November 29, 2001

Kings of the Ring

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Serious athletes, both amateur and professional, are trained from early on to be competitive and intense. Coaches and trainers tell them they’re fighting battles, wars, and implore them to kill their opposition. It’s like the recordings played for the characters in A Brave New World: These athletes are constantly bombarded with messages defining opponents as enemies.

Of course, these are all metaphors, and there is nothing wrong with a competitive fire. But keep repeating the same “win at all costs” mantras often enough and losing soon becomes so unbearable that the competitive fire in athletes causes them to snap.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in boxing — the most primitive of contests, where two people get in the ring and pound each other to a pulp. Boxing is a one-on-one, me-versus-you, fight-until-there’s-a-winner type of sport. And boxers seem to slip easily into the mentality that the rules vanish in the ring and that a boxing match truly becomes an anarchistic world in which the strongest is the ruler.

Two recent cases illustrate this point perfectly. The most prominent is that of James Butler, who you may have seen on SportsCenter throwing a bare-knuckle punch at his opponent — after the bout was over.

Butler, a middleweight known as the “Harlem Hammer,” had just lost a 10-round match to underdog Richard Grant on Nov. 23. When Grant went to embrace Butler after the match, a typical gesture of sportsmanship between boxers, the Hammer let fly with a quick hook that sent Grant to the canvas with a cut tongue that required stitches.

Butler faces seven years in prison for second-degree assault and also faces a suspension for the sucker punch. In addition, Butler might lose his $10,000 purse for the fight. The sad thing is, the fight was the last one on a card whose proceeds were to benefit the Twin Towers Fund. Butler was supposedly going to donate his purse to the Fund as well.

To do something like Butler did puts another black mark on the already darkened record of boxing, soils his own reputation, and shortchanges a worthwhile charity. And I wish I could say that Butler’s act was an aberration. But it isn’t.

Less than three weeks before the Butler-Grant incident, a fighter named Zab Judah put his glove to referee Jay Nady’s chin after Nady stopped Judah’s 140-pound title unification bout with Kostya Tszyu. Judah had to be restrained from going after Nady several times that night, and Judah threw a stool after the fight. The reason? He was mad that the ref gave Tszyu the win after Tszyu knocked him down twice in the second round.

Now Judah will face the consequences. Tomorrow he will appear before Nevada boxing officials, who have the power to take away his $885,000 paycheck and revoke his boxing license. While the punishment will probably not be that severe, Judah deserves all that he will get.

The sport has a long and colorful history of antics like these two. The most memorable, of course, is Mike Tyson biting a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Then there were the two Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota matches, both of which were won by Bowe because Golota insisted on hitting below the belt and was disqualified. The first of those two bouts even ended in a riot in the ring in which walkie-talkies were used as weapons.

A couple of months ago, Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman appeared on ESPN’s Up Close to discuss their upcoming heavyweight title bout. The interview degenerated into a fight on the set that began with the two pushing each other and culminated with them crashing through the interview table.

Of course, the phenomenon of out-of-control athletes isn’t restricted to boxing. There are famous instances of athletes in other sports getting carried away when the play is over. Take Dale Hunter’s hit on Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 NHL Playoffs. Turgeon had just scored a goal and was celebrating when Hunter blindsided him, separating Turgeon’s shoulder and drawing the third-longest suspension in NHL history.

Similarly, not all boxers are maniacs. Thanks to the nature of news, you don’t hear about the countless fights that end in a gentlemanly manner. Boxers can be civil, as even Butler demonstrated with his desire to donate his whole purse.

I don’t mean to single out boxing for a few athletes’ unsportsmanlike savagery. But these boxers are perfect examples of trained fighters who lack an ability to leave their competitive fury in the arena. They are men who have trained intensively to become human weapons. They can easily inflict pain. And it seems as though they have a lot of trouble switching out of their fight modes. Perhaps these boxers should work equally hard at controlling their emotions and fighting when they are supposed to — when the bell sounds.

Archived article by Alex Fineman