The following is a service I delivered on August 16 at the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.
PRELUDE: “Mama Said Knock You Out”
OPENING WORDS (“Boxing”)
The last song on Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut album is a delicate piano-driven waltz called “Boxing.” Folds, whose father was a fan of the sport, imagines a conversation between an aging Muhammad Ali and the broadcaster Howard Cosell. The two had, in fact, done a number of memorable post-fight interviews, although none quite like this.
Howard, the strangest things
Have happened lately
When I take a good swing
At all my dreams
They pivot and slip
I drop my fists and they’re back
My intention’s become not to lose what I’ve won
Ambition has given way to desperation and I
Lost the fight from my eyes
Boxing’s been good to me, Howard
Now I’m told, you’re growing old
The whole time you knew
In a couple of years I’d be through
Has boxing been good to you?
Howard, I confess I’m scared and lonely and tired
They seem to think I’m made of clay
Another day, not cut out for this
I just know what to say, I say
Boxing’s been good to me, Howard
Now I’m told, you’re growing old
The whole time you knew
In a couple of years I’d be through
Has boxing been good to you?
We’ve seen this from athletes across a variety of sports—that moment when age overtakes talent, when the greatness is gone. Brett Favre in his second year with the Vikings, or Michael Jordan during that last season with the Wizards. Professional sports are not kind to people who move too far past 30. And, as Ben Folds notes, all of us who watch sports know that the people we cheer have a limited shelf life. And it’s not just the standard aging process. We’re talking about blown-out knees and torn ACLs and destroyed rotator cuffs and worse, all suffered because we want to be entertained.
The song lays out a central question I want us to think about today. What is the relationship between athlete and spectator? What responsibility, if any, do we as an audience have for the people on the field or the ice or the court and what happens to their bodies, their minds, and their spirits? I chose to focus on boxing because unlike football or hockey, violence is not a side effect caused in pursuit of victory. In boxing, violence is the main event. And, unlike team sports where injured athletes are replaced and the game goes on, in boxing injury for one combatant ensures victory for the other. In other words, boxing allows us to examine ethical questions at their most glaringly obvious point. This service is about boxing, yes, but it’s bigger than that. It’s about all of us, and the way we treat each other.
Despite what LL Cool J would have you believe, most parents do not recommend that their children go into boxing. We cringe at the thought of someone hitting our child, and the post-fight image of fighters with their eyes swollen shut and their faces a grotesque caricature of their normal state terrifies us. In his poem “Don’t Stop Boxing,” JC Lucas explains why some people, be they parents or coaches like the poem’s narrator, hold a contrary opinion.
“Don’t Stop Boxing” by JC Lucas
“Why do you box?”
I asked one of the gang bangers I coached at the gym one day.
“To stay out of trouble, I guess,” he replied.
And all of a sudden I got kinda mushy over this kid and realized he really was in a
Place, trying to make the best of a
And I said,
“Listen to me. Don’t ever stop boxing.
But whatever you do,
He looked at me kind of funny and
He said “why do you box?”
And I said,
“I’ve been doing this a while now.
Boxing’s fixed me up through some
So above everything else, above women and money,
Whatever you do,
I’ll probably never know if boxing
But I do hope it keeps him out of trouble.
MUSICAL INTERLUDE “Fight Test”
From “Fight to the Death” by David Davis
ON MARCH 21, 1963, two boxers entered Dodger Stadium to fight for the featherweight championship of the world.
Davey Moore, the champ, had held the title for four years. Many considered him to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the sport. Approaching 30, he was planning to fight for a couple more years, long enough to earn serious money. Then he was going to retire and enjoy his wife’s delicious cooking without having to worry about making weight.
Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos was the challenger. He was young, just 21. He was in exile from his family and his homeland after Fidel Castro took power and banned professional boxing in Cuba. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do to make a living: fight with his fists.
Moore was knocked down in the 10th round. The back of his neck snapped against the ropes when he fell. He never recovered and died 75 hours later. He left behind a young wife and five children.
It was an accident. It was a tragedy. It became a political issue.
Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown called for the abolition of boxing, as did Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray. A similar entreaty came from Pope John XXIII.
A year passed, then two. Those who had usurped the moment — the politicians and the pontiffs, the sportswriters and the songwriters — were consumed by other matters. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the March on Washington, Vietnam.
The two people most affected by Davey Moore’s death had to get on with their lives. Moore’s widow, Geraldine, took a job and raised five children as a single mom.
Sugar Ramos, the new champion, kept fighting.
