As you get older you come to understand that the real fight is not in the ring, but in your life.
Gotta get into a fight Can’t get out of it Gotta get into a fight Gonna blow you to a million pieces Blow you sky high, I don’t care Splatter matter on the bloody ceiling Blow the building right into the air
— Mick Jagger/Keith Richards/Ron Wood, “Fight”
“I fight for perfection,”
“Do you achieve it?”
“Nah! No one does, but we aim for it,”
— Mike Tyson speaking with Charlie Rose
The bell rings. An anxious, impatient crowd gathers. The yin-yang ref calls out the opponents. One wears a bear mask, the other a snake. The bell rings again, pulsating with the calm of a Shinto bell. The opponents dance a slow, deliberate choreography of moves. Blood spurts forth into the raging, hungry eyes of the spectators, turning them into craving madmen. Blood energy soaks the minds and space. The fighters sever each other into oblivion before being reborn into a new unified beast with the spectators. The lust for violence and death is complete. Spectacle and spectator become one magnificently frightening blood beast.
Malcolm Sutherland’s short film, Bout (2011), explores wrestling, sport, and violence as ancient codified spiritual rituals. The film was inspired after Sutherland rediscovered wrestling and seeing matches in Montreal, Tokyo and Mexico City. “It blew my mind, says Sutherland. “There was something intense and ancient about it that totally missed me as a kid. I was basically tripping out on the ritualism and theatricality of wrestling, and all those deep primal urges it satisfies. When human beings get together they seem totally insane,” says Sutherland. “Humans flock together around ideas and then the ideas manifest in the most bizarre and often violent pat- terns. It’s like we lose individuality to something bigger.”
I’ve been boxing semi-regularly for over a decade. Since I was a kid I’d always wanted to box. Already living a life drowning in anger, fear, anxiety, and sometimes violence, boxing seemed like the ideal solution - although I had no clue what the word “therapeutic” meant when I was 14. I did know that boxing cover give me a space where I could legitimately beat the shit out of someone to the cheers and approval of others.
I never did sign up. They told me I needed to run regularly and get into shape first. That turned me off immediately. Running? Good conditioning? What the fuck does jogging or being in shape have to do with pounding faces into blood pulp?
In truth, I was relieved. I associated boxing with bad people. Only thugs, bullies and criminals boxed, so the idea of being around those people, let alone having them beat the blood out of me, terrified me.
Twenty years later I finally entered the ring. Married with children, I was mentally, physically and emotionally beaten.
I strutted in thinking that I was going to be an instant Micky Ward and start pounding the bags into dust. Didn’t quite work that way. This wasn’t a sweaty, dark room stinking of piss and filled with pug-nosed thugs; instead, there was an assortment of students, women, and “nice” middle- class folks. There was also no ring or sparring. Instead there were different stations where you did skipping, shadow boxing, speed, reflex, and heavy bag. The closest you come to sparring comes at the end when you smack the shit out of the heavy bag until you’re completely drained.
“What the hell kind of boxing is this?” I wondered. “How can you fight without an opponent?”
Ah... but there was an opponent, there always had been: me
Former heavyweight champ, Jack Johnson once said, “I made a lot of mistakes out of the ring, but I never made any in it.” During my “fight” career I’ve battled addiction, abuse, depression, marriage, divorce, death, grief, and cancer. As you get older you come to understand that the real fight is not in the ring, but in your life. That bell rings everyday. Filmmaker Hal Hartley summed it up succinctly in his short film, Ambition. The protagonist literally fights his way through the day from the moment he leaves his apartment.
Everyday life can pile drive us or send us to the floor with a devastating hook to the kidneys. I’ve had more knockdowns than some people have in a lifetime. That I keep getting up and staying in the round has a lot to do with what I learned through boxing. Boxing – or any other so-called ‘blood sport’ exercises your mind not to shrink away from choosing what is difficult over what is easy.
Hard physical training can give birth to spiritual attributes like courage, patience, perseverance, selflessness, loyalty and compassion.
To achieve this state, you let go of yourself to a degree. In Bout, Sutherland speaks to a darker side of the transformative possibilities of sport, fight and spectacle, but losing yourself can also be an enlightening experience. It can be like a snake shedding its skin or a caterpillar reborn as a butterfly. We give up one for another. Identity is not something fixed. It’s continually in flux. We dance, duck, and punch through life seeding and stripping the muck of identities, behaviours and beliefs that outside influences (work, friends, family, social media) corner us with every hour.
Boxing (or running even – which I did eventually embrace) can help you shed the baggage of the moment as you move towards a state of calm, almost nothingness. When you reach that zone, you then start to rebuild and hopefully you emerge anew with your core identity in clear sight.
It takes mental and physical work to reach that state and it doesn’t happen easily or often – even if you’ve been at it for 11 years. It happened to me recently, only a month ago.
One day everything seemed to click. Time slowed down. I forgot about technique. I forgot about my cancer results and coughing up blood that day. I forgot about my light-headedness, tingling feet, burning lungs. My feet hovered, my hands moved with no resistance. I couldn’t see the bag or taste the sweat dripping on my lips, or hear the snap of the bag. I could simply sense the world around me, and it was perfect. It was heaven.
In Bout, the referee (drawn in the form of a yin-yang symbol) represents light and dark. The bout could go one way or the other - or even exist between those two states. How we get there - wherever that is - is uncertain. All we know, as Sutherland acknowledges, is that where we go up and go down, there is something big existing beyond what we see or can control.