One night in New York, a brawl erupted just a few rows in front of where I was sitting at Madison Square Garden. About a dozen guys were hammering the hell out of each other, punching and kicking in a frenzy of violence that could easily have spread to where I sat frozen, heart racing, eyes riveted on the impromptu melee.
But despite the proximity of the altercation, my companions and I were safe, considered noncombatants because we were neither Puerto Ricans nor Dominicans, the nationalities of the warring parties. I forget whether it was the Dominican or Puerto Rican boxer who got the benefit of the decision that started the fracas, but jingoistic pride was clearly at the heart of the matter.
An activity in which human beings willingly sacrifice their bodies for the entertainment of others has created a primordial petri dish in which extreme behavior of all kinds flourishes. Similar emotions are at play in other sports, of course, but no other athletic competition lights a fuse quite like boxing.
Can you imagine Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic trading insults before the Wimbledon championship the way Dereck Chisora and Malik Scott did during a media event to hype this Saturday's fight in London? You simply don't hear such inflammatory comments as "I'm going to f--- you up" and "You kiss men at weigh-ins, boy" in any sport except boxing.
That's partly because there are no buffers between action and intent. It's a fight -- a common denominator that all living creatures understand and respond to in predictable ways. But besides the actual fights, perhaps the most politically incorrect aspect of boxing is that it's OK to identify with a nation or race and openly root for your own.
And why not? It's only human nature, an echo from the past that still strikes a chord deep within us. There was a time when the strongest man in the village was also the leader, the people's champion in the truest sense of the term. He was the one responsible for protecting the tribe and leading the charge against pillaging marauders.
Today, police forces and professional armies do most of the heavy lifting, but we still send forth our champions in the guise of sports heroes, and no athletic endeavor cuts closer to the bone of mortal combat than boxing.
Blood feuds between fighters from different geographical locations -- whether they are nations, cities or neighborhoods -- have always been a significant part of boxing's allure and are usually a surefire winner at the box office.
There's also a tendency to reduce fighters of certain nationalities and ethnic backgrounds to stereotypes: Mexicans are one-dimensional, Puerto Ricans are quitters, Eastern Europeans are robotic, Brits have china chins, Filipinos are insulted when the other guy misses. There's a standard putdown and a countering compliment for boxers from every corner of the globe, and maybe a dab of truth in all of them. But only a dab.
There are countless exceptions to the rule, but they have failed to dislodge these widespread misconceptions. Consequentially, facile generalities are part of the sport's shorthand, regurgitated regardless of merit. It's boxing's version of racial profiling, but nobody is arrested or deported -- just incongruously pigeonholed.
Due to the appalling history of slavery, segregation and institutional racism, boxing matches between black fighters and members of other races have always had a sharper edge than other pairings. From Jack Johnson and Jim Jefferies to Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney, the black-versus-white confrontation has been boxing's most polarizing dynamic. Although flagrant racism is no longer the norm, bigotry still lurks just below the surface.
"I would never let a white boy beat me," bellowed Bernard Hopkins when he encountered future opponent Joe Calzaghe in the media room the weekend of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Ricky Hatton fight.
There were perfunctory expressions of dismay at Hopkins' distasteful outburst, but by and large, fans and boxing people laughed and moved on, hungry for the next outrage of some sort or another. After all, what's boxing without a never-ending series of politically incorrect events?
In a delicious twist of fate, these days black fighters are frequently the perpetrators of the sort of ugly treatment they once endured. For example, before their mooted bout died a slow, agonizing death, Mayweather unleashed a spiteful barrage of racial and homophobic slurs at Manny Pacquiao.
There's a measure of irony in Mayweather's tirades. Although widely considered the best fighter of his generation, Mayweather doesn't think he gets the credit he deserves and chafes at the notion that he hasn't always fought the best available competition.
It has been suggested in some quarters that Mayweather has been the victim of racial bias, and had he been a white or Latino fighter with exactly the same ring (and criminal) record, he would be showered with universal adoration. I'll leave it to readers to decide how much credence to give that theory, but even the most ardent Mayweather fan would have to admit that Floyd has frequently been his own worst enemy in his crusade for all-encompassing love.
Mayweather's recent promotional tour with Canelo Alvarez was probably an eye-opener for him. Although the junket was wildly successful and large crowds turned out to see the fighters at every stop, in many locales Alvarez's popularity equaled or surpassed Mayweather's.
The undercurrent is already there, but regardless of whether the prefight buildup eventually takes on more of a Mexican-versus-African-American flavor, it's hard to imagine Mayweather lasting until Sept. 14 without saying something staggeringly inappropriate. And actually, a lot of folks would be terribly disappointed if he didn't. Without his obnoxious "Money" persona, Mayweather would be almost as boring as most of his fights.
So why isn't boxing beholden to the same rules of etiquette as the rest of society? How has it managed to remain so magnificently uncouth at a time of such heightened sensitivities?
The answer is both simple and complex: Although boxing exists in a parallel universe where unbridled braggadocio, hate talk, racial insults and xenophobia are commonplace, there is a compelling counterweight to all the crudity and questionable behavior.
In its own peculiar way, boxing is one of the few remaining strongholds of honesty in a world of hypocrisy. It's a raw and often brutal kind of honesty, but honesty nonetheless. There are no ambiguities when the bell rings. In spite of mismatches, poor officiating and shabby scoring, the truth, whatever it might be, will reveal itself during the course of a fight.
Yes, boxing stretches the bounds of propriety to a degree unmatched outside a war zone, but an insult aimed at an adversary is likely to boomerang once punches begin to fly. Moreover, the knockout is boxing's instant karma, an unequivocal and wholly satisfying outcome rarely experienced in everyday life. It is this unforgiving reality that breeds respect, a commodity far more valuable than the veneer of civility that governs conduct beyond the subculture of prizefighting.
Its most obvious manifestation is the postfight embrace between fighters who, just seconds before, had been doing their level best to pummel each other into oblivion. But above and beyond a sign of camaraderie born of conflict, the warrior's embrace is recognition of the fact that what they've created together matters just as much, if not more, than who prevails.
Boxing invites both participants and observers to take part in an ancient ritual in which convention is cast aside in search of a deeper truth. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. But if you want to join the hunt, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty.