I’m driving north out of Dallas on the tollway, moving fast, as Jimmy Buffet sings a love song “from a slightly different point of view” on the car stereo (“I really do appreciate the fact you’re sittin’ here…”). Past the Galleria Mall, with its red-spangled Christmas decorations crackling so bright they threaten to burn a hole in the night, never mind that it’s not yet Thanksgiving.
I’ve just turned 40 years old. It was a tougher birthday than most, and I want to be alone. So I’m headed for a sports bar called Humperdinks to watch Manny Pacquiao go toe-to-toe with Manuel Márquez for the WBO Welterweight Championship of the World. The bout’s been hyped like no other in recent memory, streamed live from Vegas courtesy of the MGM Grand, Tecate Cerveza, and HBO Pay-Per-View.
Tonight is the third time Pacquiao and Márquez will have met in the ring. The first fight, in 2004, ended in a draw. The second, in 2008, was handed to Pacquiao in a split decision. Pacquiao is heavily favored to win tonight’s match. At 32, the world-renowned Filipino fighter Manny Pacquiao might be the best boxer on the planet—possibly one of the best, pound-for-pound, ever. His opponent, the Mexican boxer Juan Manuel Márquez, at 38, has had to move up a weight class for tonight’s match, and word on the street is this could slow him down. Boxers are, for the most part, notoriously slow to embrace newfangled training techniques. For many, the extra power derived from muscle mass can come at the expense of hand speed.
The bar is almost empty when I walk in. At seven o’clock on a Saturday night, most boxing fans are still trying to decide where to watch the match on pay-per-view. I resist an urge to mutter, “Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.” My dad has a friend—a hard-living Oklahoman known by his friends as the Keith Richards of cowboys—who enjoys bellowing this phrase whenever he enters a watering hole, which is nearly every night. He’ll stare out from under his wide, black Stetson, thumbs framing his oversized silver belt buckle, daring someone to call his bluff. It’s a dramatic entrance, impossible to ignore. When it doesn’t get him in trouble it usually earns him and his friends a few free drinks.
But I am not the Keith Richards of cowboys, so I take a seat at the end of the bar, order a club sandwich and a 7-Up, and settle in for a long night of fights.
There are three bouts nobody cares about prior to the main event. Pacquiao and Márquez won’t touch gloves until nearly 11 o’clock. From my seat I count at least 13 television screens. Five or six of them—including the enormous, 10-foot-tall number directly in front of me—are showing the final minutes of the Texas A&M football game, which has gone into overtime against Kansas State. The other TVs are streaming either FOX News or Ultimate Fighting bouts, men bloodying one another with knees and elbows and wrestling moves designed to immobilize or destroy an opponent’s joints. Two displays feature interactive trivia and poker games you can play for the price of a wireless handset, if college football or political propaganda or submission wrestling doesn’t happen to be your thing.
Like the video game character from which he takes his nickname, Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao is hungry to prove he’s the best. He’s always on the move. Pac-Man has secured titles in no less than eight divisions—from light flyweight through light middleweight—including lineal championships (when a fighter wins a belt from the reigning champion, known as “the man who beat the man”) in four classes, something no other boxer has accomplished in the history of the sport. The Pac-Man is preternaturally talented.
But it takes more than talent to become a legend, or an instantly recognizable brand name. Ask any entrepreneur, artist, or sports figure at the top of his game and they’ll tell you: Hard work is more important to success than raw talent. Talent without dedication is too quickly discouraged.
Pacquiao works hard. For the last four weeks I’ve been watching both boxers prepare for this bout, on HBO’s Pacquiao-Márquez 24/7, a reality-type television series offering behind-the-scenes glimpses into each fighter’s training regimen. Pacquiao, at 142 pounds, is in the best shape of his life. A defensive tactician when he needs to be, Pacquiao crouches behind his forearms like a panther, waiting to pounce with predatory, lightning-quick punches if his opponent should drop his guard.
