One side effect of being a parent is that I sometimes find myself seeing the world through the eyes of my children, even when they’re not with me. The shift in perspective can be instructive.
Last weekend, as I was heading out the door to catch an evening of boxing at a local nightclub, my older daughter called after me, “Make sure all the fights are fair for everybody.” She said this in the voice of her number-one stuffed bear, a sweet lisping coward who thinks he’s terribly fierce. The bear, who used to talk a lot when my daughter was younger, has mostly fallen silent in recent years. But she still occasionally resurrects his voice, especially to express a sentiment she regards as too babyish to comport with her tween worldliness.
She’s old enough now to understand that boxing, like most things in life, is rarely fair as most children would define fairness. Yes, the state boxing commission usually ensures that the two combatants will be of roughly the same size and that neither can sneak a horseshoe into his glove, but that leaves a lot of room for mismatches. Differences in ability, experience, quality of instruction and training, the money and influence of backers, and all manner of other disparities register in the ring and in judges’ responses to what they see there. It may look like a fair fight when two muscled-up opponents enter the ring, but a competent matchmaker can almost guarantee the outcome without anyone having to actually fix the bout.
Boxing has always known this truth; the rest of society periodically wakes up to it. Our president, for instance, has finally gotten around to talking about the fact that American life consists of a surface layer of equality of opportunity stretched over a deep internal structure of inequality. Any denizen of the fight world would recognize this arrangement.
I go to a boxing card expecting to see variations on the theme of a local favorite beating up a tough guy brought in to lose to him. But this time, astonishingly, it was different. Maybe the matchmaker had miscalculated, or had been moved by conscience or perversity to arrange more even bouts. Maybe the gods were listening when the bear spoke. Whatever the reason, the designated losers had a remarkably good night.
An unbeaten Boston fighter suffered a cut severe enough that the ring doctor stopped the fight, giving the victory to a previously winless opponent from out of state. An apparent no-hoper with a record of 2-11-1 survived two first-round knockdowns and somehow earned a draw with another unbeaten Boston fighter. The ring doctor intervened again to save an aging local hero from further pummeling by an interloper who thereby earned his first win. Another expected loser won by controversial early stoppage, and an accidental headbutt allowed yet another to escape with a technical draw.
The headline bout, at least, went according to traditional form, restoring a sense of normalcy. In it, an out-of-shape hardcase with a losing record from Kansas City insisted on weathering an unnecessarily extended beating before succumbing to a local fighter with a winning record. The loser’s display of hopeless fortitude in the face of certain defeat, a kind of courage one grows used to seeing at the fights, accentuated the near-miraculous nature of much of the rest of the evening.
The freakish outbreak of anomalous triumph by designated losers, occurring during a series of undistinguished scuffles between low-grade fighters, almost flew by under my radar. Standing around and cracking wise with fellow ringsiders while keeping half an eye on the action, I might have missed the full import of it if my daughter hadn’t put that thought about fairness in my head. Maybe I was only able to recognize the anomaly at all by seeing it through my children’s eyes. I try to remain open to being influenced by their point of view, just as, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I still try to see the country they’re growing up in as something other than a mismatch between the haves and have-nots, a fight fixed by our political system and the back-room money that runs the show.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’