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29 September 2021updated 09 Oct 2021 12:51am

The terrible beauty of boxing

We have known about the consequences of professional boxing for at least a hundred years. Few are spared.

By Robert Colls

Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder part three – the fight that was never going to happen – was preceded by the fight that was never going to happen either. As early as June 2020, Tyson Fury was all set to face Anthony Joshua for six world heavyweight titles, until a judge ruled that Wilder retained the right to fight Fury for two of them. After more delays involving ticket sales, Covid scares and the difficult birth of Fury’s daughter Athena, the fight to be heavyweight champion of the world will finally happen on Saturday 9 October in Las Vegas, the most non-fungible showbiz city in the world. It will be Fury vs Wilder – for the third time.

But who are heavyweight champions of the world anyway? When Fury last fought Wilder, Wilder was the reigning World Boxing Council champion, and Fury the undefeated, former unified World Boxing Association, World Boxing Organisation, International Boxing Federation, International Boxing Organisation and The Ring magazine champion. In boxing terms, it’s an administrative mess, but when it comes to making money, there’s always another world champion around the corner.

On 9 October, Fury may look like he’s thinking of Deontay Wilder in the opposite corner. But Wilder isn’t currently a world champion and some part of Fury will surely be thinking of all the extra money he could have banked fighting Anthony Joshua, who is British, before Joshua lost his world titles to the mandatory challenger, Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk, in north London on 25 September. Are you following?

There is a simpler way of looking at boxing. Choosing world heavyweight champions could also be said to go something like this. Nothing happens except a lot of talk until the money is agreed. Then there is a lot of play-acting, to raise a crowd. This seems to involve everybody calling everybody else a bum, up until the point that two men try to inflict such violence on each other that one is rendered incapable of standing up.

The first Anglo-American fight to be touted for the “World Championship” happened in April 1860, when the English champion Tom Sayers fought the Irish American John Heenan in a damp Hampshire field at seven in the morning. Both men stood to earn a few hundred pounds, not millions.

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Nevertheless, the mid-Victorian press spent months stoking the fight on both sides of the Atlantic and once the men stopped play-acting (Sayers’s corner included a caped bird-man making “halloo” sounds), they fought for more than two hours to such a bloody and chaotic end that one of them could hardly see and the other could hardly punch. When Heenan tried to strangle Sayers on the ropes, the fight was broken up by police and the crowd (rumoured to have included the prime minister Lord Palmerston) scattered.

Though never strictly lawful, bare-knuckle boxing, also known as “pugilism”, or “prizefighting”, surged in popularity in England in the 18th century. Following repeated attempts by the Puritans to stamp the theatre out, it came back at around the same time. Both entertainments dazzled the Georgian imagination. The poet John Clare ended his days in an asylum announcing he was the boxer Jack Randall and offering to fight any man. Lord Byron was prince of the beautiful people and, in order to stay that way, he was also a regular at “Gentleman” John Jackson’s gym near Drury Lane. “I am here boxing in a Turkish pelisse to prevent obesity,” he wrote in his diary.

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Every Londoner wanted to see a great fighter, or a great actor, or both, on the boards. When William Hazlitt, champion theatre critic of his day, reported on the 1821 fight between Bill Neat and Tom Hickman as if the boxers were actors and the fight a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid rather than what it was – a breach of the peace – he changed sports journalism.

But violence and corruption obliged prizefighting to reinvent itself as a respectable modern sport. By the turn of the century, spiked boots, muddy fields, bare knuckles and shady deals were out, and canvas rings, bright lights, Queensberry Rules and shady deals were in. The more the ring looked like a stage, and the more fighters were seen as actors on it, the more Hazlitt’s depiction of the boxing match as theatre applied.

Great fighters never felt more at home than in the theatre: saluting from the balcony, actresses hanging on their arm, actors hanging on their every word. Boxers learned their moves in training like actors learned their lines in rehearsals – again and again until it became second nature. Gene Kelly wasn’t the first dancer to box, and Muhammad Ali wasn’t the first boxer to dance. Charlie Chaplin did it in The Champion (1915), where he shows you what a great little lightweight he would have been.

Joyce Carol Oates called boxing “America’s magic theatre”. Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer both wanted to be boxers. Mailer noted how both Marlon Brando and Muhammad Ali each inhabited their roles as extensions of their mood. Paul Simon was only a singer, but went looking for work on Seventh Avenue (which intersects Broadway and 42nd Street) as a boxer, “a fighter by his trade”.