Pac-Man’s trainer Freddie Roach, who has Parkinson’s disease, and his strength coach Alex Ariza have engineered Pacquiao’s rise through the weight ranks with scientific precision. Before bringing Ariza on in 2008, Pacquiao was beginning to lose his legs earlier and earlier in his fights. Ariza worked with Roach to identify the fighter’s strategy for each bout, then instituted a rotating workout schedule to ensure his body can’t get comfortable with any given routine. He recommended nutritional supplements for recovery, obstacle courses for footwork, stretching exercises to avoid injury. During one recent episode of Pacquiao-Márquez 24/7, Ariza pounded at Pacquiao’s midsection with tiny leaden billyclubs, trying to toughen up his core in preparation for Márquez’s devastating right hook. Pac-Man was hurting—cursing, grimacing, and squirming all the while.
The results have been spectacular. Since his 2008 match with Márquez, Pacquiao has been chewing up fighters left and right. Nobody can touch him. And the rapid weight gain hasn’t put a dent in Pac-Man’s trademark speed. Assuming Pacquiao wins tonight’s fight, the only man left to beat is Floyd Mayweather, Jr., a gorgeously arrogant and talented fighter in his own right. Mayweather has a real chance of beating Pacquiao, and if the two men can agree on contractual stipulations regarding blood and urine testing—in recent months both camps have been trading accusations about steroid usage—their bout will go down in boxing history.
On the jumbotron above the bar the first bout begins. The first undercard match is for the WBO Super Featherweight Championship of the World: Juan Carlos Burgos, another Mexican, in the red trunks, against Puerto Rico’s Luiz Cruz, in white. Both fighters tipped the scales at 132 yesterday during the weigh-in.
Nothing can replicate the adrenaline rush you get from facing off against another human being who is trying to hurt you.
The featherweights touch gloves, the bell dings twice, and they’re off. Almost laughably young, these boxers are hairless and wiry. They look like children goofing around in the living room. But they’re working just as hard as Pacquiao and Márquez will be later tonight. Cruz keeps leading with his head and dropping his hands, overconfident, but by the end of the first round it’s Burgos who is bleeding from the nose.
The good fighters like Pacquiao make it look easy. But boxing, the “sweet science,” is incredibly difficult to get right. I know this because I’ve been taking sparring lessons in both boxing and karate for the past year. Four years ago, at the height of what seemed to be my midlife crisis, I enrolled in an American Kenpo karate class with my two daughters. Earlier this year I earned my green belt, a few months behind my 10-year-old. One of the requirements for that belt was a sparring “stripe,” to prove I could apply the techniques I’d been learning, in the more pressurized environment of a sparring ring.
For the first three years of my martial arts training, everything was theoretical. Karate was more about memory and self-control than anything else. It was often quite boring. I was there to spend time with my children, and reasoned that it would be more memorable for all of us if I was on my feet and moving on the mats with them, rather than sitting in the bleachers with the other parents. I used to complain to my Sifu (or karate teacher) that I wasn’t getting a sufficient cardio workout from the classes. He always looked at me kind of sideways when I said this. But whatever he was thinking, he kept it to himself.
Then I started sparring.
There is almost nothing that can replicate the adrenaline rush you get from facing off against another human being who is trying to hurt you. It doesn’t matter that you’re both wearing body armor: mouthpieces and foamed headgear, shinguards, gloves, boots, whatever. The fight or flight response is triggered anyway. Your heart races too fast. You forget how to breathe. And you enter a kind of hyper-alert, high-twitch state similar to shock.
I was immediately hooked.
There are three things the untrained martial artist must overcome if they want to get better. The first: Adrenaline fades quickly. After your fifth or sixth sparring bout your body begins to understand that you’re not, in fact, in any real danger. You stop flinching. You slow things down. Your body conserves its resources for more important battles.
The second is emotion: Never fight angry. This is easier said than done. When someone sucker punches you across the temple, even at half speed, the instinct is for revenge at any cost. But anger is a simple, too-focused emotion. It has a kind of blinding effect, like tunnel vision, that clouds the judgment. Fighting angry, you will likely walk into a punch or kick or takedown that could otherwise have been easily avoided.
The third is breathing. I am now a pretty effective sparring partner. I can protect myself against larger, faster, and better opponents. Defense is easier than offense. But when I go on the attack, I tend to hold my breath. I’m never conscious of doing this. Then, after about 20 seconds of hard sparring, I am suddenly spent. Once you get behind on your breathing, it’s impossible to catch back up and continue fighting. You’re done. Time to sit back on your heels or throw in the towel.
