It's been a while since I've seen the billboards, but I suppose those "Tough Man" or "Rough and Rowdy" amateur boxing competitions are still being booked at civic arenas across the heartland. I know they once drew big crowds in my neck of the woods.
If you go, try to make it for the early elimination rounds. That's when you'll see the really unevenly matched fights, which are more entertaining. Expect a queue of pasty Scotch-Irish doughboys whirling and throwing blind haymakers at the bell. There's little form to behold. Very few jabs. No one covers or blocks. And the ones who don't walk wide-open into a lucky cold knockout in one of three two-minute rounds are often so winded upon reaching their corners that you find yourself looking at the ringside EMT crew, half expecting they'll be called to intervene on account of a coronary.
Watching these volunteer fighters (many of whom I suspect are also volunteer firefighters — and I grew up around these guys) may leave you with a deeper appreciation of the grace and science of "real" boxing. But if you have good seats and you don't get too drunk, there's a good chance you'll come around to enjoy the action for what it is. Pick a favorite for starts. Maybe a viable underdog. Behind the ludicrous sight of so much inelegant fury and flurry, you may begin to discern the pulse of a deeper romance that belies the gawking nose-bleeding redneck sideshow spectacle as advertised. These are men after all. They work as security guards and pipefitters and box-store warehouse laborers and pizza slingers, or they don't work at all. They drove in from the sticks, and at least they came to fight. Their girlfriends are watching. There'll be winners and losers, even if there's a ringer at the end.
Year after year I half-joked that I should throw my name in the ring. What I lack in reach I figured I made up for in brute strength; figured I could work out a good inside game, that I could train for stamina, plot a defensive first-round strategy to wear my opponent down. Kill the body in the second, look for an opening — a clean uppercut — in the third. More likely I'd've tasted canvas in the first. Fuck it, I was too much of a pussy to even find out.
No matter. What you need to know is only that the fights play in rapid succession, each lasting all of ten minutes, max. Less for the knockouts, of which there will be quite a few. And what you need to understand — not so easy from a soft chair — is that a full-on two-minute round, however clumsily executed, is physically and mentally exhausting for the men in the ring. This element of exhaustion is especially pronounced (it comes as a shock, I think) for the ones who haven't trained for such an event, which is obviously the case where so many "Tough Man" contenders are concerned. Drunken parking lot brawls don't count as training.
So I remember this one I saw in Huntington maybe two decades ago. The first half dozen fights were the usual slopwork. A few knockouts. A few decisions. Plenty of graceless pirouettes and rabbit punches and flailing windmills in between. Ridiculous fun. But then there came a fight — an uneven match, but not especially so — and what happened was that the more out-of-shape guy, when he lumbered back to his corner after the first round, well, he just called it. He motioned to the ref: "I'm out." So the crowd booed and the other guy raised his gloves in default victory.
But that lame play, it changed the temper of the hall. The very next fight was a repeat; another mid-round quit. And there would be others — more towels thrown, in accordance with this newly established ethos — over the course of the event. You sensed the crowd's growing frustration as the bouts played out with more fighters "opting out" after taking their blows. The atmosphere was less charged now that anticlimax was a live option
This is something I still think about. I've thought about it as an atom of cultural evolution. I thought about it when I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart. I thought about it when I saw the documentary Oxyana. I've thought about it more or less every time I've reflected on social policies where an "out" is made more attractive, or, insidiously, less damnable. It seems quaint and a mite insincere to mount a half-assedly conservative critique of no-fault divorce, especially when I'm more than convinced that divorce makes many people happier. Yet it's clear enough that a trend was set and a stigma revoked, and it's just as clear to me that the burden — yeah, I think it just might be a burden — has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of left-side-of-the-bell-curve working class men for whom a such a bedrock institution might have meant something more than a fucking cake party.
In Oxyana, the focus is on the culture of pharmaceutical drug abuse that has spread like kudzu over coal country. The filmmakers, at whatever documentary-coy measured distance, imply that something is to be done, but their framing is such to permit only the conclusion that prescription mills run by venal and unscrupulous absentee doctors are to blame. It seems never to occur to them that the rampant culture of addiction that they depict in wallowing first-person interspliced narratives is more deeply rooted in the now-entrenched disability benefit culture that has entrapped and emasculated this sorrowful landscape since a welfare reform deal was brokered and let to irrevocably alter the choice horizons of people who might have had a better shot at a meaningful existence. Who was the first guy to throw in the towel? I imagine his back was aching and the rent was due. Who was the next guy, the one who was informed by the helpful pug-faced candy-scented female representative that a bipolar diagnosis counted and you just need to fill out a different form? Do you think his girlfriend was standing ringside, cheering him on? Do you hear wedding bells in their future?
I don't blame the first guy who called it from his corner. But for a lucky cut, he was bound to lose anyway. He saw it play out and he decided — rationally — that the pain wasn't worth the pain. He was hurting. You don't know until you've been there. He thought his fucking heart would explode. But I do wonder how he felt on the drive home. Whatever gnashing pangs of regret might have crept to mind, I bet they were salved by the simple knowledge that others followed his lead.
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