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Requiem for boxing: the decline of the Sweet Science Add to ...

It is the opportunity to get close to something primal, and not just the opportunity for macho posturing (though there has been a fair bit of that as well), which has forever attracted writers to the ring apron.

It is the opportunity to experience from a safe distance pain, and danger, to understand instantly when a fighter is hurt, to see the other resist the human impulse for compassion and go in for the kill (which very, very rarely is actually a kill), and to frame all of that with stories of plucky poor kids and tragic heroes, and venal exploiters and miscast warriors, and a supporting rogues gallery of colourful and unvarnished and outrageous characters. (It would take quite the literary imagination to invent a Don King.)

If we don't speak that language any more, what replaces it? What would a literature of MMA sound like – or is that the wrong art form entirely? Can a sport that is equally bloody but significantly less dangerous, that has an entirely different set of patterns, that for all of its outlaw posturing is really a single button-down corporate enterprise produce the equivalent, or even anything close?

The sweep of history

Look at George Bellows's famous painting of the fight between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art. It is all there, capturing the moment when the Argentine challenger nearly pulled off one of the great upsets in sport history, knocking Mr. Dempsey, the heavyweight champion, through the ropes and out of the ring. The early-20th-century superman falling helplessly like Icarus, the shocked expressions in the crowd, Mr. Firpo, savagely powerful and temporarily triumphant (Mr. Dempsey would be pushed back into the ring, and then knock Mr. Firpo out.) It is a moment not just in sport, but in time.

Boxing lends itself to larger interpretation, and extrapolation. It seems to mirror larger social shifts, emerging from its outlaw origins in the 18th and 19th centuries, civilized to a degree by the adoption of the Marquess of Queensberry rules (MMA devotees can argue with some authority that earlier forms of boxing, which incorporated grappling elements, were closer in spirit and practice to their sport than the entirely stand-up game it would become), producing in turn the first true sports superstar in John L. Sullivan, the greatest hero of sport's golden age in Mr. Dempsey, and the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, whose echoes could still be heard half a century later in the ascendance of Muhammad Ali, who was once the most famous man on Earth.

In the background, the very makeup of the sport – boxing has always been an option for those with few options, the poor, the dispossessed – created a group portrait of those who had to fight to survive: the Irish and the Jews in 1920s and 1930s, two 20th-century waves of Italian immigrants, a massive Hispanic presence beginning in the 1960s, and African Americans throughout. Sometimes it was an opportunistic reach, linking individual fights to the larger political and cultural ethos. Joe Louis, for instance, probably didn't really have the Italian invasion of Ethiopia on his mind when he battered hapless Primo Carnera in 1935. But three years later almost to the day, in his monumental second fight with Germany's Max Schmeling, there is no question that he understood the symbolism attached to the bout by a world on the verge of war (in winning, Mr. Louis would become a patriotic symbol and the first black athlete to be fully embraced by white America.)

Other signpost fights, at least in hindsight, are less explicitly political in their significance, but still seem to sum up a time, to represent a point of demarcation. Rocky Marciano's knockout of Joe Louis in 1951 was a symbolic beginning of the postwar era. Joe Frazier's victory over Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century in 1971, pitted two great African American warriors against each other, one whose stand against the war in Vietnam would cost him his title and three years in exile, and transformed him into a worldwide icon; the other, cast (unfairly) as an Uncle Tom, entered the ring as a proxy of the war-mongering Establishment.

Even the 1988 heavyweight title bout between Michael Spinks and Mike Tyson in Atlantic City now seems absolutely emblematic of the Greed Decade (now would be the Greed Decade, redux), with Donald Trump, the event's underwriter, at ringside – an earlier incarnation, the self-promoting real-estate developer Mr. Trump, not the reality television star/birther/freakshow presidential aspirant of the moment. Mr. Tyson, standing and sneering after dispatching Mr. Spinks in 91 seconds, his last moment teetering on the peak, was not the only one about to come crashing down.

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