Today was Boxing Day over at The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic Olympic Section.
Here are pieces by Pat Rosal, Ross Gay and Jennifer Grotz.
Hagler-Leonard and the Limits of Speech
Ross Gay and Patrick Rosal
On April 6, 1987 Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler fought, the only matchup that hadn’t happened among the era’s pantheon of boxers that include Thomas The Hitman Hearns and Robert Duran. Hagler was the puncher, known as a bruiser. Leonard was the graceful, and even extravagant, boxer.
Young men—particularly—young men of color around the country watched this fight on television. For many of them, the bout figured prominently in forming their attitudes about what it means to be a man, what it means to be with or without a way to speak up, what it means to be something that’s not not, what it means to bruise, and what it means to be gracefully evasive. Two of those young men became poets.
[A round of boxing is also known as a stanza. In boxing, the stanza is no place to rest.]
In the memory all I see is my father, a tray of re-heated food on his lap, his feet in black polyester socks moving like two seals. He’s home from some long day at Roy Rogers on Cottman, the water glass full of rum and mix swirling before he sips it. His bald head. The black birthmark on his left temple pulsing when he chews.
My father’s head moving just so, the neck jutting the jaw and chin this was and that while his fork moves through air, occasionally a tiny “ooh” or “there you go.”
Hagler lowers his chin and walks ahead, trying to clip short the angles of Leonard’s slick dance. Marvin is pushing the action. That’s what he’s known for—walking the other fighter down. Pressure. Moving forward.
Look more closely.
Many of Hagler’s best punches connect—not from bulldozing through Leonard’s guard—but by Hagler’s occasional, subtle, and almost imperceptible retreat.
Leonard’s footwork makes him hard to catch in the first two rounds, like a quick shifting wind. But Hagler switches from conventional stance to his natural southpaw in the third.
By the fifth round, Leonard is already showing real signs of fatigue (he has fought most of his career at or below 147 lbs., a full weight class lower).
[The word stanza comes from the Italian meaning “resting place”.]
To get a quick breath, Leonard stops, leans forehead-to-forehead against the solid, broad-bodied Hagler.
Notice: Hagler, with his lead foot, takes one bit step back, which makes a small gap between the fighters.
Here, Leonard, still leaning, falls into where the other boxer’s body used to be. With :28 left in the fifth, Hagler fills the rift with a nasty right uppercut. It connects—hurts Leonard.
Hagler is exhibiting what’s called effective aggression. This happens time and time again throughout the fight. The TV commentator calls Hagler “plodding”, but in small increments he’s mastering the space.
The one fighter so like my father—the bald head, the simple-mindedness, pressing against some inevitability. My father awake in the dark and home in the dark, stinking always, it seems, of fry grease. Hagler chasing and cutting off the ring, pounding the beautiful Leonard who flurries back, his hands all wings but to this day—those hands are not
Nothing in sports has settled into my body the way this has—the joy at the ‘83 Sixers winning the championship, or Dr. J. landing 4 or 5 good right crosses to Larry Bird’s scowling, cheap-shot face, sure—but to this day I almost come to tears watching and re-watching this fight, knowing what’s going to happen. My father, all the while, rooting against himself.
[All the action of a round happens inside a ring.]
Sugar Ray Leonard’s camp has managed to get a baseball field—twenty-by-twenty—which benefits Leonard because he is going to be the fleet-footed one on the move.
The bigger ring ostensibly will make it harder for the pressure fighter, Hagler, to cut Leonard off. So the limits are in Ray’s favor before the first bell.
Twenty-five years later, boxing heads will still be arguing over the outcome: Leonard by split decision (one judge scoring the bout 118-110, giving Hagler only two rounds). And when they call Sugar Ray’s name, Gene Hackman cheers from ringside. And Chevy Chase high-fives his buddies.
[The ring determines the limits of the fighters’ action in space.]
But one of the great American traditions is to question the official record. In that version of the story, the sleek, swift fisted Leonard vanquishes the darker skinned, wide-nosed, thuggish puncher.
[A poetic stanza isn’t named for its lines of verse, but for where it lands. That is, it’s named for its resting place; it is named for its silence.]
And what fight, I wonder, did my father watch that night? Did he watch the fight I watched, and the fight I’ve watched many times since? Hagler pushing the action, persistent, landing real punches, knocking Leonard back, or staggering him (of course: Sugar Ray fought an amazing fight, and the few times I thought he was going to be knocked out he hung tight, and even returned blows); and the few times Leonard landed what to many fighters would be a real shot, Hagler’s head steady, stone. He might not have even blinked.
