That epic Joshua-Klitschko duel left me questioning everything I thought about my attitude towards boxing and violence.
By NOO SARO-WIWA
Last Saturday night I sat in front of my TV screen, eating dinner and watching Anthony Joshua fighting Vladimir Klitschko for the WBA heavyweight title. The match was so exciting I kept forgetting to chew the chicken thigh in my mouth. Wine glass in my left hand, I was throwing shadow punches with my right. Then, in the 11th round, Joshua planted that upper cut. Klitschko tottered. The sight of his sweat spraying in the air was divine, like holy water. I bloody loved it.
Then I checked myself: Me, getting off on this violent sport? Come again?
That epic duel left me questioning everything I thought about my attitude towards boxing. Though I enjoy most sports and appreciate the physical skill and mental toughness required in each of them, the pugilistic arts have always left me queasy. The violence, the post-match puffy eyes and the threat of brain damage don’t seem right. There are also the sport’s obnoxious practitioners: Tyson Fury, a muppet who equates homosexuality with paedophilia; Floyd Mayweather, the braggart who carts around bricks of cash like he’s living in the Weimar Republic; and Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist with a taste for human ear cartilage.
Tyson bothers me the most. I once saw him at Heathrow airport when he arrived on a visit to the UK. Dozens of his thuggish fans were there to welcome him, despite his prior conviction. I was the only woman in this all-male mob and I was elbowed and jostled as they chanted Tyson’s name and tried to get a piece of their idol. Never before (or since) had I experienced mass testosterone so intimately and intensely. The glorification of brawn over morality is masculinity at its worst, the root of so much suffering in the world.
But then came Anthony Joshua and Vladimir Klitschko:
They’re not the first gentlemen boxers, but there’s something I especially love about these two. Joshua is the chilled-out London lad with magnificent thighs; a clean-cut mummy’s boy who, like me, is of Nigerian heritage. Klitschko is the ultimate charmer. Gentle and charismatic outside the ring, he’s got a PhD (God knows Nigerians love a man with letters after his name) and he speaks four languages.
The warmth and respect these two guys have for one another is the best thing that’s happened to boxing. Watching Klitschko playfully poking Joshua’s tummy as they faced off last year was particularly life-affirming. Two classy giants who confine their belligerence to the sporting arena – unlike that idiot Mike Tyson. Perhaps this is why I was able to enjoy Saturday’s fight without being appalled by its violence.
But it still doesn’t fully explain my bloodlust. In the last few rounds of Saturday’s fight, my heart rate doubled and my eyeballs were bulging like Bart Simpson’s. The sight of Klitschko on the ropes getting a hammering from Joshua wasn’t supposed to feel so satisfying but, my god, it did.
The unpalatable truth is that for a few minutes I had zero empathy for Klitshcko’s physical pain. In fact, I wasn’t empathising with Joshua’s either. When the Brit landed on the floor in the sixth round and stared defeat in the eye, his physical injuries didn’t concern me one bit. The only things on my mind were his pride and the implications for his career.
Humans naturally take vicarious pleasure of winning, and we have an innate desire to compete. We also have to switch off our powers of empathy for one reason or another all the time. If we didn’t, we would be preventing others from doing anything that is dangerous or makes us wince. I for one would stop anyone from climbing mountains (too cold), and I’d prevent people from getting tattoos or braiding their hair (too painful). And have you seen the state of ballet dancers’ feet?
Masochists do what they do on their own volition. And perhaps their agency is what enables some of us to switch off the empathy button temporarily — if an individual of a sound mind chooses to hurt him or herself then so be it.
That’s my excuse, anyway. Either that, or I’m no more evolved than your average Mike Tyson fan. Which is a very scary thought.