Jeff Pryor takes a look at what draws us to the fighters we cheer for.
Photos © Ray Kasprowicz
Why is Manny Pacquiao the boxing worlds current must see mauler? How does Miguel Cotto cram his crowd into Madison Square Garden?
When it comes to sports fans, the boxing variety are among the most vociferous and voracious. Part of that is the stakes in the ring, which are greater than any other sport. Part of it is that boxing is the sport where there are no barriers between the fan and the athlete.
There is no helmet to hide their face. No pads to obscure their figure. No closed huddles or secret hand signals. No bandages for an injury.
The playing area isn't a hundred yards long or a field of ice. It's a couple dozen feet. The ring is intimate. The ring is mic'ed up. If someone has something to say, we hear it. The camera's don't show us ten men, or twenty two scurrying around. Just two; in close up.
And from all that, we have more access to them over the course of thirty six minutes of action in a twelve round fight than we do for other athletes over the course of a whole season. We see them fight, we see them think, we see them bleed, we see their eyes. To paraphrase Joe Louis... you can't hide in the ring. In fact, you can only show. Show your talent and skill. Show your heart, determination and will. And show whether you've got what it takes, on the night, in those moments.
All of those factors connect us to boxing's participants in a way that can be more powerful than other sport. But what locks us in to a particular fighter over another? What makes a fighter your fighter?
A couple of traveling Ricky Hatton fans showing their support in Las Vegas this past May.
Sometimes it can be as simple as the fighter being from the same geographical region as you are. Who doesn't want to root for the hometown fighter and see "one of their own" move out into the world, to find success and in some way represent us. The geographical pull is so strong that in fact, many a fight fan finds themselves rooting for a fighter they ordinarily wouldn't care for at all. Maybe you hate brash young trash talkers... but this loud mouth kid is from your home town. Maybe you despise safety first technicians... but hey, this is a good guy from just a couple burgs over.
Miguel Cotto, one of the sports premiere leading men, draws big at the Mecca in New York, in large part because of the strong contingency of Puerto Rican's that reside in and around the city. If he were the pride of Uruguay would his name light up the marquee on Seventh Avenue quite so often?
In the beginning your choice in fighters is often merely a chance of fate. That first fight that hooked you on boxing, there's a good chance one of those men, in that moment of your personal history, became a fighter of great interest to you.
Just imagine, a few years ago there where fans cheering for Jermain Taylor just because he was from Arkansas, and there were those for Cory Spinks, just because he was from St. Louis. And there was probably even someone who tuned into their fight, got their first taste of professional boxing and latched on to one of those fighters based on their performances that night. Well okay, maybe that last bit defies reasonable possibility. But you see... the points been made.
These, of course, are examples where by there is little choice involved in the selection of which fighters you are following. They are thrust upon you by chance or proximity. For the most part however, we choose those fighters we like, consciously or unconsciously.
To my mind there are principally just a handful of attributes that color our choice in boxers. Boiled down to a word, the determining characteristics tend to be displays of skill, athleticism or spirit. Each of us responds to one of these more than the other two. While every fighter has these three qualities in some measure, the memorable fighters tend to be overloaded in one particular category.
And there are variations within each trait.
For instance there are other attributes that tend to go hand in hand with great skill. Usually, for one, great dedication to craft. A level of professionalism, whereby you feel they take the sport seriously. They're probably in shape. Their fights probably don't devolve into all out action, because there is a certain level of restraint and control. They're smart. They are thinking out there. Precision, timing, studying, adjusting. Machines.
Then there are athletes. Perhaps blessed with blazing speed or bludgeoning power. Lightning reflexes or towering size. The fights could be suddenly explosive or eye opening, though they might be less consistent overall. Big KO's or flashy combos. The razzle, the dazzle. The specimens that were born and not created.
