Last night I watched the eagerly awaited mismatch between David Haye and Audley Harrison. I wanted the better boxer to win in style, and he did. I like watching boxing but I always feel slightly strange when I do, because I’m torn between three ways of feeling about it.
It’s not hard to make the case that boxing’s barbaric. We pay people to punch each other beyond the point at which it starts being quite bad for their health, purely for the entertainment of millions. It’s not unheard of for someone to die. I can’t feel completely comfortable being one of those millions, because I suppose I’d like society to have been able to progress beyond that sort of thing by now. I’m not saying boxing is barbaric, but if you didn’t know better it’d certainly sound that way.
On the other side there are all the reasons why boxing is called the noble art. There are the obvious things like it being one of the few routes poor teenage boys used to have out of poverty, but the more I think about boxing the nobler it seems. It’s got a rich history, some great movies and Muhammad Ali. It also fairly obviously taps into something visceral about human nature which it might be a great shame to give up. We haven’t given up eating for pleasure, and maybe we’d miss getting people to fight each other too.
The third thing, which can’t really be reconciled with either of the other two, is that boxing is hilarious. It’s hilarious in almost exactly the way that professional wrestling is hilarious. We see all the hype, trash-talking, cartoonish bodies and silly sums of money flying around, and the focus of it all is seven minutes of squaring up followed by one minute of a good boxer taking a mediocre one to pieces. So when I’m watching boxing I don’t know whether to be appalled, edified or amused, and you can’t easily be more than one of those things at once.