I’ve seen hundreds of men (and more than a handful of women) get knocked out in the boxing ring. Mostly, these knockouts were very satisfying.
It seems terrible to write that you enjoy seeing people suffer (minor) brain injuries, but it’s self-evidently part of boxing’s appeal — witness the continuing popularity of Mike Tyson YouTube clips or the growing stardom of Gennady Golovkin.
Yet some people say they watch boxing to appreciate the skill and athleticism of boxers. Others say they like to see “heart.” This is no doubt true, but it’s not the whole story. Boxing matches that don’t end in knockouts can be enjoyable, but they also feel unfulfilled, almost by definition. The most transcendent boxing spectatorship experiences end with somebody unconscious (or covered in blood, at the very least). To paraphrase the late Robin Williams, people don’t go to stock car races to see people take left turns all day.
No, watching boxing and its ultimate product — the knockout — is stimulation for a twisted part of our monkey brain we’d rather pretend doesn’t exist. If you start to put yourself in the shoes of the knockout victim — to think about what it feels like to be forcibly separated from consciousness under hot lights in front of a chanting mob — the whole thing becomes too much to bear. Many people don’t “get” boxing for this reason, and you can hardly blame them.
If you want to really enjoy boxing, you have to make sure that the part of your brain that allows you to give to charity, go to church, hold down a job, etc. is switched off and that the prehistoric brain — the part that has you standing on your seat screaming with the taste of blood in the back of your mouth — is in control.
Intellect can always reassert itself and ruin the fun, though. When a boxer is injured or worse, excitement quickly turns to concern and then guilt. Manny Pacquiao’s fight with Ricky Hatton remains etched in my memory mainly for the uncertain minutes after Hatton was knocked out, and the attendant suspicion that I might have witnessed something even more disturbing than a boxing match. When a boxer you like—or even worse, a boxer you know — gets hurt or loses, you experience the same sudden, unwelcome awareness of what you’re watching. Which is why I remained in my seat last Saturday night when Miguel Cotto knocked out Daniel Geale (in the technical sense, anyway).
Geale was the first world class boxer I spent any time with. While we’re by no means friends, I’ve talked to him a lot over the last half decade, I’ve heard his kids screaming in the background over the phone and I’ve spoken to his wife. He was a hero for many here in Australia, a quiet overachiever, the country’s best boxer for much of his career. Perhaps his enduring legacy will be the great service he did the sport by traveling to Germany in 2011 and 2012, rescuing the middleweight belts that were held hostage there by Sebastian Sylvester and Felix Sturm.
While many boxers are softly spoken, Geale has always been humble almost to a fault. When local loudmouth Anthony Mundine called him an Uncle Tom, insulted his wife and his Indigenous heritage before one of their fights, the best Geale could muster was: “The guy definitely doesn’t think before he talks.”
It always seemed like he arrived at his position in boxing in spite of his personality, rather than because of it. There’s something admirable about that. Few of us are born with God-given talent. We too have to work hard to succeed. “I am trying to have more of a killer instinct,” he told me a few weeks ago. “I’ve had to work on that since I was 15 years old.”
Geale has never been a “finisher,” that most valued of attributes in a prize fighter. I was shocked when he knocked Darren Barker down with a gruesome liver shot, but wasn’t surprised when he couldn’t keep him that way.
It wasn’t as if his career was over after that, though. He’d just lost a close fight. He returned to Australia and scored an easy win over Sydneysider Garth Wood. We knew he’d be back. When he was knocked out by Golovkin last July, somehow that was alright too because, well, everybody gets knocked out by Gennady Golovkin.
Still, I picked Geale, a four to one underdog, over Cotto this past weekend. I thought perhaps his size and activity could trouble the Puerto Rican, who hadn’t faced a challenge for years. As it turned out, “The Real Deal” lost the fight before it even began; forced to make a 157-pound catchweight, he arrived in the ring clammy and distracted. To say he looked like death warmed up would be an insult to honest leftovers. Even his pre-fight stretching was unconvincing.
Would Geale would have beaten Cotto as a full-blown middleweight? It seems unlikely. Cotto’s footwork was balletic, his punches crisp and the left hook that first sent Geale to the canvas would have done the same to a heavyweight. Unlike Geale, Cotto has always been a finisher. He pursued his man and knocked him down again. And though he got to his feet quickly, Geale shook his head with resignation and declined to proceed with the fight.
Boxing is known as “the cruelest sport” for a reason. When Geale opted not to go out and face the next left hook he knew was coming, he only did what any of us would do. In fact, his was the only sane response. But boxing requires madness, even more from its practitioners than its fans. Geale will be judged harshly, and perhaps rightly so — the sport’s existence in its current form hinges on boxers’ ability to deny their urge for self-preservation.
It seems crueler still that Geale — an 11-year pro, Olympic veteran and world titlist — will be remembered by American fans as an underperformer and a quitter. It’s unlikely he’ll ever appear on U.S. TV again. But if he’d prevailed, Geale would have been the middleweight champion of the world.
That’s the point — for boxing to function, the stakes must always be high. Everything must hinge on one night, even on one punch. If the two men between the ropes don’t change one another’s lives in some way, then why watch? Being close enough to see the true impact of a left hook might diminish your enjoyment of it, but I doubt I’d have stayed in my chair if Cotto had been the one on his back.