Leonard is talking to Hagler… Hagler is talking to Leonard
[Action determines the outcome of a fight. Speech does not.]
[Poetry is the locus of the failure of language.]
[A poem is a fight only by metaphor.]
When you're talking trash, you ain't punching. –Richard Steele, referee.
A fight is where speech fails.
A fighter’s body stands for nothing but the fighter’s body.
Did my father see, like so many people did, the whirl and flash of some beautifully spun tale, some story of the beautiful and gifted and bestowed-upon, some story he somehow imagined for himself, the luster and shimmer, the flurries, the audience smiling and shouting, in unison, “beautiful!” (Even if Leonard’s was a comeback story—especially, perhaps—retired for fear of blindness….)
The real story of his life: When will I be fired? Hagler out for his first jog in the dark, his baseball cap on the bald head. My father heading out to work in the dark, lighting his first cigarette of the day before crawling into the Corolla. Me walking to the front of the apartments to get the newspapers for my route.
Leonard, by habit, circles right. Against a southpaw, a conventional fighter should circle to his left away from the lefty’s power, each trying to keep his lead foot on the outside of the other. When Hagler switches from conventional to southpaw, he cuts Leonard off more easily, cornering him, before Leonard ducks and wheels away.
[The story isn’t made of words. The story is made of bodies. Two of them are in the ring. The words come later.]
The struggle is for space. The fighter’s struggle is to impose his will. [What’s a good fighter? What’s a good American? Excuse me. My parents aren’t from here. ] To control the story, a fighter has to let go. A fighter has to make his story convincing.
Everything that Leonard does is bigger. The flashy bolo punch that lands low, his scoot and slide. The crowd celebrates even when he misses.
[A poet’s intervention into space is speech.]
In the eleventh and twelfth rounds, Hagler is landing grunting blows. Leonard finishes each round with a flurry of spectacular pats and touches. They do no harm. Leonard’s aggression, you might say, is not effective. The fight is Hagler’s. The drama is not.
A boxer’s intervention into space is his body.
A fighter’s body, to everyone but the fighter, stands for something besides the fighter’s body. That’s what Hagler knew when the fight was called. That’s what he knew when he never fought again. Leonard won before he stepped in the ring—because his was the story.
And we, on our couches or EZ Chairs; our dreams stitched to them like tattered flags.
Barriga’s Olympic Debut
By Pat Rosal
Ranked 33rd in the world in the light flyweight division (49kg), Filipino boxer Mark Anthony Barriga is a longshot to earn the gold medal in London, but he showed some promise in dominating Italian fighter Manuel Cappai. Barriga outpointed Cappai, 17-7, in what was both fighters’ Olympic debut.
Barriga charged at Cappai after the opening bell with an aggressive left lead combo. It may not have connected cleanly, but it seemed to surprise Cappai with its swiftness and ferocity.
Barriga did a good job of crowding Cappai throughout the fight, unloading fierce combinations, being mostly on the move and reading his opponent’s swiping rangefinder of a jab.
Cappai revealed his own frustration when he used his shoulder to heave the smaller fighter off his feet and shove him back down against the ropes in the first round. Barriga stuck with his game plan and was the more consistent aggressor.
Cappai, this year’s European pre-qualifying bronze medalist, hit the canvas with about a minute left in the first round. It was ruled a slip, though in replay it looked like a legitimate knockdown from a right hook. Then, with fifteen seconds left in the first stanza, Barriga blasted an overhand right into Cappai’s temple and a followed up with left to the chin. The referee gave the Italian a standing eight count.
Cappai, 19, has clearly modeled his style after two-time World Champion and Beijing gold medalist Zou Shiming who is comparable in height and has the same long body type. Both fighters are mobile and score touches mostly from the outside.
On the other hand, Barriga, a natural southpaw, likes to attack in spurts. He throws dynamic series of combinations, changing levels from the body to the head and back. One of his slicker moves is the way he slips an oncoming jab and throws a tight straight left to the body.
Barriga, who is also 19, is one of the smallest boxers in his weight division at this year’s Olympics—and his division is the smallest in boxing. He has boyish good looks and a real sweet disposition during interviews.
He told one interviewer that, if he were to have kids one day, he wouldn’t let them box because it’s too dangerous. When the interviewer asked why he boxes then, Barriga responded, “So I can help my family.”
He even giggles a bit when asked who his celebrity idols are and what actor should play him if they were to produce a Mark Anthony Barriga biopic. Inside the ring, however, there is some menace in his hands.
Barriga was able to convince ringside judges that he was the more effective fighter with a mix of hard body blows and one-twos to the head. Even with Olympic criteria that usually favor a boxer like Cappai who scores mostly head shots from the outside, Barriga won all three rounds convincingly, 5-2, 4-2, 8-3.
