The Canonization: or, on Denis Lebedev and Guillermo Jones


Denis Lebedev and Guillermo Jones fought eleven shockingly violent rounds on Friday night in Moscow, Russia. Will they ever be the same again?

You were there at every feast and gathering

Placed in the mouths of men.

- Theognis, 6th century BCE

After two years spent unravelling weary bodies and dishevelling tired brains, it was only fitting that Denis Lebedev should be dismembered himself by another fighter grinding into the third decade of his career. Like Roy Jones Jr and James Toney before him, Guillermo Jones was expected to provide little resistance against a fighter whose bloodlust had always proven feverish, no matter how feeble the defence of his aged prey. Jones Jr arrived with an arsenal desperately bereft of vigour, while Toney stood like a solemn cliff and let Lebedev weather and ruin his granite composition. Yet through eleven terrible rounds, Guillermo Jones taught Denis Lebedev a lesson in the simplest, most brutal language known to man, that this forty one year old was made of a different consistency. Where Jones Jr and Toney were sitting ducks, the Panamanian was a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Needless to say, apologists for boxing will not turn in future to any of Lebedev's past six fights when they launch a defence for the sport. Wedged between bouts with Huck, Jones Jr, Toney and Jones have come shellackings of Shawn Cox and Santander Silgado, needless interim fights that nonetheless appear far more seemly than the contests conducted around them. If the twenty two rounds with Jones Jr and Toney were cruel, unnecessary exhibits of the caustic effects of time, the clash with Huck owed its ugliness not to the protagonists in the ring, but the suited pencil-pushers sitting outside it, who somehow contrived to award the German fighter an undeserved decision.

Lebedev's latest encounter at Crocus City Hall, Moscow, also threatened, at times, to extend his run of sham-like contests. The Russian should have been retired by his corner long before his body finally whispered ‘no más' in the eleventh round; equally culpable, too, was referee Stanley Christodoulou, an experienced official who all too conveniently adjudged the home fighter, Lebedev, able to see, despite a bulbous growth which seemed almost to hang from a face increasingly disorganised by Jones's incisive straight shots. This was a contest evenly fought until Jones took over down the home straight, but Lebedev would doubtless have pickpocketed victory and headed for the highway.

Instead, though, this bout had the finish it deserved, as midway through the eleventh round, Lebedev thrust his right hand into the air as if offering surrender, before falling to his knees as Jones loomed over him, poised to deliver another shuddering blow should the Russian prevaricate and extend proceedings.

It had seemed, before, that neither Lebedev nor Jones would ever tire of enacting medieval cruelty on one another. Arched left hands and roundarm rights met Jones's unguarded chin with alarming precision, while Lebedev was starched and strafed by the Panamanian's bolo body attack. There was structure, too, to this madness, a modicum of logic paradoxically laced through the most illogical of acts, as Jones seemed to bargain on wearing Lebedev down before his own aged legs started to fail him, while his opponent - doubtless urged by the swelling fiend swallowing up the right side of his face - sought ever more to stop the old man in his tracks, to deliver a blow of the requisite power and velocity that might fatally corrode Jones's concrete chin.

And yet what a chin it proved. Jones began the bout with his hands cocked and his jaw invitingly poised, willing Lebedev forward before thrusting home straight shots like a jousting horseman with longer, sturdier lances for lefts and rights. Those abrupt punches inflicted the first damage to Lebedev's right eye, and as Jones lassoed his opponent's body with whipped hooks and uppercuts, the Russian seemed unlikely to persecute the kind of violence for which he is renowned.

But as Jones tired and Lebedev was further fuelled by the globular hematoma escaping from his face, the Panamanian's feet became increasingly static, allowing Lebedev to leap forward with his own brand of punishment and hammer lead lefts to an unprotected chin.

There were times, indeed, when the action seemed futile: when five unanswered, thudding blows crashed into "El Felino"'s jaw and he staggered about like a foal in the dark, or when Lebedev's eye retreated so far back into the recesses of his head that fears grew not only for his immediate wellbeing, but for his future, too.

Kant posited that art owes its essence to ‘purposiveness without purpose' - but even the most voyeuristic of viewers would have to go some way to finding the artful in this terrible encounter. Rarely will anachronisms like "sweet science" and "beautiful brutality" be exposed as inadequate much more than by a fight of such intensity. This, of course, was not aesthetic, and the notion that such violence and cruelty can be reconciled through the lens of art is a fallacy.

What pushes the likes of Lebedev and Jones to such dangerous extremes? And what, moreover, sustains them there, with life and death suspended momentarily in the darkness?

Surely it isn't just the lure of a title belt, after all. Jones entered this bout as the WBA's champion-in-recess - fortunate, rather, to be recognised at all, given his parcity of fights over the past five years - while Lebedev was the "full" champion, having had the "interim" belt delivered in the bloated form of James Toney, who supposedly warranted a title shot in a division he had not frequented for eight years.

And it surely isn't just for the money, either. Lebedev is a proven draw in Russia no matter the opponent: had he quit in the sixth round, with his eye already disfigured beyond recognition, he would have done so in the knowledge that he could doubtless come again with guaranteed political backing and fan support. For Jones, of course, this contest represented an opportunity to breathe a little more life into a spluttering career, but with his paycheck secure and chances of another fight in the coming months slim given his promotional allegiances, he would have been forgiven for wilting when the going got tough.

Of course, Lebedev's and Jones's performances were conducted not in the temporal realm of deliberate action, but rather in what David Foster Wallace calls ‘the operative range of reflexes, purely physical reactions that bypass conscious thought.' Yet boxing offers its combatants moments of silence and consideration - and when Lebedev and Jones sat in their respective corners having suffered round after round of the most desperate violence, they must have wondered, however briefly, ‘Why?'

Boxing, like no other sport and yet like all major religions, is obsessed with its past. ‘The dead immortals,' Joyce Carol Oates posits, ‘are always with us, not only their names and the hazy outlines of careers recalled, but individual bouts, moments when decisive punches were thrown and caught, the size of a boxer's fist, the measurement of his reach, his age when he began and when he retired.' Denis Lebedev and Guillermo Jones might have met on an innocuous night in Moscow with little shared between them beside a desire for victory, but, through eleven shattering, shocking rounds, they realised in gruesome detail boxing's own form of the monumentum aere perennius trope.

John Donne - abundantly aware of his own mortality after a life spent in the tireless company of Death's spectre and worried that ‘no peece of Chronicle wee [shall] prove' - perceived his poetry as ‘a well wrought urne' that befitted ‘the greatest ashes, as half-acre tombes.' Like Donne, the elite boxer pursues ceaselessly some form to preserve him as impervious to the steady stalk of Time. Unlike Donne, though, the boxer's search for consecration and immortality can only be performed through a mode that paradoxically renders him all the more ephemeral as he seeks somehow to remain lastingly whole. Denis Lebedev might never fight again after the trauma inflicted on his eye, while Guillermo Jones's forty one year old body received the kind of damage that would likely prove fatal for a man half his age.

Though they will be ‘there at every feast,' like Theognis's companion, ‘placed in the mouths of men', what ‘well wrought urne' can possibly preserve the chaos and clamour felt during those fateful hours on a cold Friday night? What will be left in ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years time? Will we find anything more than Henry Vaughan does, in "Vanity of Spirit", when he experiences ‘a peece of much antiquity... quite dismembred' with ‘broken letters scarce remembered'? ‘I tooke them up,' Vaughan continues,

and (much Jay'd) went about

T'unite those peeces, hoping to find out

The mystery; but this ne'er done,

That little light I had was gone.

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