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.

rising star 2008 - wc

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At 11/13/2009 4:59 PM, Blogger eric nusbaum said...

This was great. There's a lot to think about when it comes to the way this dichotomy manifests itself in different sports. It's the difference between a Wayne Gretzky and a Nicklas Lindstrom or a Vlad Guerrero and an Albert Pujols.

Do team certain team sports, and certain positions within those sports lend themselves to a particular kind of player? Are pitchers and point guards more likely to be secular? Or are these just foolish biases we bring to the table?

At 11/13/2009 5:07 PM, Blogger SilkyJohnston said...

Compelling stuff, Shoefly. This is probably more appropriate to bring up here than on the Rumble, but I have trouble finding Manny's NBA analog. In the annals of FD history you once compared him to Allen Iverson in terms of explosive little men and pound for pound entertainers in their respective sport who love the game and show it. But that was nearly 4 years ago, and my how much has changed. With Manny's meteoric rise, and Iverson's slow struggle against a shifting NBA universe and cosmology, I think it's time to update the conversation.

My first thought in updating Manny's NBA equivalent was a pre surgery Gilbert Arenas, of the phenomenal swag era. But now that he's attempting to be all business, Arenas doesnt' seem to fit the bill of Manny's exuberance, although the talent is there. On Boxiana I hinted at Lebron and Pac as being similar, but only if Lebron acted and played like he just hit the game winning shot against the Magic ALL THE TIME. I haven't been around long enough to honestly recall Magic Johnson's on court demeanor, and only know of his smile through anecdotes and older hoop heads talking about how much fun the Showtime Lakers were to watch. Jordan's pathological competitiveness definitely places him in the secular category, and since he's basically lurking under the surface of almost every conversation about professional basketball, it makes it that much more difficult to find few NBA players in the religious category, much less any on the level of Pacquiao.

At 11/13/2009 5:21 PM, Blogger Jason Clinkscales said...

Well done here and I'm pretty anxious for this fight. It's hard to not like either guy

I'll keep this short and sweet; what amazes me about Pacquiao isn't even the fighter himself, but how so many have gravitated towards him. Maybe this observation is off, but he's the first international non-heavyweight figther of this generation that has made American sports fans stand up and pay attention. I find this to be a remarkable feat considering the axiom still applies to many Americans, "so the heavyweight division, so goes boxing".

At 11/14/2009 12:51 PM, Blogger Asher said...

Would have, not would of (on the Flannery quote).

At 11/15/2009 1:22 AM, Blogger The Backwards K said...

There is no NBA player analogous to Pacquiao. I'm not sure there ever was. AI in body type and ferocity, maybe, but as Shoefly has stated so well, Manny's joy is as much a part of him as his height. Did you see him grinning as he went into the ring tonight? He was so happy it wrinkles my brain

After that fight tonight, I don't even know what to say about him. The level of dominance against Hatton and Hoya pales in comparison to the annihilation he put on Cotto, a younger, stronger, hungrier boxer than he's ever faced. Cotto deserves praise for gutting out the 12 rounds against his father and trainer's wishes, but his dignity and bearing are worth mention as well. He's a solid, admirable man, and it's s shame he has to fight a once-in-a-generation typhoon like Manny.

At 11/15/2009 2:02 AM, Blogger shoefly said...

It is "would of" in the Flannery quote, unless there's a different version. I don't think there can be religious types in team sports as easily. There is just too much waiting.

By god, though, Manny is special. He ripples. He's electric. Just watching him makes me feel that there is a level of commitment and richness in life that is intoxicating.

At 11/15/2009 3:10 PM, Blogger krohnenbrau said...

i feel like tim duncan or KG could potentially be the kind of bigger-than-myself, faith-driven athlete that pacquiao is. i'm thinking of duncan's 3 pointer against the suns in the playoffs to go into overtime or whatever it was. he'd hit one 3 all year before that or something? and what about garnett's "electricity?" he seems to take his mission straight from on high, the way he plays in that team.

as for the flannery, does this say that the secular athlete is like the misfit or the woman? the old woman seems to fit the bill until she becomes "good," when her ego, self-assuredness, and entitlement dissolve as a philosophical model that ultimately breaks down in her fear of death.

At 11/16/2009 4:14 AM, Blogger The Backwards K said...

@Kevin - Nope. Garnett couldn't smile in the middle of Boston's clinching win up by 20, let alone grin the way Manny does walking up to his fights. Duncan has his moments of transcendence, true, but Manny exists as divinity in the ring; it's impossible to take eye off him while he's in a fight.

Shoefly's comment is right on, I can't think of any in team sports who even approach what Pacquiao is doing. Perhaps Federer, but even allowing him, there isn't another athlete I could even attempt to add.

Watching Pacquiao and Federer at their peak, so expressive in their dominance, so singularly focused and devoted, so capable in ways that are beyond comprehension, is... shit, it's just fucking beautiful.

Manny Pacquiao's fights make me appreciate life more.

At 11/16/2009 7:23 AM, Blogger The Backwards K said...

@shoefly - http://thejoyinmudville.blogspot.com/2009/11/transcendence-through-ascension.html

At 11/16/2009 11:49 AM, Blogger Jay said...

Sometimes I wonder if Manny's persona is more a product of the boxing world's collective inability to market him as anything but a great, great fighter. The 24/7 series has certainly done a lot for Manny's image state-side, but a lot of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, who have better access to his non HBO/Freddie Roach side, see him as a wild opportunist and the next casualty in that country's sad legacy of political corruption.

I agree with most of what's written in the article, but the idea that Manny has a "zen" mind is outrageous, if not slightly, dare I say, offensive. His boxing style is passionate and unbalanced. Each affront is met with a reckoning. If anything, it's Catholic.

At 11/16/2009 11:57 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I think a lot of boxing (and boxers) is largely incomprehensible, depending on what ethno-cultural group you belong to. Like I don't see how you can view Cotto's performance apart from some distinctly Latin synthesis of machismo and bloody martyrdom, but I'll only take it that far because I only had half a Latino to back me up. Was watching the fight in with a large group of Filipinos and I'm sure they were seeing a different Manny than I was.

Let's not even get started with Mayweather. . .

I know this can descend really quickly into bad stereotyping, but at the same time, boxers are very clearly vehicles for large-scale cultural identification.

At 11/17/2009 1:51 PM, Blogger Jay said...

It's true-- only in Boxing can the commentators say things like, "the little Filipino," and "the great heart so typical of Mexican fighters" without anyone blinking. But Filipinos have no history of Buddhism or "eastern philosophy." If anything, they share more culturally with their fellow Catholics in Mexico and Puerto Rico. That's why Latin fans love Manny.

You're right--Filipinos really see a different guy than Americans weaned on 24/7

If you want to see a "distinctly Latin synthesis of machismo and bloody martyrdom," watch any Morales fight or Pacquiao-Marquez I. Cotto's refusal to give up, even when it was clear that he couldn't fight back, was a product of the pride any fighter would have after the Margarito fight, to not go out on a knee again.

At 11/17/2009 2:00 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Hmm. .. I should've just come out and said "machismo and masochism" and mentioned Catholicism. Point taken, though.

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At 4/19/2013 4:19 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

It is impressive that things can be different from the approach that you take to things. Hostpph really like that kind of insight about athletes.

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