My life in boxing

In the very early hours of our Sunday morning I turned off my alarm by throwing my phone against the wall. Unfortunately it’s not a smartphone, so it just bounced off and carried on alarming. I dragged myself from my pit of sleep, like a boxer from his poverty, and prodded my wife in the ribs.

“Wake up,” I said.

“I’m awake,” she said, in that voice she uses when she’s not awake at all, and is just trying to fool me while she sneaks in an extra couple of hours. I took her by the ankle and tugged her out of bed. A sleeping body makes a heavy thump on a bedroom carpet at 4am.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” I said. I was half-hoping she’d flake, so I could go back to sleep as well.

“No, I want to,” she mumbled from the tangle of bedclothes, and so I fireman-carried her downstairs and I turned on the kettle and we huddled on the sofa in the yolk-like lamplight to watch the plucky Manny Pacquiao fight the loathesome Floyd Mayweather. It was her first boxing match, and my first in several years.

I used to be a dedicated connoisseur of the sweet science. In school I would passionately watch Brian Mitchell and Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvellous Marvin Hagler then roam the schoolground the next day, trying to find someone who’d seen them too. In university when we couldn’t afford a television my friend David and I would sneak into the TV room of one of the residences to watch Vuyani Bungu and Welcome Ncita and Dingaan Thobela.

We watched Corrie Sanders’ first fights and declared he could be world heavyweight champ one day, and made a pact that if ever he fought for the title, no matter where in the world we were or what our circumstances, we’d be ringside to watch it. We spat in our palms and shook on it, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, confident that the world was malleable and time would always be on our side. Twelve years later, in 2003, Corrie Sanders fought for the title in Hanover, Germany. David was living in London and I had just been fired from all my jobs and was reeling from the shock, and if ever there was a time to fulfil an ancient pact and have an adventure it was then, but although we discussed the fight on the phone we both carefully avoided even mentioning the possibility of meeting in Hanover. Corrie won the world title and we lost the last part of our youth.

In recent times I’ve gone off boxing because it has become venal, fat and corrupt. It was always venal and corrupt but at least it was lean and hard or seemed so: warriors warring with warriors, rather than second-rate stumblebums avoiding other second-rate stumblebums until they’ve run out of third-rate stumblebums to beat. Also, there’s a built-in discomfort about being a middle-class guy watching two working-class guys punching each other for my entertainment. I’m no hero of conscience, I can overcome that discomfort, but only for a good, big fight, and there hasn’t been one of those for a good long while.

The truth is I wasn’t even expecting Mayweather-Pacquiao to be a good fight. It was five years too late: I figured both fighters are going down the other side of the hill, just like the sport, just like most of us watching. But I was telling my wife about it, talking up the occasion for old time’s sake, and she said, “I’ll watch with you, if you like”, and then I became unreasonably excited.

I have the same memory as a zillion other South Africans of a certain age: waking before dawn in our pyjamas in 1979 with our dads and sometimes our moms to watch Gerrie Coetzee fight Leon Spinks in Monte Carlo: the thrill of it, like waking early for a long family road trip, the sound of the teaspoon in a coffee cup, my dad in his dressing gown and stokies before daylight, the sense of enchanted occasion, of intimacy outside the day-to-day.

I also remember the bleary-eyed bewilderment when Spinks went down for the third time inside the first two minutes and the fight was suddenly over. It was a letdown, but it didn’t matter. Moments that end in anticlimax aren’t any less of moments.

I sat with my wife on Sunday morning and declaimed about check hooks and cutting off the ring and she nodded and pretended to listen and booed Mayweather and cheered whenever Manny’s slipped through a glancing right. It wasn’t a great fight but I’ll always remember it. A billion other people were watching it at the same time, it was also only ours.

Times, 3 May 2015