Boxing is well-nigh unique in the way it has and continues to throw up fighters who become so popular they transcend the sport to attain folk hero status. This is a phenomenon of which no other individual sport can boast, precisely because unlike any other individual sport boxing is a sport of the working class. And being such, a given fighter’s exploits in the ring affords its working class public the vicarious and self-reinforcing thrill of the glory they are denied amid the daily grind and stresses of life as appendages to the machine.
To be working class is to be oppressed by forces so invisible you can easily become putty in the hands of a culture industry that’s in the business of sowing false consciousness. It’s how how ‘they’ successfully convince enough working class voters to tick the box marked conservative at election time — a box which in truth should be marked ‘self-harm’.
Denied the class liberation we so desperately need, sport fills the void. It allows for something that approximates to it by associating with a football team whose highs and lows we share with thousands in packed stadia in which we experience the human connectedness coterminous with our species being, and which is denied us otherwise. That football is a team game, operating to socialist principles within a capitalist context, is surely no accident either.
When it comes to boxing, this connectedness coheres around fighters whose feats in the ring tap into and chime with our primal instincts and the qualities man had rely upon to survive in his natural state. Those are aggression, courage, resilience, determination, speed, strength, evasion, agility and athleticism. Joyce Carol Oates has an interesting take on this: “Spectators at public games derive much of their pleasure from reliving the communal emotions of childhood but spectators at boxing matches relive the murderous infancy of the race.”
To my mind this should be amended to read “murderous infancy and present of the race,” but you take her meaning nonetheless.
The anger channelled by the crowd at a boxing show contradicts the notion that centuries of civilisation and cultural development have tamed in any way our baser instincts. Boxing allows those instincts to be unleashed for a few hours, wherein a mob mentality develops, baying for blood and gore.
However within the brutality of boxing lies nobility and transcendence, which is where the role of the fighter as working class folk hero comes into play. Among this vaunted group stands the likes of Benny Lynch, Benny Leonard, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, Henry Cooper, Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez, Muhammad Ali, Frank Bruno, Barry McGuigan, Ricky Hatton, and currently Tyson Fury.
Each of the above found themselves raised up as champions of a specific community, race and/or country within a wider class reality, entering the ring with the pride of said community, race and/or country behind them.
Of Scotland’s flyweight king in the 1930s, Benny Lynch, another former Scottish world champion, Jim Watt, once claimed: “Benny is the most important figure as far as Scottish boxing is concerned. He was the first one to do it. He showed us that a little guy from Glasgow, a little guy from Scotland, could be champion of the whole wide world.”
When it came to Rocky Marciano in the 1940s and 50s, there was no Italian-American in the States who did not view his 49 and 0 unbeaten record as evidence that Italian masculine stock was superior to every other. As for the other Rocky in this picture, Rocky Graziano, the role of reinvention, normally the preserve of those with the money to reinvent, is central to what he became. Gerald Early makes this clear: “The essence of the Graziano story lies in the fact that he had to change his name. It was the only way he could escape his father and his life of juvenile crime and antisocial behaviour.”
There are two elements — of which a fighter must possess at least one — in order to transcend the sport and become nationally or even, in the case of Ali, internationally esteemed. Those elements are either relatability and/or empathy. Ali’s empathy with the suffering of his own people in Jim Crow America was expressed in his defiance of the received truths of white supremacy, wherein “I am the greatest” was translated in the hearts and minds of poor black America into “We are the greatest.”
When as Cassius Clay he fought one of England’s boxing folk heroes, Henry Cooper, at Wembley in 1963, ‘Our Henry’ was all that stood between national pride and national humiliation. As it turned out, though he lost Cooper still succeeded in salvaging Anglo-Saxon pride by being one of only two men to have knocked Ali down in the ring at this point in his career — the other having been Sonny Banks the year before at Madison Square Garden. With just one beautifully placed and perfectly timed left hook, Cooper entered the annals of British sporting history, a beloved figure whose relatability and warmth earned him warmth in return from the country’s Establishment. In this respect, he became an unwitting champion of the status quo rather than representative of any departure from it.
Ricky Hatton has claim to being the most popular fighter Britain has ever produced. The army of fans he took to Vegas to urge him on against Floyd Mayweather Jr. was and remains unprecedented. With him relatability reach new levels. Here was a fighter who between fights you would find in local pubs and cafés close to where he grew up, indulging his passion for beer and fry-ups. The common man found in Ricky uncommon greatness. His imperfectibilities were theirs and theirs were his. Rather than use boxing to escape his background, Hatton used boxing to further identify with it.
Tyson Fury belongs in the same category, a giant of a man with a childlike sense of fun. His own reinvention from villain to hero, along with his new found role as tribune of those suffering from mental illness, is validation of Oscar Wilde’s axiomatic assertion that “Every sinner has a future, and every saint has a past.”
Being a folk hero, of course, also carries with it the potential of being pulled down from that perch and becoming a folk villain. Roberto Duran met this fate after his ignominious “No Mas” defeat to Sugar Ray Leonard in their 1980 rematch. He returned to Panama in shame and briefly retired. Meanwhile Scotland’s Benny Leonard perished from an addiction to alcohol that most assuredly wasn’t helped by the fact that everywhere he went people insisted on buying him a drink, proving that to be at the top in boxing is to be perched perilously close to the abyss.
The prosaic truth, paraphrasing Gore Vidal’s sentiments on homosexuality, is that there are no heroes, only heroic acts, which in boxing begins the moment a fighter steps through the ropes to face he know not what. Returning to Joyce Carol Oates: “Even as he disrobes himself ceremonially in the ring the great boxer must disrobe himself of both reason and instinct’s caution as he prepares to fight.”
A working class hero is something to be, the song would have us believe. A different take entirely, then, from Brecht’s admonition of unhappy the land that is in need of one.
NB: The article first appeared in the Morning Star.
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