WAIL!... The CBZ Journal
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November 2002
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Did Heidegger Dig Boxing?
By Brett Conway

Just the other day my friend telephoned. He was writing a paper about German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger but was unable to locate a quotation. He told me the quotation in question had something to do with Heidegger's call for metaphysics to return to the pre-Socratic philosophers and how Being is in perpetual withdrawal. I had never really understood Heidegger nor had I read anything by or about him in years; nonetheless, I tried my best to help. I fumbled through a maze of terms and ideas I could barely remember and called him back. My friend, a fervent believer in quid pro quo, then asked about my interest -- boxing. He asked for my thoughts on the John Ruiz-Kirk Johnson heavyweight championship fight which turned into a fiasco for Johnson. The Canadian Johnson was disqualified for landing too many low blows. My friend only inquired out of politeness, though. As he hung up, I could hear him chuckling over my outrage at the outcome of the match. He always laughs at my proletarian hobby.

I am alone among my friends as a boxing enthusiast, but they are all nice about it. They quietly endure my poetic rhapsodies about Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Joe Frazier. They look at me quizzically when I mention current fighters like Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad, and Fernando Vargas, for they have never heard of them. They tssk me when I explain Mike Tyson's transgressions through the lens of trauma theory or explain a fighter's comeback via Kierkegaard's idea of repetition. In addition, they are amazed when they hear I have an M.A. in English Literature for writing a thesis on boxing literature. After hearing that, yes, I did go to a real university, they jibe sarcastically, "Way to go. You intellectualized boxing" as if I pulled off the most unlikely of cons. The laughter of the literate does not worry me though because whenever I watch a great boxing match (Ali-Foreman, Reid-Trinidad, Gatti-Ward) I know I'm watching something important, something that says something about the core of human existence, the ground of our Being, something that -- if only my philosopher friend knew! -- I am sure Martin Heidegger would enjoy.

If I could force my friend to sit still to hear my argument (although the examiners at my thesis defense could barely sit through it), I would argue, let us do what Heidegger says. Let's turn back to the pre-Socratics and hear what boxing says to us as we listen to the mystery of Being itself. Who is that I hear? Is it Heraclitus, Mr. Everything-Is-In-Flux? What is he saying? He is telling me that he found a chum in the famous boxing trainer and manager of Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres, and Mike Tyson named Cus D'Amato. I hope my philosopher friend is listening to this, too.

The sixth century B.C. philosopher Heraclitus argued that our world is one place of strife where battles are raged between competing elements. Among the four (earth, water, air, fire), fire is the dominant one, the destroyer. In fact, it is the One. However, by harnessing fire, we can use it for constructive rather than destructive purposes; it can be an aid for dominating others. If not controlled though, it destroys everything in its path. To be moist (air, water, and earth) is to be weak; to be dry (fire) is to be strong. Fire, though, cannot exist without the other elements, air, water, and earth, respectively. Thus, Heraclitus ultimately believed in a unity in difference. This conflict of opposites, of competing elements, is needed for the existence of the One.

Cus D'Amato, described as a student of Zen by American writer Norman Mailer, shared Heraclitus's philosophical system without knowing it. D'Amato argued boxers prepare to do battle not just with their opponent but also with themselves, with their own fear which he describes as being fire. D'Amato says of fear, "fear is like a fire. If you control it, as we do when we heat our houses, it is a friend. When you don't, it consumes you and everything around you." He also says, "the hero and the coward both feel exactly the same fear, only the hero confronts his fear and converts it into fire." When the boxer controls and projects the fire of fear beyond himself, he is able to conquer his opponent. D'Amato famously describes Muhammad Ali as a good but not great boxer who could control his fear, his fire, and project it outward better than any other boxer could. Ali moulded his fear into a kind of psychic shield. At sixty, D'Amato could see through Ali's bluff, though. He bloodied "the Greatest"'s mouth when Ali tried an Ali-shuffle on him.

All boxers have fear, have this fire raging inside. Jose Torres turned to writing after his boxing career, putting D'Amato's philosophy into written form. He is to D'Amato what Plato was to Socrates. In his biographies of Muhammad Ali and a prime Mike Tyson, the former light heavyweight champion Torres delights in describing the trembling bellies belonging not only to the opponents these two great fighters are about to dispatch but also to Ali and Tyson themselves. It is no accident he titled his Tyson biography Fire & Fear. If all boxers experience fear, this fire can only be directed, not completely controlled. That is why writer Joyce Carol Oates writes, "boxing consumes the very excellence it displays." It is why some boxers who were previously dominant are suddenly ruined after one bad fight. Their fire has consumed their skill. For example, the 1996 Olympic Gold medallist and former junior middleweight champion David Reid is still a young man in his mid-twenties. He was beaten badly by the Puerto Rican fighter Felix Trinidad on March 5, 2000. Suddenly this boxer with only one loss on his fight record was, and is still, described as being "burnt out".

Seeing the rise and fall of fighters, watching hypnotized as the referee pulls the victor off the loser slumped in the corner (while we are both relieved and saddened that the carnage is over), realizing ones ambivalence about boxing, enjoying the Dionysian splendour of it but also allowing the Apollinian condemnation of it -- these experiences are as fundamental to boxing as a jab or a left hook. They allow us to generalize beyond the ring to make conclusions about life itself, about its ambiguity and its strife. I think Heraclitus would look at boxing and argue that the boxers' tensions, their fiery fears, their birth and growth, their decline and death, show Being at its most authentic. They signify the existence of the One, of God, of the universe itself.

I hope this argument has convinced my friend. I hope he realizes that boxing, like metaphysics, seeks Being. I hope the next time he calls he asks not just about Heidegger but about the fiercely ideological 1938 match between heavyweight great Joe Louis and Heidegger's fellow German and contemporary Max Schmelling or about the second Louis-Conn fight, for my answer will be on the tip of my tongue. "Do you remember what Joe Louis said about Being's perpetual withdrawal?" he might ask. "Yes, I remember what he said," I would reply. "He used personification to describe Being. He said 'he can run but he can't hide.'"


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