Tuesday 29 March 2011

Anatomy of a Grudge Fight

Lewis (L) and Rahman square up

The recent conflagration between heavyweight champion, Hasim Rahman and his challenger Lennox Lewis may be given two differing interpretations.

The first is to submit that both men have acted in a disgraceful manner unbefitting of world class sportsmen and should be chastised for bringing the game into disrepute, while the alternative view is to rejoice at the demystification of Lewis's reputation as the rather passionless prince of cool and celebrate the introduction of the element of personal animosity, the 'grudge factor' into what was looking to be a pretty staid and formulaic countdown to their rematch scheduled for November.

Those who take the former view belong to that school of thought who believe that boxing, by virtue of its inherently primordial savagery, dressed up in modern times as noble art of self defence and sugar coated with an array of rules has perennially walked a tightrope between maintaining its recognition as a form of competitive sport and what it's opponents tend to refer to as disguised wanton savagery.

The aim, after all they claim, is for a pugilist to hit his opponent until he expires into consciousness. So a scuffle following a childish argument is poor public relations for a game which is constantly sniped at and on the defensive from the barracking of the medical lobby amongst many foes; a shot in the foot or what they call an 'own goal' in soccer.

Those inclined to favour the latter view will relish the revelation that Lennox Lewis actually has warm human blood, and not glacial material, flowing through his veins. There is nothing like a grudge fight. In a lot of other sports, personal animosities are played out with a ball of some sort serving as a medium for the transmission of venomous intentions.

And while fists may be raised, such actions go against the rules of the sport. Boxing allows you to hit the other guy period. It is one thing to have watched two boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson and Kid Gavilan put on a highly skilled though rugged series of encounters but quite another to see Robinson and co-legend, Carmen Basilio dispense with the niceties and subtleties of their trade in order to go outright to destroy the other. Robinson and Basilio by all accounts were none too fond of each other.

A grudge fight, if you permit me to remain on the theme, defines the elements of the fighters character; sharply bringing into focus his strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps not always but at least some of the time. Now we know that Lennox Lewis can be needled and be made to abdicate his normally even tempered disposition.

What, we are all wondering will happen when actualities are in progress and Rahman spits out some choice comment through his gum shields? If Lewis loses his rag, Rahman will exploit it to the full. He has knocked him out once before and is capable of repeating the trick. On the other hand, we may choose to believe that Lewis's uncharacteristic display of temper was an aberration and that Rahman's sly insults will backfire. If so, Rahman could be in for a rather painful boxing lesson.

Rahman on the other hand is revealing himself to be something of a comic and raconteur of sorts. He is convinced, or at least is trying to convince himself, that his victory over Lewis was based on the marshaling of and the maximising of his skills and not on the deficiency of Lewis's preparations for their bout in South Africa.

Self belief is important in this game and every little psychological victory will help. This is not to say that Rahman can safely assume that riling his opponent, dancing a heavyweight bear-hugging jig and falling on top of Lewis is enough to have won the mental battle, but he clearly feels that he is on a roll.

On a sobering note, it is perhaps instructive to note the appalling consequences that name calling has hewn in boxing history. The attacks on Lewis's manhood echo the prelude to the world welterweight championship bout between Benny 'Kid' Paret and Emile Griffith in 1962. Paret, a Cuban émigré and the champion who had dispossessed Griffith of his title, had referred to his challenger as 'Maricon,' Cuban speak for 'faggot' on account of Griffiths high toned Caribbean vocal lilt as well as his previous trade as a milliners apprentice.

The climax to that fight of course is indelibly etched into the collective memories of boxing fans and non-fans of the era. Paret, who had issued an intolerable provocation by affecting a limp-wrist-on-the-hip posture as he watched Griffith gather himself from a knockdown, endured an uninterrupted two fisted barrage by an enraged Griffith in the twelfth round before slumping to the canvas and lapsing into a coma from which he never regained consciousness.

An extreme ending of his sort does not of course have to form the natural and probable consequences of the Rahman-Lewis fracas. But all the same it is worth reflecting upon.

Yet, while we bear this sobering thought in mind, many fans will not help but enjoy the study of contrasts: Rahman the underdog, a proletarian-like journeyman champion up against the regal posturing former Olympian and ex-champion Lewis. And now, they appear to hate each other’s guts.

Oh, so suddenly, I cannot seem to wait for November 17.

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2001)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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