Pain doesn’t kick in until later, after the match is over. For me it’s usually the next day, when I will awake with sore muscles or purple bruises or aching joints. But physical pain is relatively easy to manage. It fades quickly. I now help teach Kenpo karate classes at the school where my children are enrolled. Whenever a child is accidentally hurt in class, Sifu and I show them to grab a fist around the place where it smarts, how to pull the hurt out slowly, away from the body, then exhale purposefully and toss the pain into the air. Where, we tell them, it simply disappears.
“Do you see it there?” we ask.
“No,” they say, looking around for the pain.
“It’s gone. Time to get back into class.”
Nine times out of 10 the kids buy it. It’s especially effective with the youngest children, the three- and four- and five year-olds, who haven’t yet learned to internalize things.
A baritone “ooh-rah” roar erupts around me. An MMA fighter has taken his opponent down, and is now pummeling him hard with hammerfists and wicked-looking elbows. The man being beaten quickly “taps out,” hitting the mat twice, very quickly, with his palm, signaling to the referee that it’s time to stop the fight.
The bar is filling up now. It’s nearly nine o’clock. By 10 it will be standing room only. Borgos has won the first bout. “Borgos just came in and took this away from Cruz,” says HBO’s ringside commentator admiringly. The camera pulls back and the big screen reveals the MGM Grand Garden arena, red and white and blue strobes bathing the newly anointed world champion in liquid light.
There are more champions waiting to prove themselves in the wings. The second undercard bout is for the IBF Junior Welterweight Championship of the World. The Columbian fighter Breidis Prescott, in red, white, and blue trunks, versus the American Mike Alvarado, whose arms and shoulders are heavily inked in tattoos.
This is a better fight. The boxers are bigger, at 140 pounds they resemble full-grown men. But after the first round Alvarado is already bleeding from the mouth. As his cutman patches him up in the corner, Alvarado looks genuinely frightened. He’s lost the first round to Prescott, a powerful puncher who keeps unloading on Alvarado with rapid-fire combinations to the body, twisting his legs and stomach like a dancer in front of the American, really putting the weight of his lower body into the punches.
The power in any given punch doesn’t come from a fighter’s fist. It rarely even comes from the muscles in his upper body. I began to understand this when I was training for my green belt in Kenpo, trying to learn a technique called “Hooking Wings.”
Imagine someone charging you from the front, advancing for a low tackle with their arms outstretched. Now step back with your left foot, hook the tackler’s wrists with your hands, pull him closer and kick him in the groin with your right foot. He will cave in on himself. His head will snap forward. As your foot falls floorward, execute an inward-downward hammerfist across his jaw with your right hand, from two o’clock to seven o’clock, the first swipe in what will eventually be an X. Lift your fist from seven o’clock up to 11 o’clock. Now a back-knuckle across the other side of the jaw, from 11 o’clock down to five o’clock. Also inward-downward, also with the right hand. This is the other side of the X.
Now turn your right heel toward the attacker. Your hips and upper body will respond, angling away from the threat. If you tighten the muscles along the left side of your stomach and touch the back of your head with your right hand, your elbow should travel along the same line your fist just did. It will meet the attacker’s jawbone, snapping his skull back. Finish the technique by turning back toward your attacker, whipping the flat part of your right palm back down. Done correctly, this should break his nose.
The most devastating blow in this technique is the elbow rising to meet the attacker’s jaw. The first 30 or 40 times I tried this I didn’t yet understand the footwork. I would swipe my fists along the X, then lift my elbow up awkwardly, trying to hit the attacker in the jaw. At this point, I would usually lose my balance and either stumble backward or fall on my butt.
