All of the stories about Muhammad Ali this past week reminded me of the only boxing match I’ve covered in my job as a sports writer. Former champion Earnie Shavers tried to make a comeback in 1987. He fought somebody who was equally out of shape in a small college gym in Cincinnati.
The other boxer went down easily and quickly, but that’s not what I remember the most. One of the undercard bouts featured two young men so eager to win. I’m guessing that they both envisioned themselves becoming the next Ali, piling up the knockouts on their way to fame and fortune.
I got totally engrossed in their high-energy bout. And then repulsed by it.
One boxer got punched in the face so hard that his bloodied mouth guard flew out of the ring and landed on the media table next to me. One of the boxer’s assistants retrieved it. I noticed that the head-turning punch also had sprayed drops of the boxer’s sweat and blood on my notebook and my shirt.
Isn’t it interesting how we can be mesmerized by something and repulsed by it at the same time? Especially violence. We can have such conflicted feelings about violence.
I’m thinking of how Ali refused to fight in a war, yet had no qualms about so much violence in the ring. He promoted peace, yet inflicted and absorbed brain damage as part of his profession.
I’m not saying this to judge him, but to point out the contradictions that we all have when it comes to violence. I sure feel them.
I saw Ali in person one time, when he was honored at Great American Ball Park before Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game in 2009. A golf cart wheeled him onto the field. He was so fragile that he needed help to stand up and walk. The blows in the ring had robbed him of his voice, the one he’d used so forcefully for human rights.
I remember feeling so many things — admiration, sadness, pain, and a little revulsion over how this human being had become a shell of what he once was. The greatest was now so feeble.
In those moments, the price of our attraction to violence is revealed.
We can get caught up in a boxing match without recognizing that we’re watching two people use their great gifts – their strength, their stamina, their coordination – to rob each other of their great gifts, jab by jab.
We cheer football players’ cringe-worthy hits, the ones that turn parts of their brains into cortical mush. When we see the players a few years later, hobbled and forgetful, we want to turn away.
We’re drawn to slow-motion replays of car-race crashes, even though we know somebody’s body has been broken and they’ll never be quite the same.
Our conflicted relationship with violence transcends sports. We glorify war with emotional tributes to its victims while trying not to notice the war-broken people living on our street corners.
What about those moments when we see some injustice and wish that the person responsible would get a taste of their own medicine? It’s not enough just to right a wrong, we also want some vengeance. I really don’t care for the part of me that privately roots for those who inflict pain to feel a little pain of their own.
So, what do we do with this?
Perhaps we can start by acknowledging that we’ve got a complicated relationship with violence. Maybe it’s good to remind ourselves that every act of violence – whether physical, verbal, or spiritual — does more than just leave a mark. It damages us in some irreversible ways. Not only does the object of the violence get damaged, but the one inflicting it as well. Not only the two individuals involved, but their community as a whole.
Each harmful act, every hurtful word strikes at a precious part of us. The symptoms may not show up until much later, when our bodies give out, our societies break down, or our next wars break out. But great damage is done.
Violence always comes with a tremendous cost. It turns us into shells of what we could have been as people and as communities. It leaves us broken and feeble.
Blow by blow, it robs us of ourselves.