Fifty years have passed. The memory of Davey Moore lingers like a whisper
OFFERTORY “Who Killed Davey Moore”
SERMON “The Square Circle”
Davey Moore has been on my mind a lot lately. A young man—younger than me by four years—killed in the process of doing his job. He wasn’t a police officer or a soldier or a fireman. He was an athlete, a person whose job is to provide the people at home with an hour’s worth of entertainment—entertainment achieved by dispensing and absorbing physical punishment. That his death was caused not so much by the force of a punch as by the misfortune of falling onto a steel cable in the corner of the ring as the result of a punch makes little difference. Either way, he was killed by boxing.
For many of you, this is an obvious fact. Boxing is a brutal sport—just two men (or women) beating each other until someone falls to the mat, bloodied and barely conscious. Even the Romans—they who fed prisoners to lions for amusement—banned boxing. Those of you with a working sense of empathy chafe at the idea of supporting such a thing.
Not me, though. Boxing is my sport of choice, more than baseball or football. I actually find it more relaxing than team sports, where my rooting interests are controlled by a sense of local pride and any loss by “my” team feels like a personal affront. This is not to say that I have no rooting interests in boxing, but rather that I am willing to shift loyalty mid-fight if my fighter is losing. I will yell at the screen, urging my newfound hero to destroy my previous favorite. I like swollen eyes and bleeding gashes and slow-motion jabs that snap back heads and make spit and sweat fly. Like many fans, I want to see two brawlers standing toe-to-toe and swinging recklessly, rather than two defensive geniuses stalking each other cautiously and trying to score points with calculated shots.
I want blood.
And that troubles me. Generally speaking, I consider myself a pacifist. I’m opposed to war. I hate the death penalty. I want our country to have a much smaller supply of guns. I don’t spank my children. But if it’s Saturday night and HBO is televising a fight, I grab a bag of chips and sit as close to the TV as these bad eyes require so I can see the carnage.
Davey Moore died 18 years before I was born. And while boxing was not eliminated, or even substantially changed, small improvements in safety have occurred. The steel cables that in Moore’s day were exposed near the corners of the ring have been padded, for example. And referees are now expected to step in and stop fights where one fighter is obviously taking a tremendous amount of abuse, particularly if he is unable to throw punches. It’s safer now, I tell myself. And maybe that’s true.
But in November of 2013, I watched a fight between two heavyweights—Mike Perez and Magomed Abdusalamov. The two men fought ten hard rounds, each landing punches that would knock any of us to the ground, as they stood in the center of the ring. No one ran or clinched. When the fight ended with Perez claiming victory by a decision, I couldn’t have been happier with what I’d seen. This was why I watched boxing, for the thrills.
After the fight, Abdusalamov took a taxi to the hospital, where it was determined that he had a blood clot on the brain. He was placed in a medically=induced coma, and he remained comatose for over a month. His career is over, and, while he is progressing, he is still at a point where his ability to speak using complete sentences is seen as a triumph.
I watched that fight. I saw a man essentially punched into a coma as I cheered and munched on snacks. And then, after hearing about the horrific aftermath to the match I had so enjoyed, I still tuned in the next week for more Saturday night fisticuffs. I probably even came here to TUUC the next day and thought about the dignity of my fellow man.
I called this service “The Square Circle” not just because it’s a common way to refer to the boxing ring, but because it’s an oxymoron, a symbol of confusion. I want to understand the contradictions between my humanist beliefs and my lizard-brain attraction to boxing, and I’ve spent months digging through articles on the sweet science and thinking about Davey Moore and Mago Abdulsalamov. I have weighed our Unitarian Universalist principles—where we affirm our respect for the inherent dignity of all people—against the pleasure of seeing Gennady Golovkin drop a man with a left hook to the liver. And I’m lost. I really am. These things are so compartmentalized in my mind that, if asked, I would say with confidence that I am not a hypocrite, because my mind wouldn’t even take my taste in sports into account.
Of course, saying I am no hypocrite does not make it true. And if I really slow down and examine myself, I know that something is amiss. My hope today is not to prove to you that boxing is compatible with being a Unitarian Universalist. And it’s not an act of therapy wherein I open myself up to scrutiny so the harsh glare of sunlight will heal my wounds. I’m not pointing you towards uplift or offering a condemnation of sport. What I want to do is raise questions in your mind. I want you to join me in shining a light in the cold, dark corners of our brains that define entertainment, and I want you to examine, rather than run from, what you find there. Because, as I noted earlier, boxing is not the only pastime that presents suffering as spectacle—it’s just the most obvious example.
