There’s a reason they call it “The Hardest Game”. Well, that’s the name of Hugh Mcllvanney’s book (and a great, great book it is) on the sport, anyway. Thing is, I’ve never put on a pair of gloves in my life (not seriously, that is) and you’d still get no argument from me on that point.
Fighting sucks. Rather, it’s a shitty way to make a living. Since the day it came into existence as a sport, it’s been a way to make money and prosper for those with few choices otherwise, a one-way ticket out of the most dire trappings of poverty. Didn’t matter if you were a Panamian boy or a hoodlum from the nastiest parts of Detroit or any ghetto for that matter, you could fight your way to fame and acclaim if you had the skill, the grit and most importantly, the absolute, aching hunger to do so.
None of that has really changed, all these years later. Not much, anyway. Maybe MMA has come along and become a haven for moderately-talented caucasians of somewhat less humble origins, but it’s also a playground for wonderfully talented, outrageously poor Brazilians to make money beyond their wildest reckonings. Boxing is still boxing, more or less. Former Lightweight champion and Hall of Fame boxer Jose Torres liked to say something to the effect of “when I retired I was flat broke and had only minor brain damage. I was one of the lucky ones”.
That’s Boxing for you.
Indeed, I’ve had my fair share of conversations (mostly with women, by the way) about why anyone would like this sport, let alone do it for a living. Nine times out of ten, it’s a means to an end. Really, that’s it. A way out where none exist. Aside from that, you’ll find the odd story regarding a gym rat or the oft-told second-generation tale about a kid who had the gloves on before he was even strong enough to lift them over his head. Fact is, almost all of them fight because they have to, or have convinced themselves they do. Hard for anyone who came up with a myriad of choices to understand that kind of circumstance, I reckon. Do or die, for real.
What I’m saying is pretty simple. Being asked to do something when your heart isn’t in it, well that ain’t easy. If piles of money is the motivator, some might able to spend 10 or so years playing a game they so clearly hate and make alot of it, like Michael Olowokandi did. We’ve seen football players as far back as Bernie Casey admit that the game was merely a means to and end for them. Robert Smith and Jake Plummer retired young and healthy, having gotten what they could from the game before the game could get everything from them, so to speak.
Still, let us not forget what it takes to be an athlete in the first place. Even at a half-step, the toil, the sacrifice, and dedication it takes to compete at the highest levels of any sport is something simply beyond the comprehension of your average Joe fanguy. The athletic world has no mercy for the old, the weak, the slow. Let off the gas even a little and you’ll be replaced, put out to pasture or completely forgotten altogether.
Again, this is where boxing is completely unique.
Two men, one winner. No teammates. No timeouts. You know. All the praise, all the shame. One way or the other, it’s all on you. That’s the fight game.
When it’s said and done, it all comes down to desire. Desire in training. Days and nights spent hitting, and being hit back. Countless miles spent putting feet to pavement. Too many beatings to count. Too much time forging muscle memory for them to ever forget. All done in preparation for those big moments, the ones you’ll be remebered for, even defined by.
What then, if you are in the sport for others more than yourself?
That’s the question I found myself pondering after hearing Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. tested positive for marijuana, of all things, in the aftermath of his first professional loss this weekend, a one-sided boxing lesson doled out by the hands (and feet) of Sergio Martinez, an imminently superior fighter. No shame in that, right? Losing to the better man is losing to the better man.
What about being the son of the most celebrated Mexican fighter that ever lived? What about being born not just into unfathomable fame and fortune, but into the expectation that you will someday enter the family business? Being born wealthy and handsome and without want for anything materially speaking is not exactly the blueprint for a world class fighter. Certainly, it wasn’t for his Father.
So, I watched and read all the lead-up to the fight, which means I saw HBO’s 24/7 documentary that featured Chavez skipping training sessions, lounging in the pool and oversleeping.
You, know, acting like a guy who doesn’t want to fight.
Thing about it is, just being in this position was a longshot. Even after being treated with kid gloves and being protected through the ranks, being fed bum and after bum and essentially manufactured into a contender and a box office draw, few people in the know took him seriously as a fighter and even fewer thought he’d ever become a legit champion. I mean, why should he, after all? Why should a kid who grew up with everything have the desire to get his brains beat out when doesn’t need to?
Oddly enough, Chavez had proven to have a surprising hunger in the ring, and even a fighting style that belied his rich kid lot in life. Turns out, he’s most comfortably getting in close and ripping your body to shreds, even if that kind of strategy means you are almost certain to take fire in return. As styles go, it’s one of the more brazen and rugged you’ll find.
Sure, it could be a matter of wanting to emulate his legend of a father, but parental idoltry has to have his limits, right? Not sure I’d be willing to get my brains beat in to prove I love my Dad.
Stil, as odd as the whole thing seemed, it always felt somewhat unsustainable. There are plenty of things you can fake, but I refuse to believe that hunger is one of them. You have it or you don’t. Really, that’s what I think happened here. After more than 40 professional fights, (and 40 training camps) years of proving his mettle and making, nay demanding, he be taken seriously by those who watch and cover boxing, Julio Jr. may have just decided that, well, he’s sick of doing this for a living. So, he signed on to make 3 million dollars for what amounted to a walk to the gallows against Sergio Martinez, and although he showed unmistakable mettle in mounting what almost one of the greatest comebacks in history after being Martinez’ punching bag for 11 rounds, the fact remains he still lost a fight that he not only had little chance to win, but appeared to almost be resigned to losing.
And lest we question his desire any further, guess who tested positive for Marijuana immediately after the fight?
Who knows, really. Maybe he bounces back from this and goes on to a long, storied career. Maybe he goes back to low-risk, high-reward fights and cashes in without putting himself in harms way any more than he has to. Or maybe he’s ready to get off at the next stop and wanted to grab whatever vash was there for him while he could.
For a lot of people, the idea of walking away from a career as a famous athlete would seem unconscionable. For those who need boxing or any other game to make their living, it’s simply not an option. For someone like Julio, it might just be the best thing.
Hey, he wouldn’t be the first guy to walk away from the fight game with all of his money and his senses to boot, but trust me, that list ain’t that long. This sport ain’t for everyone and more importantly, it will never be for the guy whose heart isn’t in it.
No shame in bowing out if the hunger isn’t in you.