What I didn’t get then was that the technique was all in the heels. Which in turn torqued the hips. Which twisted the stomach. Which whipped the elbow up in a tight, almost effortless line to meet the jawbone. Once I understood this, everything fell into place. When I teach “Hooking Wings” to my karate students—who are not allowed to practice the technique with another student until they have exhibited enough self-control to avoid injuring someone—I make them dangle their hands and learn the proper foot movements first. It’s a little bit like dancing. Once they get it, their arms start lifting, despite themselves, whipped by the centrifugal force of the footwork. Then they’re ready for the fun stuff, the fists and elbows and palm-heels. All of this is mere flash, cloaking the real substance of the footwork.
The crowd is milling around me. Someone bumps my knee and I look away from the screen. The bar is full now. There’s a marked increase in testosterone. A cocktail waitress in booty shorts delivers what looks like a beer bong to a nearby table, where a mob of obese men in button-down shirts and blue jeans sit smoking and drinking on their barstools.
Prescott has been punishing Alvarado for three straight rounds now. Alvarado is bleeding from the mouth, both nostrils, the eyebrow, and one ear. His right eye is almost hidden behind the swell of a large, purpling bruise.
“This is a mugging so far,” the ringside commentator says.
In boxing, in karate, and in the octagonal MMA ring, there are predefined rules of engagement. There will almost always be a clear victor, a man we can consecrate as the champion. When I spar, I can kick you in the groin (you should be wearing a cup), or across the side of the head (you should be wearing headgear), or punch you in the kidney. But I am not allowed to use elbows or knees—these are too dangerous—or to punch someone directly in the nose.
The rules are there to protect us from one another. They lend an aura of respectability to what would otherwise be a brutal and sadistic enterprise. Boxing isn’t about fighting, the rationale goes, but about competition.
Unless you’re fighting angry.
The taunts enraged Frazier, who started hitting Ali with his right hand. Ali seemed stung. Frazier wasn’t supposed to have a good right punch.
One of the most famous fights of all time was the third bout between Muhammad Ali and “Smokin” Joe Frazier. Billed as “The Thrilla in Manila,” this fight was one of the first global boxing telecasts, broadcast live via satellite from Manny Pacquiao’s very own homeland on Oct. 1, 1975. I was three years old. The fight began at 10 in the morning, Manila time, ensuring stateside viewers would be seeing it during primetime. It was almost 120 degrees in the arena when the boxers entered the ring.
In the months leading up to the fight, Ali taunted Frazier mercilessly in the press. He called Frazier names. He labeled him a “gorilla” because, among other things, it rhymed with Manila. Ali’s camp assumed Frazier was washed up. Frazier, after all, had suffered an embarrassing loss to George Foreman. As fight night approached, the invective got downright nasty. Frazier lacked the verbal virtuosity of Ali, whose boast that he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” could be recited by nearly every man, woman, and child on the planet by the time of the opening bell.
If you watch the match on television, you see a chilling example of what happens when tough talk, big money, and egos are allowed to go unchecked. The war of words between Ali and Frazier had hurt feelings on both sides. Both men were fighting angry. After the initial rounds, during which Ali danced around Frazier with his trademark zeal, Ali decided to taunt Frazier directly in the ring. Ali covered his face with his gloves, singing nursery rhymes, mocking Frazier.
The taunts enraged Frazier, who started hitting Ali with his right hand. Ali seemed stung. He hadn’t expected this. Frazier wasn’t supposed to have a good right punch. From that point on the match became a brutal sort of bloodsport. Both men pummeled one another nearly to death, back-and-forth shots landing directly on the skull and kidneys and heart. Frazier appeared, not just to be surviving, but to be winning the fight.
The match was to last 15 rounds. What nobody knew, other than Frazier’s corner crew, was that Frazier had been blind in his left eye for several years. And the punishment he’d received so far from Ali had swollen his right eye up to such a degree that he was effectively fighting blind. In the 14th round Frazier walked into several punches that should have knocked him down, if not unconscious. But every time he would stagger backward, recover, and come back for more. Watching the blows in slow motion, Frazier’s head snaps back, skullbones and facial muscles rippling freakishly until settling back into place. Then he walks right back into Ali, ready to give just as good as he’s gotten.
Back in Las Vegas, it looks like Alvarado is refusing to give up.
“So far Prescott hasn’t found that second gear,” says the HBO commentator Jim Lampley.
“Alvarado is swallowing blood,” says the other announcer, Max Kellerman. “His eyes are swelling shut. But he’s making the comeback necessary to get back into this fight.”
