It’s hard to imagine any sports loss being more painful than the one that occurs in the ring. Weeks of stringent, almost masochistic training culminate in a 36 minute opportunity to actualize one’s pugilistic potential. In that contest victory is achieved not through penalty shots, or chipping from the rough, but from delivering and absorbing hurt. Standing on the canvas half naked, there are no line changes, no recourse to strategic timeouts, no free throws—in this violent dialogue nothing is free. There’s no respite from injury if it can’t be produced in under a minute, no going to the locker room for stitches, no making a triumphant return in the third quarter—inflicting injury is woven into the very nature of the contest, into the criteria for victory. And ultimately there’s no help. The corner may offer advice, a fresh perspective undamaged by the blows exchanged, but however sage that council, it’s the boxer who must manifest those instructions, must translate words into action. Only he gets off the stool and wades into the peril of leather and muscle, into the menace of another professional weapon.
And for all his sacrifice, if he’s unable to secure a stoppage, victory can be taken from him. The threat of corruption and malicious incompetence pervades in boxing, and the chimera of an even playing field is often sacrificed for fleeting financial opportunity. Like Hobbes’ Sovereign, the sport promises much, on the condition that the participant relinquishes both expectations of candour and the right to criticize.
A willingness to test oneself on this brutal stage makes every boxer worthy of respect. The game isn’t for everyone, and simply assaying one’s potential membership in this fistic fraternity can be dangerous. Those who take the risk, regardless of the motivation, and forge themselves in the volley of knuckles, comport themselves like no other athlete. In doing so they set a higher standard for excellence, one that only they are measured against. This is perhaps unfair, as the professional boxer is no more professional an athlete than a baseball player or bowler. But the unique virtues embodied by the fighter are what set these great expectations—it’s because they’re deservingly canonized that more is expected of them. Boxers are graded according to a more exacting rubric; this rubric is their own doing, and they have earned the right to be graded by it.
These great expectations are problematic however, when applied to the loser of a contest. It doesn’t seem fair subject the devastated loser to the more exacting rubric: defeat in boxing is uniquely agonizing, and the context for the final test—the post-fight interview—is conducive to failure. The inclination is to be lenient in these instances, to handle these broken and exhausted men with delicacy. Is this tempered treatment justified? If the boxer is to be exalted in his rare comportment, consistency would dictate that he also be criticized for failing to maintain it. That kind of uniformity is real fairness: no exceptions are made.
Ultimately, the question is whether there’s an excellence in defeat, if comporting oneself in accordance with the greater expectations is possible in those moments of profound agony. If the sport garnishes examples of this excellence, then no free pass should be granted to the fighter who comports himself poorly in a loss. The exacting rubric shouldn’t be selectively applied. Consider two recent contrasting examples: Amir Khan’s conduct after losing to Lamont Peterson, and Carl Froch’s conduct after losing the Super Six tournament finale to Andre Ward.
Khan lost a close decision Peterson. The outcome of the fight, which was staged in Peterson’s adopted home of Washington D.C, was ostensibly determined by a point deduction in the twelfth round. When the decision was announced, Khan cried impropriety. In his post-fight interview he argued that the referee was biased, condoning Peterson’s fouls while penalizing Khan twice for infractions. He charged the city of Washington with corruption, attributing a lack of professional boxing in the area to an inability to get a fair fight.
In Khan’s defence, it must be difficult to refrain from airing grievances—legitimate or otherwise—mere minutes removed from a perceived injustice. While the finality of the outcome is still wrestling with your incredulity, it seems unfair to ask that you deliver a tempered and rational assessment of the event. A Khan apologist might argue that even if Peterson deservedly won the fight, and the referee correctly enforced the rules, the devastation of losing his titles might lead Khan to comport himself poorly. And if he genuinely believes that his titles were taken from him—a theory suggested by his behaviour—then for Khan, the sacrifice and suffering he subjected himself to were undermined by corruption. His conduct is in keeping with the common human reaction to being the victim of injustice. However indecorous it may have been, Khan’s conduct isn’t unintelligible. A more lenient jury might refrain from crucifying Khan. Such lenience would require that Khan be excused from the exacting rubric of the fighter. This selective application of the rubric would be acceptable if not for the possibility of excellence in defeat. Sadly for Khan, Carl Froch, a fighter known for his arrogance, who had also complained of home cooking, binned the argument for lenience with his conduct following his loss to Andre Ward.
Froch’s loss to Ward was undoubtedly gutting. He had reached the final of a two year tournament that saw him face some of the strongest opposition of any fighter over that span of time. This was not merely a fight, but the culmination of a two-year commitment—all of Froch’s fights since entering the tournament were fought for the express purpose of him winning last Saturday. The WBA and WBC titles were on the line, as was the right to call himself the best super-middleweight on the planet (Lucien Bute can make an argument for this distinction, but strength of schedule refutes him).
And in the biggest fight of his career, Froch was handled. Ward was never in danger, never even uncomfortable. Somber and humble in his post-fight interview, Froch respectfully attributed his struggles to the conundrum of skill and craft presented by Ward. Rather than make excuses, Froch spoke of his loss as an opportunity for professional growth; he told Ward that he bore him no ill will, regardless of the pre-fight banter. Froch shamed Khan with the excellence he displayed in defeat.
Khan believed he was robbed, which explains his incredulous indignation and petulant diatribe. But that’s no defence. Froch was interviewed in the ring just like Khan, and rather than simply comment on his own devastation, he took the opportunity to praise his opponent. Rather than heap criticism—except on himself—he heaped praise. No, the conditions for crying foul weren’t present when Froch lost, and it’s fair to wonder whether he would’ve acted differently had they been. And it’s not like Froch’s conduct has been beyond reproach. But Froch’s faults aren’t an argument against applying the exacting rubric; they merely show his own struggles to grade well according to it. If anything, these faults show that even those who have conducted themselves less then admirably are able to satisfy the great expectations. In losing to Ward, Froch’s conduct was as laudable as Khan’s was deplorable. In short, Froch took his loss like a man. And it’s because of his exemplary conduct that the exacting rubric should be applied to the loser.
The qualities that make boxers special aren’t merely athletic, they’re constitutional, indicative of a special breed. This isn’t to say that these men are perfect, which is a ludicrous assertion. But it’s fair to hold these unique competitors to a higher standard, to great expectations of admirable comportment both in victory and defeat. However they may perform, they are up to the challenge.