A man must fight
Gene Tunney, arguably the best heavyweight champion in history and himself a renaissance man, titled his autobiography “A Man Must Fight”. Boxing fans know him principally for his dethroning of the beloved Jack Dempsey by shutout decision and then the allegedly controversial “long count” rematch. He also shares with Rocky Marciano and Lennox Lewis the distinction of being the only heavyweight champs to retire having beaten every man he faced. Impressive.
I hold an affection for Tunney because not only was he a well-rounded, cerebal man as comfortable in the social circles of the heiress he married as he was in the prize ring, but he was also a dedicated humble man with incredible courage and determination as exemplified by his first bout with my all-time favourite fighter Harry Greb. Witness his own description from his book:
In the first exchange of the fight, I sustained a double fracture of the nose which bled continually until the finish. Toward the end of the first round, my left eyebrow was laid open four inches… In the third round another cut over the right eye left me looking through a red film. For the better part of twelve rounds, I saw this red phantom-like form dancing before me.
It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of this fight. My seconds were unable to stop either the bleeding from the cut over my left eye, which involved a severed artery, or the bleeding consequent to the nose fractures…..
… The bell rang for the thirteenth round; the seconds pushed me from my chair. I actually saw two red opponents. How I ever survived the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth rounds is still a mystery to me. At any rate, the only consciousness I had was to keep trying. I knew if I ever relaxed, I should either collapse or the referee would stop the brutality. After the gong sounded, ending the fifteenth round, I shook hands with Greb and mumbled through my smashed and swollen lips, “Well, Harry, you were the better man, to-night!” and I meant that literally. Harry missed the subtlety of the remark, for he said, “Won the championship,” and was dragged from me by one of his seconds, who placed a kiss on his unmarked countenance.
A man must fight. There are rituals in all societies marking a boy’s ascent to manhood. The English rural artistocrats would blood their sons on hunting day, for example. Fighting is integral to a fully actualised man’s demeanor. Like saying, “he’s a lover not a fighter. But he’s also a fighter so don’t get any ideas.” You can see the difference in body language and presence between a man who has fought and acquitted himself to his own satisfaction and the lilly-livered pussy who still fears physical confrontation. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” ask’s Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. This doesn’t count as a fight…..
My first fight came in Japan in an amateur kickboxing show. I’d signed up on a whim, having read Kurt Angle‘s biography while on holiday in Thailand and then returned to Tokyo with a drive to put myself into the ring and see what I’m made of. Before then I’d been practicing a sophisticated ego-driven avoidance by training martial arts but finding excuses not to fight. So I sign up and train hard for six weeks with roadwork, good diet, and frequent sparring. By the final week my body is at it’s lifetime peak of fitness. I wake every morning feeling like I’ve won the genetic lottery. I’m full of pep and spring for whatever the day throws at me. It’s a feeling of almost indescribable physical bliss. But I’m ill-prepared for the effects of adrenalin.
A week before the fight a tiny kernal of stress balls itself up in the pit of my stomach and begins growing relentlessly. I get increasingly distracted from my daily tasks as my mind wanders to my opponent and fight night. I struggle to get good sleep and my appetite wanes. The closest analogy I can find is the week before an important exam. I understand now why trainers say most fights are lost in the dressing room. It’s a struggle to master the adrenalin and the emotions it brings. But as fight day arrives I feel good.
The fight itself is a blur. I forget all my higher skills, forced to get by on muscle memory and determination. I take far more punches than in the gym and I can hear my girlfriend shouting “Don’t hit my boyfriend!” But I perserve until the fight finishes with my chasing my opponent around the ring because I hit much harder than he. He gets a well-earned decision based on his good start. We shake hands and as my seconds remove my gloves my girl can’t keep her hands off me. The power of testosterone! I retire to the best shower of my life and for a week afterwards I’m walking on air. I’m blooded. I know more about myself. In the early-going I was battered from pillar-to-post and never gave up.
So as I write I’m sitting in my Thai apartment the morning after watching a gym-mate headline a small hall muay thai show. He’s a 45-yr old former fighter (not high level, just avid martial artist) who wanted one last chance to experience the thrill of the ring. In truth it was a poor fight. He’s shot. I’d only met him that night, as it was my first day in Thailand, but simply watching him perform the pre-fight Wai Kru ritual I knew he was done. His body was too stiff, too ringworn, I knew he wouldn’t even be able to turn his kicks over at the hip. It was exciting while it lasted but eventually he retired on his stool at the end of the fourth with a broken rib and right hand.
Disappointed? You wouldn’t know to look at him. He’d been in the ring with the buzz of adrenalin, the din of a cheering crowd, and the look of satisfaction of having been hit hard but give it back as best as he could. Needless to say the women mobbed him.