Existentialism and Boxing

Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die.

--- T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

There is a very popular bit of pseudo-profundity in boxing, MMA, and martial arts in general (I presume it's also a rallying cry in "Tough Man" competitions as well, although I don't know this), allegedly from Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols, to the effect that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I first heard this from a very good friend, a fellow student and practitioner of what was, years ago, the very fearsome art of full-contact karate. It hurt, a lot at times, and I did not feel stronger as a result. This claim, as it stands, is perhaps a notch above the inanely inspirational idea that "pain is weakness leaving the body," an idea which is so metaphysical to me as to be inexplicable, and I am accustomed to metaphysics.

This "Nietzsche" quote is actually a shortened paraphrase popularized by G. Gorden Liddy, assistant to former U.S. President Richard Nixon. While the paraphrase is not terribly misleading, I think the idea is, and it may be important to keep in mind that Nietzsche had this idea shortly before his breakdown into insanity (he was defending an ill-treated horse at the time, and I think that counts for something).

In fact, there are plenty of things that, while not killing us, will weaken us, among them chronic illness, aging, despair and depression, addiction, and so on, unless we are in a position to challenge Pollyanna as masters of the silver lining. Being hit too many times as a boxer, especially in the head, is another.

Still, this got me to thinking about existentialism and boxing, and I think that there is in fact a legitimate connection, deeper than that of the fortune cookie variety.

The core of this connection is also from Nietzsche, appearing in three of his works (first in The Gay Science, but this isn't what you might expect from the title) but most famously in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (to me, a rather weird bit of nonsense that anticipated self-help books and TV show by at least 100 years): "God is dead." Rumor has it that God, hearing of this, noted that Nietzsche is also dead, so I guess there may be a trilogy in the works.

But this is not just a simplistic claim from an atheist's handbook, although it's been interpreted as such ad nauseum. So, what does it mean?

This next paragraph is an autobiographical digression, so skip it if you want.

When I was studying for my first degree, in philosophy, I went through just about all of it without much trouble: the pre-Socratics, Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, the medieval Christian and Muslim thinkers (we all got a kick out of Aquinas' Sic et Non, but then we were philosophy students, and very lonely), the Renaissance and all it meant, on to the excitement of the Enlightenment, and then to the confrontation between the British Empiricists like Hume and the Continental Rationalists (I think Spinoza was the greatest thinker who ever lived. Also, I once had a distant but direct descendant of Hume in one of my classes. Also a grandson of Paul Dirac, but that's another story), and on to modern linguistic philosophy and the philosophy of mathematics. I myself specialized in epistemology, logic, and the philosophy of science.

But I didn't at all understand Existentialism until I had been out of school for quite a while (4 degrees in total, 17 years, and working in retail and food service). This is partly because Existentialism is so diffuse as to almost, but not quite,constitute a false category. But more than than, it's much like Hellenistic philosophy, the depressive resignation of the Stoicism of Epictetus in the face of the conquest of Classic Greece by the Romans.(another story in its own right).

Here's my point: Existentialism is like Hellenistic philosophy, in that it's not composed of words, except perhaps after the fact, so much as experience, things you can never learn except as they happen to you.

We are, I think, all existentialists, whenever we face a test, whether something as mundane as as an exam at school, or something as shattering as the loss of a job with no resources to fall back on, or an ultimate health crisis that may or even will with certainty mean our ultimate end. It may be a crisis of conscience. Or, in my view, it may be a fight. The existential moments are those which are filled with feelings of aloneness, of despair, of fear, of the feeling that a moment has come when there is no "beyond" to fall back on, to rescue us. There is an abyss that is terrifying to face alone, but we must.

These are moments of "encountering yourself," as Satre put it. He, of course, saw the worst abyss of modern times, namely the Nazi occupation of France and much of Europe and he was part of the resistance and saw its toll (he did not see the acts of Stalin in the Ukraine; the French resistance had their hands full). But, this is not about comparing boxing to the nightmare of World War II, because there is no comparison, and that would be absurd and offensive. But, this is about confronting the self in the moment of an event in life charged with the possibility of failure, loss and disaster, death and meaninglessness, and the fear that these will bring.

So, the single biggest existentialist question is, "What will I do when I am completely on my own against something that I can't face alone?"

We'll all face this, certainly multiple times. This is what "God is dead" means. To me, the central existentialist imperative has always been 'What happens when I have nothing but myself?" This, in my experience, doesn't grow on you as a realization; it is a moment that hits between the eyes. It can be when, suffering a chronic or terminal illness, you are told that medicine has reached its limits and you will certainly die; a moment, late at night, after a divorce or separation, when you realize there is no do-over (the moving finger writes, and having writ moves on, nor all thy piety nor wit will lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all they tears wash out a word of it); the death of a loved one; the imminent prospect of homelessness. Any moment when we are desperate for rescue, for help, facing something we can't imagine enduring alone; it is, of course, the moment of a death of some sort, such as that recounted in Matthew 27: 45-46, when Jesus realizes that his God has left him alone to hang on the cross.

These moments, depending on your perspective and experience, clearly vary in "objective" significance and import, but they are real to those who live through them. These are the moments when an individual is truly "authentic," as Kierkegaard put it. Perhaps this is the point of Zarathustra.

It's hard to imagine more moments of such authenticity, other than facing you own certain and unavoidable execution, than stepping into a boxing ring.

Boxing is full of such moments, and you can pick the ones you like. I think of the Ward-Gatti fights, the Robinson-LaMotta fights. the second Louis-Schmeling fight (the world hinged on that, symbolically, for so many people); just pick one, and I won't quibble. Maybe Juan Manuel Marquez getting up so many times in his first fight with Pacquiao; maybe a great fighter sitting on the canvas, shaking his head slightly, silently, indicating that he's simply seen his limit.

For me, the moment (yes, moment) of raw confrontation with nothing was between rounds 14 and 15 of ALi-Frazier III. Ali wanted to quite, because he had seen Hell. Frazier, blind now in both eyes, was ready to continue. Futch made his own decision, on his own, and no one would take that decision away from him. It was his.

Olbas was kind enough to draw my attention to the 1998 Gatti-Manfredy fight, in which Gatti (as usual) was cut very badly above his left eye. Supposedly, although I did not hear this, when he was told the cut was to the bone, he said that was good, because it couldn't get any deeper. I did, however, hear George Foreman, who was commentating, mention that in the dressing room before a fight, every fighter faces the fear of being hurt, but Gatti always knew he would get hurt in every fight. I find this remarkable.

Examples can multiply rapidly, but I hope I made my point reasonably clear.

It's hard to know where to stop, which I suppose is a minor existential crisis, in itself, since when you stop writing you stop living in a sense. I'll close with one more observation:

Boxing is a terrible thing.

<strong><font color="red">FanPosts are user-created content written by community members of Bad Left Hook, and are generally not the work of our editors. <em>Please do not source FanPosts as the work of Bad Left Hook</em>.</font></strong>

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