In Manila, at the end of round 14, Ali could no longer stand. He told his corner crew to cut his gloves off. The champ was done. But Ali’s trainer wouldn’t allow it. On the opposite side of the ring Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch was counseling him to do just the opposite, and throw in the towel. But Frazier wasn’t having any of this. He cursed at his crew, he shook his head violently from side to side. Frazier wanted one more round. He could taste victory.
It’s amazing that the fight wasn’t stopped seven or eight rounds before this. Both men—and this is no exaggeration—were near death. Ali’s ringside physician has said that watching the match made him sick. It forever soured his view of the sport. In interviews with Eddie Futch—who threw in the towel before the 15th round, saving Frazier’s life—the trainer has no regrets about handing the win to Ali. Futch had seen eight boxers die in the ring prior to that night. Every death had been under similar circumstances—a boxer blinded by rage, literally blinded from injury, unwilling to face the reality of his physical limitations.
When Frazier’s camp surrendered, Ali tried to stand and celebrate. He promptly passed out, falling flat onto his back. Since that moment, many have wondered if Ali would have been able to walk into the ring for the 15th round.
Back at the MGM Grand, the American boxer Alvarado has knocked Prescott down for the first time in the Columbian’s career. The referee soon stops the fight, a technical knockout, giving the match to Alvarado. As the jumbotron zooms in on Alvarado I hear gasps from the barstools around me. He looks like a lump of raw ground beef.
“He’s missing a piece of his face,” says Kellerman. “Something in his mouth busted open.”
Everyone’s blood is up by the time the boxers enter the ring for the third bout on tonight’s undercard. We’re increasingly impatient with these minor battles, anxious for the real war to begin between Pac-Man and Márquez. People are checking their cell phones between rounds, mesmerized by the steady swirl of bits and bytes and lights streaming from these hypnotic, inescapable screens.
The next fight is between Timothy Bradley, the current WBO Junior Welterweight Champion of the World, in brown trunks, and Joel Casamayor, a 40-year-old in white trunks who has held the belt several times in the past. When I hear Casamayor’s age, my ears perk up. I find myself rooting for the old-timer.
I turned 40 last weekend. I celebrated the end of my midlife crisis in New York City with my wife and our two girls. I woke up on my birthday, packed a backpack with my sparring gear and a digital camera, then took a taxi down to Zuccotti Park. After snapping a few photos of the Occupy Wall Street protestors, I wandered around Manhattan until I found the Church Street Boxing Gym, where I worked out with the heavy bags for 90 minutes before meeting up with my family. We hit all the tourist sites: the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, the horsedrawn carriage through Central Park, the Museum of Natural History, FAO Schwartz, and two Broadway musicals.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is at a crisis point of its own. The movement reminded me of the Grateful Dead concerts my wife and I used to attend in college, a bunch of shaggy, hopeful individualists with a bone to pick. There were drum circles and food lines, areas designated for arts and culture and debate, a lending library and a medical center. But the movement has yet to realize its true potential, much less get organized for the difficult task of participatory politics. Their flat, non-hierarchical structure discourages quick and decisive action.
They threw things. They slammed doors. During these arguments, my sisters and I would retreat to a far corner of the house and huddle together in silence, our hearts pounding.
And yet, almost in spite of this structure, the Occupy Wall Street protestors have had an impact on the national political debate. Before the occupation of Zuccotti Park, the only topic being discussed in Washington was how to reduce our national debt, debt, debt. Now, even Republican lawmakers have started addressing the growing income gap between rich and poor in this country.
As I sit here in Humperdinks, in Dallas, I’m amazed at the amount of energy that has gone into broadcasting and promoting the Pacquiao/Márquez fight. Yesterday was Veteran’s Day. And as I went about my workday, I was exposed to more pre-fight boxing hype than news coverage concerning the wars we’re waging. We have been fighting a “War on Terror” for an entire decade now. Ten years of Americans fighting, and killing, foreigners on their own soil. It’s a war that was started in anger, justified by trumped-up evidence and a dubious doctrine of “preemptive aggression.” It’s a fight that, as of this writing, has killed 6,314 American troops. This total doesn’t include other coalition casualties, or the countless civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has cost taxpayers an estimated $1.3 trillion, a burden our children will bear for decades to come.
