Boxing: a life less ordinary

Saturday's welterweight title fight exemplified the joy and brutality of the sport - and why it must not be banned.

While today’s heavyweight boxers are either floundering or are too risk-averse to command much concern, it is easy to overlook some of the smaller men among boxing’s elite. The welterweight division - men weighing up to 147 pounds - has just lost Floyd Mayweather, the greatest name in the sport today, who retired recently after deciding that his fight with Britain’s Ricky Hatton would be his last. But the division still contains an unrivalled depth of talent. Last weekend, Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito attempted to fill the void in a thrilling fight in Las Vegas.

Cotto, hailing from Puerto Rico, came into the fight with an unblemished record and was a firm favourite. Not only was he defending his World Boxing Association (WBA) title, but he also had the chance to put himself up near the top of the list of the best boxers, pound-for-pound (p4p). The p4p ratings have no direct sporting significance; there’s no prize for being top of the list. It’s just an excuse for fight fans and commentators to argue over who they think the best boxer is, regardless of weight. And in an era when the official championship belts mean less and less, being well-placed in the p4p lists is a serious matter of pride for the top fighters.

With a tremendous amateur pedigree, Cotto had been groomed for stardom, rising up from light-welterweight to welterweight, and battling out wins against some of the biggest names. Margarito, from Mexico, though widely acknowledged as a dangerous fighter who was avoided by many other top fighters, had five losses weighing on his record and seemed to be heading towards the role of opponent, rather than that of contender or champion.

It all seemed to be going to form in the early stages. For the first six rounds, Cotto fought like a dream. When they came head-to-head, Margarito towered over him (at five feet 11, he had a four-inch advantage over Cotto). But in the first round, as they sounded each other out with the lead hand, it was Cotto who won the jabbing war. Normally boxers lead with their weaker hand, holding their stronger hand back for power punches. Cotto defies convention, leading with his stronger, left hand - and he used it to great effect.

Margarito managed to assert himself in the second round, thrashing away at Cotto’s body, but the fight took on a pattern with the bigger man coming forward and Cotto always on the retreat. But Margarito could not catch him. Cotto attacked off the backfoot, blocking or slipping Margarito’s shots and counterattacking accurately with hooks and uppercuts of his own. By the fifth, Cotto’s rhythm was such that at the end of the round he dropped his gloves and planted his feet, dodging a flurry of punches from Margarito only by snapping his head from side to side.

But curiously, control of the fight changed, though the pattern remained just the same. Cotto always ceded the centre of the ring to his opponent, always retreating to the ropes. It hadn’t worked for six rounds, but Margarito persisted and somehow, in the seventh, he found a way through. In a sense, it was a triumph for sheer bloody-mindedness: if at first you don’t succeed, keep throwing yourself at the wall until it falls over.

While before Cotto could slip and spin his way free, now he found himself stuck on the end of those long arms. By the eighth round, Cotto looked so small compared to his opponent that when he stung back with punches of his own, Margarito just trudged through them. What had been a high-intensity contest turned into a ritual, its end inevitable. Cotto kept trying to dance clear, he kept trying to hit back, but every blow he took slowed him down, while Margarito was relentless.

Boxers are judged not just on their boxing skill, the durability of their chin or their punching power; they are also judged on their ‘heart’, their spirit and pride, their appetite to keep on going. Cotto is not faint-hearted - his previous fights have shown quite the opposite to be true - but Margarito ground down his defence and kept on going until he had broken Cotto’s heart as well.

When the end came, Margarito didn’t need to land a punch. In the eleventh, he knocked Cotto down on to one knee. Cotto pushed himself back up and like before he tried to back away. But by now Cotto could only move in straight lines and Margarito followed straight after him. Cotto retreated into a corner, and maybe he saw his own corner throw in the towel, but his legs crumpled beneath him and he slumped down as if he were trying to sit on a stool that wasn’t there.

Immediate knockdowns and knockouts are easier to watch than a boxer slowly being ground down. Brain injuries are terrifying and the sport’s aficionados, because they are an essential part of the event, ought to think as deeply as anyone about the risks boxers run. Oscar Diaz, another welterweight, remains in a critical condition after collapsing in the ring earlier this month.

For some, such tragedies demonstrate the need to outlaw the sport. The British Medical Association (BMA) still calls for a total ban on boxing, amateur and professional. Their point is not that boxing causes more injuries or fatalities than other sports - horse riding or mountaineering, for instance, are riskier. Their point is that boxers intend to harm one another.

At first glance, it is hard to argue with this. A necessary part of a punch is hitting someone. The scoring system for professional boxing not only rewards fighters for blows landed but particularly rewards knockdowns (in a way that amateur boxing does not). But a boxer would disagree with the idea that the aim is to injure the opponent. Joe Calzaghe, Britain’s best boxer, has said that he has no intention of harming his opponents. Obviously, he does not punch the other guy by accident, but the aim is to defeat rather than injure the other boxer. Even after a knockout victory, almost the first thing a fighter does is go to the opposite corner to check that his opponent has recovered.

The point is that in boxing you do not get a single ‘killer blow’ that can be cited as the cause of an accident. As the BMA points out, injuries are the result of the accumulation of punches over the course of a career rather than any single blow or single match. Boxers know that their trade is a painful business, and they should be fully aware of the dangers involved and boxing should be organised to minimise those dangers.

But boxing should not be banned. The BMA may not like it, but people have a right to choose to what risks to take. In the end, Miguel Cotto lost - and he was hurt, at least temporarily. But in the fifth round, when he was really moving, when he was slipping those punches, he wouldn’t have felt ordinary. He must have felt really free.

John Dennen is a freelance writer and boxed for Oxford University while a student there.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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