Barriga qualified for the Olympics by making it to the round of 16 in the 2011 Amateur World Boxing Championships where he was defeated by Zou Shiming, a two-time amateur World Champion and winner of the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing games. Shiming, 30 years old and one of Barriga’s childhood idols, is favored to win the gold in this year’s London games.
Like Shiming, Cappai likes to alternate between orthodox and southpaw stances in an attempt to disorient his opponent. The problem for both Cappai and Shiming is that they often square up in the middle of switching, depriving them of a good base and making them, one, less mobile and, two, prone to knockdowns if they’re caught off balance.
It’s hard to tell if Barriga has “it”, the quintessence of an Olympic champion. He does have decent power in his left hook, which knocked Shiming back a couple times during their October matchup. Barriga is young, though, and has a tendency to get caught in the pocket without throwing punches. When waiting to counter, he can lull himself to the point of inaction and just cover up. He is a better fighter when he’s aggressive.
Barriga, the only boxing representative from the Philippines and one of eleven total from the country, is listed officially at 5’2”, but some say he’s a razor’s edge over five feet even. He came into the weigh-in on Friday at 48.4 kg. That’s a full pound and a half under the 108-lb. limit for us Yankees, not an insignificant differential against others in his class who cut several pounds to make weight. Barriga is considered the Philippines’ best chance for a medal.
He’s trained by Roel Velasco, who won the light flyweight bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Velasco’s younger brother Mansueto won the silver medal in 1996 at the Atlanta games. That’s the last time the Philippines won an Olympic medal in any sport. Barriga was only three years old.
Recently, Barriga and a couple dozen other fighters headed to the Olympic games were invited to Cardiff for a three-week training session. It wasn’t long before Barriga earned the nickname “Little Pacman” for the stylistic similarities between the teenage prospect and the Filipino pound-for-pound phenomenon, Manny Pacquiao.
Actually, Pacquiao is a terrible model for a young fighter. Opponents can split his peekaboo guard with straight shots and uppercuts. Furthermore, the Filipino champion throws punches from extremely odd angles, which does allow him to find unlikely trajectories for his shots. However, lesser fighters who try to emulate Pacquiao’s style may find themselves out of position, being robbed of the sting in their punches and possibly prone to knockdown.
Not so for Barriga—at least against Cappai. The Filipino’s combinations overwhelmed the Italian’s pawing jab and took advantage of the European boxer’s tendency to fight with his chin up.
Barriga has the odds stacked against him in many ways—and yet so much seems at stake for the young man, so much on his shoulders.
Just about every Filipino abroad knows a narrative similar to Barriga’s. They remember the phone calls “back home”, the requests for cash to pay for a medical procedure, or some money toward tuition or just a school uniform or pair of shoes, and sometimes to purchase new rolls of fabric so an auntie can make new dresses to sell. in the Philippines, one source of income is meant to provide for a whole family.
This is not so much a morality tale about family and money as it is about the vast class differences that Olympians come into competition with. For Barriga, whose father is a print machine operator, his participation is indeed about national honor, but it is also about the hopes of making a living wage—not just for himself and not just his mother and father—but probably for a wide network of extended family.
Even in the pros, boxers are unlikely to make enough money to support their immediate families. This is true in the United States, so I imagine that is even truer in the Philippines, where the national poverty rate hovers above 30%. The outlook dims further when one considers how little media coverage the smaller divisions, like Barriga’s, get.
Well, the young man is an exciting fighter and has come a long way in just two years. If he manages to punch his way through a tough draw and a pretty deep field in London, he may get a rematch against Shiming. In nine months, Barriga has obviously become more confident and more aggressive with added tools to his arsenal, but the Chinese fighter still has a slew of experience on his side.
In addition to Shiming, the light flyweight division is peppered with outstanding talent, including the Korean Shing Jon-Hun, who lost to Shiming in the finals at last year’s World Amateur Boxing Championships. Additionally, the polished Cuban boxer Yosbany Veitia Soto will be a challenge for anybody in the division. Before Barriga starts looking too far ahead, he has to face Birzhan Zhakypov of Kazakhstan, another boxer who will enjoy a four-inch height advantage against the Filipino.
Sometimes, the measure of a nation’s dreams can be expressed in direct proportion to its material need. Barriga’s dream has an astonishing magnitude and a weight. This summer, there is a nation dreaming right along with him.
Here's a link to the rest of today's boxing coverage:
Tomorrow: Stephen Burt on Women's Hoops and Sarah Blake on Fencing