The rules of war are not as clear as the rules inside of a boxing ring. The heroes are harder to find. The issues even harder to parse. There is rarely a clear champion. And other than for a few select military contractors, these recent wars have been money losers. And if there is any truism of American culture, it is that we prefer a winner who can make us rich. This is why we change the channel when the newscasters start discussing Iraq. This is why we sit, with baited breath, waiting to watch two men with padded gloves pound at one another for 12 rounds. It’s simple, gratifying, uncomplicated.
It remains to be seen whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will catch hold—as the Tea Party has done—and capture, not just our imagination, but our votes. This is where the real power lies. Their “group-think” dynamic ensures the protestors do not fight angry, as Obama and Boehner and the other politicians have, unfortunately, been doing all summer long. But the protests must move beyond the parks—as they’ve been forced to do in recent days—relying more on their arguments than their geography. They have to move past the crisis of recent days and grow—quickly, peacefully, and without anger—or the movement will stagnate, and die.
At the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the bullet-skulled Bradley dominates Casamayor, who keeps reeling, rope-a-dope, from corner to corner. Casamayor is seriously outmatched. When he’s not fleeing, Casamayor nearly tackles Bradley, hanging onto the younger fighter’s shoulders for dear life.
Casamayor’s trainer throws in the towel one second before the eighth-round closing bell.
Next up: Pacquiao vs. Márquez. The tension in the bar is palpable. You can smell it, mixed in with the cigarette smoke and cheddar fries and whiskey. Two barstools down from me, a man and a woman skirmish playfully over a lighter, faux-fighting for the flame.
On the bar’s jumbotron Larry Merchant, the acclaimed boxing announcer, is narrating an elegy to Joe Frazier, who died last week. Frazier died a bitter man, angry about his last loss to Ali. I watched an interview with Frazier’s brother recently on TV. To illustrate the depth of the embattled boxer’s existential pain, the younger Frazier dialed Smokin’ Joe’s cell phone number. Frazier’s answering machine message greets callers with a rhythmic, singsong taunt about Muhammad Ali and his Parkinsonian tremors.
“I did that,” Joe Frazier’s answering machine says proudly.
“I keep telling him,” said Frazier’s brother, hanging up the phone, “you can’t hold onto that. What’s done is done. It will eat you up inside.”
I can relate to this gnawing sensation.
When I was 15 years old my mother committed suicide, falling victim to a brutal combination of bipolar disorder and addiction. New Year’s Day will mark the 25th anniversary of her death.
We had warning signs. There were near-overdoses and hospital visits, therapists and prescription medications. Naps that lasted for days, followed by manic spells that, for a kid at least, could be quite fun.
And there were fights.
In the years leading up to her death, my parents would sequester themselves in their bedroom and shout at top volume. They threw things. They slammed doors. During these arguments, my sisters and I would retreat to a far corner of the house and huddle together in silence, our hearts pounding. Invariably, the next day, none of us would mention what had occurred.
For me, turning 40 was difficult. I put a lot of pressure on the milestone. My mother died when she was 39-and-a-half years old. It hurt, realizing I’d finally outlived her. As a child, I assumed the adults around me had everything worked out. They made the rules, I followed them. Someday I would be making the rules. Then I would have it all figured out.
This has not turned out to be the case. I am still confused. About the death, about the rules, about everything. And while I have never experienced the kind of pain suffered by my mother, I still struggle with a not-insignificant amount of residual anger at the way she threw in the towel.
The Pac-Man is entering the arena now.
In the ring the rules are clear. Outside of it we must make them up as we go along. We sit on our barstools because it’s easier than standing up for what we believe in. We learn to fight because it’s easier than learning to love. Everything is connected. Power comes from the place you’d least expect. Move, and get hurt.
But don’t hold onto the pain.
We’re waiting, every one of us, alone together in the bar. Holding our breath. Ready for the larger-than-life men on the big screen to tell us something about the battles being waged, every second of the day, inside our wild and beating hearts.