A number of people have been kind enough to express interest at my recent boxing match for a Charity fundraiser here in Canada.
Below is an article I wrote about the experience for the local newspaper. Plus a link to the actual fight. If this moves anyone to make a contribution to the charity, it would be very much appreciated.
Best wishes to all,
Boxing and the Canadian soul
Declan Hill, Ottawa Citizen
Published: Saturday, April 07, 2012
Last weekend’s fight in Ottawa between politicians Justin Trudeau and Patrick Brazeau was staged to raise money for cancer research. But it also set off a debate about the nature of Canadian identity and our historic reputation as fighters. Journalist-turned-academic DECLAN HILL, who fought on the undercard, explores the dark secret of our national psyche.
When you fight in a boxing match, the whole world goes grey. I realized that about 15 seconds into my fight last Saturday, a white-collar bout staged just before the Justin Trudeau-Patrick Brazeau charity showdown in Ottawa.
Hundreds of people were watching, but the only thing that my mind seemed to comprehend was that I was in a cramped, closed ring with another person who wanted to hurt me. My senses could not take in anything tangential, anything unimportant to my physical survival.
My opponent, Jeff Davis, a muscular businessman who runs the Heart & Crown bar in the ByWard Market, appeared white against the grey wall. I hit him with an up-down-up, Cuban combination and moved quickly to my left. I knew that Jeff loves to fight and that his entire strategy was to inflict as much pain as possible on me.
When I took up boxing a few years ago, I was surprised by the level of good manners in the sport. I’ve played competitive soccer almost all my life, and, compared to boxing, the Beautiful Game is a nest of cheating, lying and whiny bad sportsmanship.
In soccer, for example, it is common for players to swear at the referee. Many fans regard it is as a sign of how hard a player is trying.
Many fans also think that pretending to be hurt to get your opponent penalized is a good thing, so much so that players falling over to draw a foul is now almost an art form.
Boxing, to my astonishment, has none of these problems. The modern variation of the sport was organized by a 19th-century British aristocrat, and it still carries the vestiges of the code of the gentlemen. The referee and judges wear bow ties. The fighters shake hands with their opponent’s coaches and cornermen and, at the end of a long, violent fight, they frequently hug.
I was also surprised to learn that most boxers are extraordinarily modest outside of the ring. I had expected them to be jerks like Mike Tyson or Floyd Mayweather, but what I discovered is that the norm for real boxers is a strong sense of humility. What they have to do inside a ring is so intense, the line between victory and defeat so thin, that there is little energy to waste on outside nonsense.
Of course, there is a hard, undeniable core of brutality at boxing’s heart. The strong emphasis on good manners at all times – well, except for the weigh-in at which boxers are supposed to go through pantomime insults to drum up interest – is a cover for this sheer visceral animalism.
In the second round of our threeround bout, Jeff hit me with three slow, hard left hooks. Each punch hurt. I staggered.
Through the grey wall of my senses, I could hear a section of the crowd roar with approval. The sound frightened me as much as Jeff’s blows. To hear people rejoicing because you are being hurt is a surreal, unpleasant experience. I could feel it in the ring as a palpable presence.
In less time than it takes to read these lines, my body moved automatically out of the range of his punches and I stopped, winded, and waited for his next attack.
In the weeks before the fight, I trained with both Trudeau and Brazeau. They handled themselves well. In the gym, there were no false airs from either and the other fighters working out at the gym were roughly divided as to who would win.
But, on the night of the fight, I knew Trudeau would win almost as soon as I walked into the dressing room. Standing beside Trudeau was a very gentle fellow who I realized, as we shook hands, was Ali Nestor, the great Montreal fighter.
In true boxing form, Nestor, the most dangerous person in the room, was also the most understated and shy. Trudeau told me that Nestor was his coach. I laughed and said, “Oh, that’s your secret!”
Until that moment, Trudeau had displayed a public attitude of casual surprise: “What, there’s a fight on … oh yes, I should probably train for it.”
At the official weigh-in a few days before the fight, Trudeau drank a beer and seemed relaxed and unconcerned. (Jeff and I had not touched alcohol for weeks). In reality, he had been training very hard with one of Canada’s best fighters.
At the end of the third round, my concentration slipped. There were about 30 seconds to go, I knew I was in the lead in points.
Despite my sensory deprivation, or possibly because of it, I had been boxing well throughout the fight, steadily scoring points with left jabs and combinations. I relaxed.
As my mind wandered, the colour returned to the room. In that split second of time, again less time than it takes to finish this sentence, Jeff had crossed the distance between us and was thundering punches into me. The grey curtain dropped back instantly. I moved. As I moved I could hear the crowd roaring.
I admire Trudeau for working so hard to become good at boxing. I respect Trudeau for confronting that “shiny pony” image that gives off to many Canadians. For in confronting it, Trudeau understood the dark secret at the heart of Canada’s psyche: we adore fighting.
Forget that self-image Canadians have of themselves as decent United Nations peacekeepers, slightly boring, but dependable. In our communal soul, there is a dark corner that is forever Don Cherry. Susanna Moodie wrote about it as one of her first impressions on coming to Canada in the 1830s. Our very nation was formed in the trenches of the First World War and the heroism at Vimy Ridge. There our reputation as brutal fighters was the stuff of horrific legends.
As for our national games, hockey and lacrosse, there are simply no other sports that allow, even encourage, participants to stop, fight and then carry on playing. It is unheard of in anywhere else in the world. In Canadian-made sports, it is simply shrugged off as part of the action.
Perhaps, then, Canadian society is a mirror of boxing: lots of good manners and decency on the surface, but scrape away the layers and you will find a brutal, animalistic streak at the centre of its soul.
Of course, this is not true for all Canadians and certainly not all of the time. But it is powerful force in the Canadian soul that you ignore at your peril.
The boxing crowd was like that last Saturday night. In other sports, you stick with your team win or lose. Fight fans are not like that. They love their winners. When Brazeau entered the hall before the fight, nearly everyone there loved him. When he left after being defeated there were few people who shook his hand.
At some level, I think Trudeau knew that and realized he could never have a successful career as a politician unless he took on that visceral Canadian sense of thuggishness and won it over along with the crowd.
After the fight was over, Jeff came immediately over to me and shook my hand. I had won, but we had trained together, liked each other and promised that, whatever the result, we would drink whiskies to toast each other’s relatives who had died from cancer.
We did. And it was for me the best part of the evening.
Follow Declan Hill on Twitter @declan_hill