I loved watching boxing as a kid. I enjoyed the entertaining ferocity that was Muhammad Ali late in his career. I remember watching Sugar Ray Leonard methodically and coolly slice through some of the best boxers in the world to win Olympic gold in the summer of 1976.
Later I enjoyed the complicated rivalry of the “Fabulous Four” — Leonard, Roberto Durán, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler – that defined the sport in the early and mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, I liked to watch the detached cool of Lennox Lewis, who had the rare distinction of having knocked out Mike Tyson, albeit late in the former champ’s career.
Somewhere along the way, however, I noticed a growing sense of disquiet inside as I watched the matches.
I was disturbed by the very public decline of Ali, who took the notion of “punch drunk” out of the realm of jokes and into the realm of tragedy.
Tyson’s style of boxing, meanwhile, unnerved me. He wasn’t playing a game – he was boxing to kill. His unremitting ferocity in and out of the ring put a sinister edge on a sport that had once seemed honorable and gentlemanly.
The breaking point came in 2003, when Lennox Lewis had his long-awaited match with Ukrainian star Vitali Klitschko. Lewis was heavily favored, but he had been out of the ring for a year – he looked out of shape and listless compared with his old style. Klitschko saw an opportunity to beat the odds.
What followed was not so much a boxing match but a scene from a slaughter house. It went six blood-soaked rounds, with both men staggering and nearing collapse. Lewis opened a cut over Klitschko’s eye and took ruthless advantage of the blood obscuring the challenger’s vision.
I remember watching that match with a growing sense of horror – it can’t go on like this. How can the doctors allow this fight to continue? I couldn’t watch, but I couldn’t look away.
The referee stopped the fight after the sixth round and declared Lewis the winner, a decision that remains controversial today among boxing fans. But as badly beaten as Lewis looked, Klitschko was worse – his face bruised and swollen so badly he was nearly unrecognizable even after doctors wiped away the blood that was flowing freely from his forehead.
All of a sudden, the magic was gone. I tried to watch few matches after that, maybe two, but I couldn’t see what is going on in the ring as a sport anymore – it is a legalized assault. It is brutal and destructive, modern-day gladiatorial combat, in which men willingly destroy their own bodies and minds for blood money.
Back about a decade or so ago, I began to feel that same sense of disquiet growing in me again, but this time watching a different sport.
Growing up, I was even more passionate about football than boxing. In our house, nothing stopped the ritual watching of the Washington Redskins every Sunday. I thrilled at the start of a season, cheered when the ‘Skins won, mourned when they lost.
But by the early 2000s, I became aware that football players were increasingly reporting symptoms of depression, erratic behavior, and memory loss. The brains of former stars who died were showing unmistakable signs of devastating damage that was unheard-of in men their age.
By now, there is simply no denying that the repetitive blows that players endure both on the field and in practice are destroying their brains.
Now the magic is gone again for me. I can barely watch football anymore. I don’t know if I will be able to bring myself to watch the Super Bowl this year, or ever again.
Like the boxers I used to enjoy so much, the men who play football are willingly destroying their bodies and minds for nothing more compelling than our entertainment.
I can’t call that a sport anymore.