One natural extension, for me, of the discussion about "fighters who love to fight" is to consider another unthinking habit we fall into in writing about boxing: casual references to who's tough and who's tougher. Fight writers compare relative toughness all the time, and they do it as if it were a self-evident quality, easy to measure. Sometimes, boxing makes it seem as if that's so. Marco Antonio Barrera was a lot tougher than Naseem Hamed; Holyfield was much tougher than the more gifted Lewis and Tyson; Frazier was self-evidently tough, but Ali was tougher than you might think he was; and so on. (Not that the tougher fighter always wins, of course. It's one quality among many, and we can argue about how to measure it. I'm not even going to try to define toughness in this post, but, say, Roy Jones was never celebrated for his toughness in relation to opponents he beat with talent and craft. I think most people would say that Hopkins and Toney and even Lou Del Valle were tougher. But when you found out that Jones had no chin, and that he had apparently walked a tightrope for the latter part of his career or even perhaps his whole career in the knowledge that he couldn't take a punch as well as many of the people he fought, did that change your view of him? Did it make him less tough, in your eyes, or tougher?)
We use toughness as shorthand for a whole complex of qualities, some mysterious and innate and some refined by practice and experience, and this shorthand allows us to say something quickly and move on to something else. But when you--okay, when I--stop and think about what's meant by saying somebody is tougher than somebody else, it's almost paralyzing. Once I begin to dwell on it, the process of analysis and comparison grinds to a halt and I find myself wandering off into a swamp of respectful wonder for the strangeness of the human animal.
Picture the worlds in which you usually move: work, family, public space, etc. In my case, "work" means a university, people who edit and write for magazines and publishing houses, and so on; "family" means middle-class life with little kids, so school and playground and the like, and also extended families on both sides; "public space" means Boston, a company town where the company is School, and all the other places I've lived: Chicago, Middletown, New York, New Haven, Easton. Stop and think about what it would mean to be the toughest person in any one of these settings. Forget about the cities; think smaller. What does it mean to be the toughest person in any given bar on a slow Tuesday night, or on one block of sidewalk at any given moment? Take a long look at your fellow humans. Even being the toughest person in such limited settings would be a major achievement, and winning the honor would be hell. What does it mean to be the toughest person in a family? Yeah, sure, your father-in-law is old, but if it came down to you and him for the last can of tuna on Earth, he'd be whaling you with his cane, and his scary selfish vitality would be hard to extinguish, and even if you prevailed it would be sheer misery in all sorts of ways to pry his clawlike fingers one by one from around the cold metal. Or, to get all the way down to it, what does it mean to be the toughest person in a marriage? Most people don't ever want to find out.
Imagine what you would have to go through to find out. Even when you reduce the sample group to two people, picture going all the way to find out who's tougher by whatever standards are appropriate--not always physical, but including the physical--and you begin to appreciate just how big a deal it is to say that somebody's tougher than somebody else, or that somebody's tough at all. Imagine how brutal it would be to work out this logic in all the various facets of your life. I look around the English Department at a meeting--yes, my mind wanders--and I say to myself, "Okay, 35 English professors, you'd think it would be no big deal to figure out who's the toughest person here, and that the winner wouldn't be very tough. But in fact, if everybody was committed to going all the way to determining who's toughest, it would be a monumental struggle in which we would all find out all sorts of things about what's inside our colleagues. I bet the winner would turn out to be very tough indeed, and I would probably get eliminated no better than halfway through. Now, I wonder who would win..."
In a boxing gym and at the fights, you can actually develop a pretty good sense of where people fall along the scale of toughness as the fight world defines it, just as you can assess technique, experience, and physical gifts. They're all nearly off the toughness charts in comparison to regular humans, of course, but they can work out among themselves the gradations of relative toughness in a manner that others usually cannot. That's a way in which boxing is not like everyday life, or is a refinement of it. Part of the appeal of boxing is that it orchestrates the playing out of who's tougher in a way that's relatively easy to follow from the couch in front of a TV or from a folding chair at ringside. Work, family life, and the like are usually a lot more masked, indirect, and complicated. (When they're not, best to duck.)
Why am I even bothering to go through all this? It's because the "fighters who love to fight" post has gotten me thinking about the relationship--always tenuous, and, when you stop to think about it, almost paralyzingly so--between boxing itself and the words we use to describe and analyze it. Part of the beauty of boxing jargon is its extreme compression: "styles make fights," "a good big man beat a good little man," "be first," and so on. But the flipside of that compression, the thing that makes me pause before breezily dismissing this fighter or that one as not tough enough, is the wildly expansive extremes of human experience that the jargon compresses. So, yes, Barrera was tougher than Hamed (also smarter, stronger, a better boxer, a better ring general, and a better person; he didn't win just because he was tougher). The sentence is almost an equation: On the toughness scale, Barrera > Hamed. But when you stop to think about the middle term, the "tougher" that's further compressed into the "greater than" sign, it opens up a terrain so huge, so awe-inspiring, that the whole sentence threatens to break up and float away. You can't let it do that, or else you'd never get anything said, but from time to time, I think, it's worthwhile to stop and think about what we're talking about when we talk about boxing.