What is it about boxing that draws fans in? Why are we compelled to watch others pummel each other? Such inclinations can be traced back to ancient Greece, where boxing was an Olympic sport. And surely it’s deeper than that. Our earliest ancestors grouped themselves into small bands for protection from a world of predators, both human and non-human. Tribal leadership was often decided by strength. A person hoping to take power would need to be stronger than the current ruler. The other members of the tribe would have an obvious interest in the outcome of such combat.
We like to believe ourselves distanced from the rest of the animal kingdom by virtue of our intellect, but we have never fully escaped the mentality of dogs determining the order of the pack through violence.
Yes, we’ve come a long way. We vote for our leaders now, rather than having them assault each other. Reverend Clare was chosen by this congregation through a democratic process. She did not achieve her position by knocking anyone unconscious. (To the best of my knowledge, anyway. I wasn’t here in 1999.) But as a society we have not fully stepped out of the shadow of our past, either.
Combat sports have always drawn their competitors almost exclusively from those groups at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. In Rome, the gladiators were often prisoners or slaves. They might win public acclaim for their feats in the Coliseum, and personal freedom could be conferred on those who survived.
We shake our heads at the thought, ignoring the reality that our own athletes are also largely from lower-income neighborhoods or from groups with little social power. Our athletes make large sums of money, yes, but their paychecks are nothing compared to the value of their promoters or team owners, who are usually the products of wealthy families of European heritage.
And, if we’re being honest in our look at race as it connects to the brutal spectacle of boxing, we find echoes of racial hatred, sometimes barely muffled by propriety. At the turn of the 20th century, crowds of white people would gather to cheer the torture and execution of African-American men. Photos were taken to commemorate such events, and souvenirs were kept. In that climate of hate, Jack Johnson became the first African-American heavyweight champion, defeating a white man named Tommy Burns and then, in the so-called “fight of the century,” the Great White Hope, Jim Jefferies. The film of these fights was so incendiary ro white audiences that many cities banned local theaters from screening it, though shortly thereafter D.W. Griffith’s pro-Klan film The Birth of a Nation played to packed houses in those same cities. Black men could be killed for entertainment, both on- and off-screen. If they managed to succeed, they would need to be brought low, as Johnson eventually was when he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which forbade taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. His crime had been driving his white girlfriend from one state to another.
Johnson was a source of pride for the African-American community, a symbol of defiance against the racist order, much like Muhammad Ali fifty years later. And here’s where the morality of boxing gets complicated. Because it’s not just an unending history of degradation and broken bodies. Fighters often represent more than just themselves. They are symbols that larger groups of people rally around, much like the tribes of prehistoric times.
Ali, whose cultural impact exceeds not just other boxers or other athletes, but even that of most political leaders, rose to such prominence for more than his skill, which was admittedly considerable. No, he had a mouth which was even more formidable. Like Johnson before him, his brashness earned the ire of the US government, who put him on trial when he refused to fight in Vietnam. He was stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing during what should have been his prime fighting years.
This only solidified his international support, and when he eventually got a shot at the title in a fight with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, the local citizens chanted Ali boom-ba-yay, which translates to “Ali, kill him.” Ali fortunately did not kill Foreman, but he did knock him out in one of the most surprising moments in sports history. (Twenty years later, Foreman regained his title in similarly surprising fashion, becoming, at 46, the oldest-ever heavyweight champion.)
George Foreman is himself a contradiction. A devout Christian, he acknowledges that boxing goes against the teachings of the famously peaceful Jesus of Nazareth. Foreman, however, feels that boxing offers young men full of pain and rage a safe way to release their violence. Like JC Lucas, he wants to keep these kids out of trouble. Boxing is dangerous, but in some cases it may be the best chance a troubled youth has. Like a Roman gladiator, he can rise from a life of misery to one of fame and wealth, if he can survive. Maybe that’s enough to justify the continued existence of boxing, and maybe it isn’t.
I don’t know who killed Davey Moore or how much responsibility I should bear for the injury that irrevocably changed Magomed Abdusalamov’s life. I remain a devoted boxing fan and a staunch proponent of secular humanism. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that each person has their own search for the Truth, a search that lasts for the entirety of our lives, and I’m still looking.
As the Flaming Lips song says, I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlight begins. It’s all a mystery. I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life. It’s all a mystery. And that’s where I’m leaving you, somewhere between the sunbeams and the starlight, considering the mystery of your own contradictions, on your own search for the Truth. And I hope that search keeps you out of trouble.