In the early 19th century, the German philosopher G.W. Hegel remarked that great world-historic facts and personages appear twice. One of his philosophical disciples, Karl Marx, added to this remark that these personages appear “first as tragedy, then as farce.” One might comment that it implies that the first time something unusual happens it might be a tragedy, a sad fact of history that an event that never ought to have taken place in fact did happen. The second time is a farce which shows the world that we should’ve learned from our mistakes. It is, in short, a joke.
How suitable that this weekend saw two(!) celebrity bouts: one featuring undefeated champion Floyd Mayweather, and the other the younger of the Paul brothers. One (Mayweather) popularised the professional boxer vs MMA boxer event (against Conor McGregor), and the other (Paul) is a part of the movement that formed YouTube boxing. The world of contemporary boxing has been shaped more than anything else by these two events.
We have discussed the phenomenon here earlier. There is an argument that says celebrity boxing is here to stay and a great ally to boxing because it brings new eyes to the sport. Our question – and it has been only a question, although we seem to have moved closer to a resolution of this question – is at what cost does it do so? To put it differently: imagine being a lover of a certain band. You hear that a cover band is in town to perform the most famous songs of your favourite band. You might go for the entertainment. It might even help to spread the popularity of the actual band given the limitations of time and space – the band cannot be everywhere at once. The cover band expands the ripples of the band and can penetrate further into areas where the original band can’t reach. It might bring more eyes to the band. More people might hear of the band. But they still haven’t heard the band – they’ve heard a copy of the band. What ultimately decides if it’s justified is whether you’ll pay the price to go see the spectacle.
In some significant ways, we seem to have reached the end of celebrity boxing. Mayweather’s fights have attracted millions of viewers, yet this weekend he fought in front of a near-empty O2 Arena in London. Jake Paul, the undefeated wunderkind of our boxing generation is no longer undefeated – losing to the first professional boxer he actually stepped into the ring with. Paul is now being called a professional boxer for having faced Tommy Fury – an actual professional. Fair enough. He has done what he needs to become a professional boxer. But stepping into the ring and losing is the domain of the journeyman. He can of course come back stronger. Until then, we can at best call him a professional boxer with a questionable record.
Boxing is an ancient sport, and undoubtedly its nature is prone to change as it confronts a new age. Boxing is a beautiful sport, painted on a canvas and sustained by a sublime motif. As Horace Engdahl, a member of the Swedish Academy, put it when speaking about the Nobel Prize in Literature which was awarded to Bob Dylan in 2016 when speaking about how art is transformed over time, “often it is when someone seizes upon a simple, overlooked form, discounted as art in the higher sense, and makes it mutate.” Have influencers performed such a mutation of the ancient sport? Have we reached a higher form of entertainment? Or is it in fact the age-old quest for the best fighting the best that catches the attention of the enthusiastic beholder?
Sadly, this weekend’s fights also had real boxing bouts on the card, such as the Swede Badoua Jack defeating Illunga Makabu in a cruiserweight bout. I say sadly because they are deserving of attention but get tucked away in the midst of hysteria. One argument is that they get higher pay, and more people are viewing the event as such rather than if the pro-boxers had been the main attraction. It’s possible, but you can’t prove a negative. This isn’t a plea for pugilist purism. We merely ask ourselves the question many will surely have asked already: have we reached the end of boxing? And if so, what comes in its wake? The endpoint is not a lamentation, but rather a call for renewal or catharsis. Boxing will always exist, but in what form? To paraphrase an old saying, typically proclaimed at the death of a king and the simultaneous accession of a new monarch: boxing is dead, long live boxing!
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