The Wall that Leapt and Followed
You know our very own boxing correspondent Shoefly, who writes more regularly for The Rumble. You also likely know there's a huge fight this weekend. Here are his thoughts on the matter.
I’ve been developing this theory recently that for the truly great athletes there are two types of mentalities that allow them to achieve. I call them the secular and the religious but those names are just placeholders. For the secular athlete the competition is an act of will, a battle within oneself to drive out doubt and that awful divide between mind and body to force oneself to become an instrument of honed perfection. The best example of this is Muhammed Ali, who used his talking and bravado to create a psychic wall, a self-hypnosis that allowed him to go beyond pain and the constraints of the physical.
The level of narcissism necessary to reach this point borders on madness, and though it isn’t always accompanied by Ali’s talking and showmanship I think a key component is contempt. A bitter reckoning that the person opposite doesn’t deserve to be there, that they are beneath one’s dignity. It is a horrible pride, but I imagine it allows for a motivation and fullness of purpose unreachable to those with manifest doubts. This pressure, this belief, it brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, who said, “she would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It’s a way of convincing oneself that there is forever a pistol at one’s temple.
For the religious mentality there is no need for the contempt, for the pride. If the secular uses his will to compress the doubts and the divide between mind and body the religious athlete refuses to acknowledge that there is such a thing. I think this way of thinking is more rare, particularly in team sports, but on Saturday night we’ll get to see it in action. Manny Pacquiao, the little Filipino slugger, is attempting to make history by winning a welterweight title. If he is victorious in the 147-pound division it will be his seventh title, an all-time record. The audacity of the achievement is hard to comprehend, given that he won his first belt ten years ago in the flyweight division, 112 pounds.
But boxing, is about records and championships less than any other sport, it is about men, and Pacquiao has managed to become the most captivating and rich figure in the sport’s recent years. He has a wild passionate style, so fully himself that he seems to reach through the screen. One is tempted to make a simplistic point about western versus eastern philosophy, that while Pacquiao may be a devout Catholic he has a Zen mind, a quiet mind. He is a happy warrior, a man with a fatalistic view of his sport and his place in it. I don’t know that it is even a faith or a view that everything will work out well, that he will be triumphant, as much as it is a feeling that it doesn’t even matter or isn’t worth thinking about.
It is the faith and single mindedness of Abraham as he plunged the knife downward, of the Kamikaze pilot as he sang on his last flight, or of the little children of Hamelin as they marched untroubled towards their watery grave.
It’s amazing to watch him in the ring. For most people, myself included, there will never be a moment where we reach that level of fullness of being. Where we will be completely invested so fully and richly in something that it seems to burst through the skin. When Pacquiao waits in the ring he seems to bristle and radiate, to quiver with the thrill of the moment and the profound joy of being a human body so supremely trained and suited for the task at hand. It is electric, like watching a hound straining at his tethers to go after the rabbit. It’s like something wild is running through him. I imagine if you were to drink his sweat in those moments you would become intoxicated.
His opponent, Miguel Cotto is a clear contrast. Cotto, from Puerto Rico, was an Olympic medalist and can’t miss prospect slated for greatness before he ever had a professional fight. Cotto won belts in both the junior welterweight and welterweight divisions, and tore through opponents in a series of brutal and exciting fights culminating in a rousing victory over welterweight great, Shane Mosley.
Cotto’s run was stopped in a brutal defeat to Antonio Margarito, a Mexican slugger who managed to pound Cotto into submission despite inferior boxing skills. Cotto was a bloody mess by fight’s end and some wondered if he would ever recover. That fear was only compounded when it was discovered in Margarito’s next fight that he was attempting to use plaster in illegal hand wrappings. Many feel Cotto was the victim of one of the great tragedies of modern ring history, but in the two fights since his only loss Cotto has looked strong in victory.
Cotto is a terrific champion and a great fighter. He is bigger, stronger, and more technically sound. But he doesn’t have the unfettered exuberance, the wild thrill of being alive and dangerous and without a care in the world. That is Pacquiao’s gift to us, a rare glimpse of humanity at the very edge. Some people think his recent, dominating performances against Oscar De La Hoya and Ricky Hatton were the result of deficits in their ability rather than the culmination of Pacquiao’s, but I think it’s almost beside the point. Pacquiao may very well lose this fight, I don’t think he will but it wouldn’t be surprising, but he will show us his inner, that explosive near being that is so transporting.
In a sense this fight is prelude. If Pacquiao wins the economic forces of the sport will almost necessitate a match with Floyd Mayweather, his spiritual opposite. Like Ali, Mayweather has trapped himself in a cage of excellence, brushing right against the edge of technical brilliance and ring science. Floyd is a difference engine in the ring, a bloodless operator who never makes a foolish mood. The thought of his cool excellence versus Pacquiao’s explosive dynamism is almost too much to bear, a contrast and clash generations in the making.
But let us try, for a moment, to be like Pacquiao, to be fully in the moment and enjoy a man so righteously himself that he allows us to come along for the ride.