange for a bottle of rum, which resulted in a marvelously evocative but ultimately tragic picture of a man who was once the toast of boxing.

Not long after the issue hit the streets, I began to receive angry phone calls and letters from readers who demanded to know why I had tarnished the legend of a great fighter by publishing such a mortifying article. The fact that the accompanying photographs were proof that the article was both genuine and accurate didn't matter. A significant number of readers simply didn't want to know the truth.

The incident was the genesis of my understanding that there is delusion on both sides of the ring ropes, and that fighters and fans alike suspend disbelief to one degree or another in order to participate and/or enjoy boxing. In other words, boxing is partly a fantasy world populated by dreamers who choose, either consciously or subconsciously, to ignore many of the realities inherent in what British writer Hugh McIlvanney christened "the hardest game."

[+] EnlargeEvander Holyfield
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesEvander Holyfield became just another example of a once-great fighter carrying on well past his prime despite the real dangers in front of him.

This mindset assumes many forms, some relatively benign and others potentially fatal. While virtually all fighters will readily admit that boxing is extremely dangerous, the vast majority of them seem to be in denial and take an it-won't-happen-to-me attitude. The reason for this is easy enough to understand: They couldn't participate effectively otherwise. If all boxers entered the ring worried about being killed or suffering brain damage, a promoter would be hard-pressed to find enough fighters to fill a card.

Countless boxers fight past their primes because they need the money, and many of them are delusional about their prospects. In recent years, Evander Holyfield has been the most prominent victim of this fallacy. His insistence that he could reunite the heavyweight title more than a decade into his decline was an illusion of quixotic proportions, which is, I suppose, only fitting for an overachiever who had made a career of proving people wrong.

Holyfield, of course, is far from the only great fighter to carry on after reaching a point where it would have been wiser to retire. It's as common as bloody noses and black eyes. Losses themselves seldom convince a boxer to pack it in -- there's always some rationale or another that convinces him to keep going. In the end, it is usually a severe beating (think Rocky Marciano-Joe Louis and Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali) that finally forces a fighter to recognize that he has been fooling himself.

The common practice of padding of a boxer's record with a multitude of easy wins creates another familiar illusion, one that has been known to sucker fighters and fans alike. Artificial record are mirages -- visions that promise much but ultimately let you down.

Arguably the most egregious instance of this practice would be Primo Carnera, who was managed by underworld characters that fed him a string of no-hope opponents and outright fixes. While boxing insiders and savvy fans knew what was going on, the general public, its imagination inflamed by newspaper reporters on the take, ate it up.

"The Ambling Alp" was a huge attraction both figuratively and literary, and managed to win the heavyweight title by knocking out Jack Sharkey under circumstances that were dodgy at best. Two fights later the former circus strongman was exposed and utterly destroyed by Max Baer, who knocked the Italian giant down 11 times to take the title.

[+] EnlargePrimo Carnera
Hirz/Getty ImagesThe common practice of padding a boxer's record was never done more egregiously than in the case of former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera.

Sean O'Grady, who was managed by his father, is a more recent example of a built-up fighter whose first real fight was also his first defeat. After 29 straight victories over a string of nonentities, including a waiter working at the venue where the fight took place, "The Bubblegum Kid" came a cropper when Danny Lopez knocked him out in the fourth round.

O'Grady returned to the stiff circuit after the Lopez defeat, but unlike Carnera, he actually had some fighting ability and eventually won a lightweight title, only to lose it in his maiden defense. With a more credible apprenticeship, O'Grady may very well have achieved more.

Although fighters ultimately suffer for their delusions, fans are pretty much free to let their imaginations overrun rational thought whenever it's convenient. After all, the only way they can take a beating is at the betting window.

Being a boxing fan is primarily about hero worship, which is a big part of the reason people often become bullheaded and refuse to consider dissenting opinions. The social media war between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao supporters has driven home the point like never before.

Arguments about the merits of opposing boxers used to take place in locations such as barrooms, barbershops and office water coolers. The advent of the Internet, however, has given people a forum that exposes their views to a far wider audience. It has also given them an anonymity that allows them to express themselves in a manner they probably wouldn't have the guts to use in the presence of those who disagree.

Calling rival Pacquiao or Mayweather fans an unsavory term to their face would most likely elicit a much sterner response than an equally idiotic Internet posting. To the fans who indulge in this sort of behavior, there are no shades of gray. It is a myopic attitude perfectly suited to the ultimate fantasy realm -- otherwise known as the digital world.

There is, nevertheless, a positive side to the passion generated by hero worship: It fills seats and sells pay-per-views. Most Canelo Alvarez enthusiasts probably didn't seriously evaluate their man's chance of handing Mayweather his first pro defeat. Their infatuation with Alvarez was so powerful, all other considerations were irrelevant.

To a lesser degree, the same could be said of the 20,479 customers who turned out to watch Jean Pascal dominate Lucian Bute at the Bell Centre last Saturday. Much of the boxing world considered it a match that had exceeded its shelf life, but to Montreal's boxing faithful that didn't matter one iota. The lure of the local rivalry trumped any thought of where the fighters were at that point of their careers.

The media is complicit in keeping boxing's make-believe world alive and thriving. Currently, the pound-for-pound ratings are the most popular form of this sort of thing. Due to the fact many of the fighters are in different divisions and would never fight each other under any circumstances, P4P ratings are an arena of the mind, not of the corporal world in which we live and breathe.

Pound-for-pound is a term that was coined to describe Sugar Ray Robinson because, although he was clearly the best fighter in the world, he was not a heavyweight champion. Consequently, he was the best, pound-for-pound.

The proliferation of weight classes and so-called champions has resulted in a much broader use to the term and the invention of P4P ratings. They are, for many people, a way to delineate the best fighters, but that doesn't make them any more real than the Easter Bunny. Pound-for-pound ratings are just something we made up in an attempt to make sense of a sport run amok.

[+] EnlargePascal
Eric Bolte/USA TODAY SportsThe lure of the local rivalry between Montreal stars Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute trumped any reality of where both fighters are in their careers.

Dream fights between fighters in the same weight classes from different eras never go out of style. It's a fun exercise and great debate fodder, but they are just another flight of fancy with no application in the material world. Unlike some of boxing's delusions, dream fights fall into the no-harm, no-foul category. Still, many of the comments posted in regard to the recent series of dream fights on this website make it clear that a sizable portion of readers took them far more seriously than warranted.

There is, nevertheless, an upside to this routine recycling of legendary fighters. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "The boxing past exists in an uncannily real and vital relationship with the present … it is as if by way of the most strenuous exigencies of the physical self a boxer can -- sometimes -- transcend the mere physical; he can, if he's lucky, be absolved of his mortality."

At first glance, it seems a great irony that an undertaking as terrifyingly tangible as prizefighting is such fertile ground for make-believe. But it's the in-your-face violence and the primordial nature of boxing that fires the imagination and creates such an intoxicating mix of fact and fancy. Some of it is good and some of it is bad, and we each make up our minds which is which. For in boxing, as much as anywhere else, we see the world as we are.

And if I had to do it all over again, I would still publish the Kid Chocolate article. That's just the way I am, just the way I see it.

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