Sport, at its best, is great theatre. And there’s something about boxing that lends it to the theatrical and the dramatic.
More than any other sport, boxing has been rich fodder over the decades for writers, playwrights, artists, authors and directors.
From “The Fight” by Norman Mailer and “Rope Burns” by FX Toole, to such films as “Raging Bull”, “The Fighter” and “When We Were Kings”, the sweet science has long been examined, debated and explored.
There is something about the fight game, something intrinsic about the basic battle between two opponents with their fists, that leads to great art. Perhaps part of it has to do with the characters the sport attracts – the heroes, villains, show-ponies and fragile champions – from Ali, Leonard and Robertson, to Liston and Tyson, to Mayweather, Hamed and Judah, to Bruno, Patterson and countless others.
Another part is the stories the sport creates – the rags to richest tales, the values it embodies, the life-changing journeys, the tragic falls of some boxers, its redemptive qualities and the opportunities it can offer.
There is a lot of good in boxing, but there is also a lot of bad, which all makes the sport more intriguing. The internal clash of the good and the evil, from heroic fighters and trainers to dodgy promoters, mob involvement and fixed bouts, is a compelling aspect. Boxing’s ability to shoot itself in the foot, but manage to survive despite changes in society and the wider sporting landscape, is a testament to its appeal.
Recently I witnessed boxing being dissected on stage, a medium I usually avoid like the plague. “Beautiful Burnout” is a Scottish play that follows five aspiring boxers in a Glasgow gym, each aspiring for bigger and better things. I saw it at the Sydney Festival (It is currently playing in Perth at the Perth Festival) and I was impressed by the way it deals with the wavering fortunes, backgrounds and desires of the five fighters.
With amazing choreography, a pumping soundtrack and credible performances, this was an experience for both fight fans and boxing novices to enjoy.
I also saw “I’m Your Man” – another boxing play at the Sydney Festival, but this one was Australian and mostly centred around the run to a world title for featherweight Billy Dib.
The play’s creator, Roslyn Oades, followed Dib around for 18 months with a tape recorder, noting his thoughts, feelings and desires as he trained to get to the top. “I’m Your Man”, which is set in a boxing gym, also reveals the tales of legends of the Aussie fight game like Jeff Fenech, Tony Mundine and Gus Mercurio, who have battled, strived, won and lost on their boxing journeys.
A moving and enlightening piece of theatre, this was boxing at its rawest and most compelling. Oades told me that she came up with the idea when she was first exposed to the world of pugilism.
“It’s a really close community, a community of warriors,” she said.
“I was quite impressed by the [boxing] environment. I found it to be quite a fascinating world, filled with people who are really physical and really courageous. A lot of the boxers I met had really big hearts. They’re also really generous people. It made quite an impact on me.”
Oades plans to take “I’m Your Man” around Australia and overseas, and admits she doesn’t know why boxing is such a rich subject matter for many artists.
“There’s a lot of great history to boxing,” she said.
“Australia has this legacy of great warriors. I don’t know [why boxing appeals]; it’s really interesting. Someone told me there’s a lot of shows in the UK about boxing at the moment, so it’s not just here. Maybe its going to have a big revival.”
“To be part of a football team, it’s warlike; it’s like winning a battle together [when you win a game]. But a boxing match can be god-like, it’s one person overcoming this huge obstacle in public. It’s quite contagious to watch someone go through that and succeed, and devastating to watch them fail.”
To use a bad cliché, boxing tends to just punch above its weight in both the sporting and artistic world.
It’s golden age is long gone and modern boxing is beset with many issues and challenges, but the sport continues to roll on.
Whether its the ugly stain of two British heavyweights glassing each other in Germany, the continuous non-events between the two best fighters on the planet, or the often farcical bouts that are often served up to die-hard fans, boxing will still survive.
It’s enduring qualities and its indistinguishable narratives of good and evil, right and wrong – as well as its tangled mess of hopes, dreams, drama and despair – cannot be knocked out.