You may think all the movement and drama of boxing would make for great movies – but too many boxing films try to render boxing and acting the same, by making the actual fighting too theatrical, too furious, too clean. Bidap bidap bidap, they go. There’s not enough drag down, catch breath, snot and spit mauling. It’s telling that the most celebrated boxing scene in all cinema takes place not in the ring but in the back seat of a car. In On The Waterfront (1954), Brando, a fighter past his prime, tells his older brother that had he not thrown a crucial fight, he could have been somebody. He “coulda’ had class, coulda’ been a contender”, instead of “a bum”, a man with a “one- way ticket” to that modest obscurity also known as “Palookaville”.

[see also: From athlete to influencer: how cash-strapped sport is turning into celebrity entertainment]

The first time Fury fought Wilder in 2018, the British boxer was put down, but climbed back to take a draw. He’d already climbed back from much worse. After beating Ukraine’s Wladimir Klitschko for his world titles in 2015, he suffered prolonged depression and addiction problems and was unable to defend his titles. But in his astonishing return fight with Wilder in February 2020, he overcame this personal pain to beat the previously unbeaten champion in seven rounds.

Fury is white British and Wilder is black American, but they have more in common than boxing. Born in 1988 in Manchester, Tyson Fury is not your average example of white privilege. He left school at 11 to work on the roads. He and his wife Paris both come from travelling families. They married young, and have six children. Nine of the wider Fury family are or have been professional fighters, and you wouldn’t want to get into the ring with any of them.

It’s true Fury doesn’t always look fit, or particularly fast, but he’s strong and awkward with quick hands, a huge tradition, and an iron will. At 6ft 9in and 19 stone with an 85-inch reach and unbeaten in 31 fights, including 21 knockouts, if he is not yet up there with Lennox Lewis as Britain’s best-ever heavyweight, he could be soon.

Wilder is three years older but looks three years younger. Born in Alabama, the son of a preacher, there were few privileges on his side of the line either. He stands 6ft 7in, fights at about 15 stone with an 83-inch reach. In a busy career, he has achieved 42 wins, 41 of them knockouts. Unlike Fury, he’s had a couple of minor run-ins with the police. Like Fury, he has several children (five) and suffers from depression. Both men say they have contemplated suicide, and Fury has attempted it.

Tris Dixon’s Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma in Boxing (2021) tells us that in a professional career a fighter might take 40,000 hits to the head. It also tells us that when that soft mass of nerves and blood vessels that float in a bowl of fluid we call the brain is jarred against the skull, it is permanently damaged. In the bare knuckle days, the hits were lighter because the hand is delicate and the skull is hard. But with the gradual introduction of padded gloves from the 1880s, the hits became harder and the fights more frequent. With the introduction of the “ten count”, the best way to win was by hitting your opponent’s head so hard it would cause the serious damage known as concussion.

We have known about the consequences of professional boxing for at least a hundred years – blurred vison, slurred speech, mood swings and so on. In 1928 the American pathologist Harrison Martland called it “punch drunk”. Nowadays neurologists call it chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and link it to early dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Few are spared. Even the greatest and most skilful fighters have shuffled their way towards boxing’s final judgement. Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, and even Muhammad Ali were all in the sick-head queue.

In Wilder and Fury’s last fight in February 2020, Fury was carried into the ring singing along to Patsy Cline. Wilder, on the other hand, rose up in honour of Black History Month dressed like Darth Vader on stilts – a blue-black statuette in shoulder pads and sequins. The New York Times said it was all too camp. Wilder said it was all too heavy: the weight of it, he claimed, exhausted his legs early on. But he has said he will wear another “something special” on 9 October, despite insisting that the last one cost him his world title.

Mike Tyson would come into the ring wearing an old T-shirt and socks – to remind him of his street fighting days, he says. Either way, it’s all theatre. Last June, the YouTube star Logan Paul and retired boxer Floyd Mayweather went into the ring, did something, went viral, and took millions of dollars home. Nobody knows if they had a fight or not. Paul isn’t an actor, let alone a fighter. Mayweather isn’t a fighter any more, though he was great in his day. “I retired from boxing,” he says. “But I didn’t retire from entertainment.”

Then as now, the best thing at a fight is the boxers, and the worst is everything else. In the past, Fury has made some ill-considered remarks, for which he was quick to apologise. Both he and Wilder have made millions out of boxing (and boxing out of them), but the fight game has also given a lot of poor kids a few of the things money can’t buy, such as discipline, belonging and self-respect. For more than 200 years, boxers have been admired for the courage they brought to the national story. At the same time, for all its heart and soul, the ring is a place where terrible things happen, where there are no fantasies and precious few winners.

Robert Colls is author of “This Sporting Life: Sport and Liberty in England, 1760-1960” (Oxford University Press)

[see also: The Britain of Emma Raducanu shows why nationalists are losing the argument]

This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age