And then there is spirit. A warrior who may not be the fastest, the biggest or the most skilled, but they are a fighter through and through. Courage and determination. When attacked, they attack. When knocked down, they get up. More pure in a way; more animal.
Of course every fighter pulls elements from across the spectrum of these strengths and weaknesses, but all can be nudged into one category or another in the final analysis. Likewise each fan of the sport tends to have a certain continuity in the fighters they are drawn to most and my feeling on this is that they tend to gravitate towards the type of fighter they themselves would be, were they to make there way into the ring. In other words, we see and respond to character traits we share.
I tend to admire technicians. They weren't supermen to begin with, but they put in the work and made themselves into what they are through dedication and determination. Bernard Hopkins and Juan Manuel Marquez (pictured) come to mind. I can see myself, in the way they've gone about their careers. I'm a cerebral kind of guy... and these men think. They think about what they are doing. They think about what their opponent is doing, will do, might do... They are cool and calm. Analyzing before, during and after the fight. Like finely tuned watches, they know when the time is right to make their move. And the time is right, because they have diligently prepared for it beforehand.
Doesn't mean I don't greatly admire or root for a guy like Carl Froch who has shown grit, sheer aggression and a throw caution to the wind rambunctiousness that Hopkins or Marquez rarely have dug up in their careers. Or that I don't marvel at Andre Dirrell's laser strikes and athletic arsenal. Thing is I just don't relate to the mindset or talents of each on a personal level.
The special fighters are those that bridge the different categories and become someone that everyone can appreciate and see themselves in. I think of Manny Pacquiao who has gotten his greatest level of universal acclaim and recognition, just as he's bridged the gap between all three categories I laid out above. He entered our consciousness as the dynamic athlete, showed his spirit when tested and has now rounded out his profile by dedicating himself to fine tuning his skills. He is a complete fighter in every sense of the word and in that light it's no wonder everyone loves him; he appeals to every type of fan.
Someone like Arturo Gatti crossed over in to most fans adulation because he was so extremely over the top in one of those categories; spirit. One imagines that if someone had come to him before a fight and could tell him he would be badly cut over both eyes, his hand would be hurt, and he'd be knocked to the canvas at some point... he'd still choose to head into the ring. Such was the belief in himself that no matter how grim, or stacked against him he felt the odds, he could persevere.
Likewise, if I were ranking the three categories in terms of how many fans appreciate each. Clearly spirit would be number one, because it is something we all have, to a lesser or greater extent, in us. You don't need any special knowledge of the sport to spot courage or willpower. Athleticism comes next, because it's exciting, awe inspiring and even if we aren't world class athletes, we certainly wish we were... and hey, just being naturally better than someone without having to work quite as hard... who doesn't fancy that. Skill brings up the rear. Not that most don't appreciate it, just that it lacks the flash and drama of the other two, for the most part.
With all this in mind, what has led us to a particular fighter is very apparent. In a way it's like the question posited in the film "Pulp Fiction", There's two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles People. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like The Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. So somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells you who you are.
As this implies, there is no getting around the fact that we are drawn to certain pugilists naturally because of who we are. Just as we are drawn to the sport as a whole because of who we are. Some may be enticed by the violence and aggression of it. Others may like the artistry of the sweet science. Some may like the nostalgic quality of the sport and it's far reaching history.
For me the psychology of the fighter is the sports thoroughgoing appeal. The mindset you must have to compete in the ring. Shelving fear of injury, pain, embarrassment, failure... the ongoing struggle to triumph over those elements, on a second by second basis. Competing not just against the man across from you, but also against yourself. Watching for the subtle cues in a fighters demeanor as he wins those internal struggles, or begins to succumb to them. That's what the sport is for me.
The sport gives you what you bring to it, and the fighters you've chosen, often choose you.
Now lets watch some guys, punch each other in the face.
e-mail Jeff Pryor
Friday, August 7, 2009
Jeff Pryor takes a look at what draws us to the fighters we cheer for.