The Mythology of Boxing, and the Spectacle of Human Suffering
🥽 Analyzing the biggest fight of the 20th Century through the lens of an insane aesthetic treatise from 1766 🥽
One of the most iconic sports images ever taken sees Muhammad Ali, arms raised in triumphance, swaggering off into the corner of a boxing ring, as the flat, mangled body of Cleveland Williams lays sprawled out across the mat several feet behind him. The perimeter of the photograph is laced with suit-and-tie after suit-and-tie, bald white head after bald white head, typewriter after typewriter—no matter how much carnage is being implicated between the black figures in the central white square, though the two bodies locked into battle are doomed to suffer physically, for the totality of all other characters involved, it is exclusively a matter of spectacle. Nearly ten years later, Ali, freshly stripped of his coveted World Boxing Association Championship, would stand across the ring from reigning titleholder George Foreman, 7,892 miles away from the Houston crowd before which he had knocked out Williams, in Kinshasa, Zaire. It would be a bout widely characterized by the newly-unfurling TV era it symbolically pinnacled: much like boxing’s most primitive origins, a racial stage had been set, and the stakes for superiority were bound to be just as ideological as they were physical. The advent of the TV age in boxing gave rise to similarly-weighted spectacles, wherein watchers across the globe enjoyed televised beatdowns not only for their displays of athletic skill, but also because of the varied storylines—often surrounding race—that served to contextualize them. As such, the commitment to seeing physical suffering play out before one’s own eyes was twofold; for one, there was the natural, somewhat empathetic allure of pain and physical exhibition, and at the same token, there was the fairly television-intensified allure of what was hanging in the balance.
“Every grunt, sign of puffiness beneath the eye, or curse word shouted across the mat to an opponent counted as evidence that these mythic legends were human enough to suffer.”
At first glance, an 18th-century aesthetic treatise on words and images seems quite far off from a modern sport like boxing. But in G.E. Lessing’s seminal 1766 text Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Poetry and Painting, although the mediums, centuries, and subject matter at hand are vastly distinct from Ali and Foreman’s battle in Kinshasa, a great deal of the 20th Century junction of boxing and media history it embodied is anticipated. The treatise sees Lessing delve into a sculpture of the titular Greek myth’s painful demise at the hands of biting serpents, ultimately arguing that in the plastic arts, there are certain limits to the extent at which agony can be represented to avoid ugliness. As much as poetry and painting exist in seemingly obvious incongruence to the most important boxing match of the 20th Century, Lessing’s analysis of suffering begs a question widely relevant to the showdown—how much suffering are we willing to witness, and why? Such was the crux of not only the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, but also the primetime boxing era it crystallized: just as Lessing bore scrutinous witness to the suddenly-humane suffering of mythical heroes, so did millions of television owners, especially concerning Ali and Foreman’s bout, as modern-day myths duelled on-screen. Although the focus of his Mythologies (1957), too, is more strictly aligned with wrestling than boxing, Roland Barthes’ equally-seminal text provides an answer to the question just as applicable to pugilism: when some notion of justice is on the other side of the bargain, even the most violent displays become something worth tuning in to. Much of the “Rumble in the Jungle” event’s appeal was vested in what lay at stake racially—both in that very moment, and over the centuries that preceded it—and with this giving the match its weight, “justice” was set to be served both corporally (who is the superior fighter?) and conceptually (which is the superior doctrine?). Decades removed, the match remains a stark representation of how timeless the human desire for justice is, and just how much it is willing to endure to see itself satisfied.
Laocoön and the Televised Spectacle of the “Rumble in the Jungle”
In Laocoön, Lessing’s primary grievance with the titular sculpture is rooted in the fact that, for as much agony as the character is visibly being subjected to, his slightly-minimized scream does not do his plight justice—an extraction of man from myth quite consistent with the viewership of televised boxing matches like the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight. The artwork in question sees Laocoön, a mythical Greek prince, being torturously devoured at the midsection by a violent assemblage of interwoven serpents, which additionally wrap themselves around his struggling sons. Laocoön himself is depicted with one arm in helpless grasp of a snake and the other flailing above his head; his face is fixed in what looks to be the base of a bloodcurdling scream, his eyes semi-squinted and his head tilted upward. “High as Homer raises his heroes above human nature in other respects,” Lessing writes, “he still has them remain faithful to it in their sensitiveness to pain and injury and in the expression of this feeling by cries, tears, or invectives” (9). Boxing’s 20th Century marriage with television hinged on a similar effect, in that by way of show-business storylines, rapidly-growing fanbases and a burgeoning market, boxers were widely elevated to pervasive statuses as heroes—with the sole hints to their humanness being issued when they were, far more vulnerable than they would ever be seen outside of it, subjected to physical punishment inside the ring. It was there that the “cries, tears, or invectives” of the once-mythical fighters became giveaways to their mortality: whereas a character like Muhammad Ali’s most distinguishing factors outside the squared circle were his radical politics, controversial actions and stark iconoclasm, once he was within the ropes, the focus immediately shifted to his aging body, his ability (or lack thereof) to take larger-than-life punches from a much-younger opponent, and how much—or little—strength he had left at any given point to regain his championship. Every grunt, sign of puffiness beneath the eye, or curse word shouted across the mat to an opponent counted as evidence that these mythic legends were human enough to suffer; and, where Lessing saw the holding-back of Laocoön’s agony as a grievous theft of that very quality in his sculpture of focus, televised boxing thrived on the fact that nothing was left to be desired in granting viewers what authentic vulnerability was to be craved as celebrity grew.
In the decades preceding its being pinnacled by the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, televised boxing seized upon the growing prospect of mythic battles between heroes, affording the sport an ever-increasing emphasis upon the presentation of a good show. Fighters were practically just as much characters in a program as they were athletes in an arena, with the most skilled being the most prioritized and the least skilled being not only bad for the sport, but bad for (show) business. “As TV searched insatiably for warm bodies to put in the ring,” essayist Gerald Lyn Early writes in The Cambridge Companion to Boxing, “the local boxing clubs emptied out, and once a fighter did poorly onscreen, TV dropped him like a hot potato” (92). With the best fighters came longevity, and with the greatest longevity came the richest storylines. It was at this level that the question of what are we watching for? transcended just displays of physical prowess, and went on to encompass the prospect of a battle between titans—wherein, just as it would in Greek mythology, any hint towards mortal suffering would be exponentially magnified. Lessing’s focus on the visible plight of Laocoön is uncannily similar to the mannerisms displayed by boxing commentators and fans alike: whereas across the long, winding buildup to a fight like “Rumble in the Jungle,” an excessive level of hype snowballed to a point where each individual fighter was not only an athlete but a myth, once suffering suddenly became a possibility (as it so dramatically did for Laocoön), it also just as suddenly became the focus. Watching HBO’s broadcast of the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, you begin to notice that just as much—if not more—commentative weight is placed upon the suffering made visible by bodily cues, as is placed upon the actual actions producing those effects. Every idle moment in battle is colored by vivid rundowns of whatever hints, if any, are offered by the boxers’ physical appearances. Does George Foreman have any life left in his legs? Is it just us, or are Muhammad Ali’s punches getting weaker? With the same exact brand of obsessive scrutiny Lessing channeled to extract the human from the myth, boxing fans, given the engine of the television, were incentivized to humanize the half-gods that took to the ring to shed their shared mystique.
“The fighters, now, were not mere pugilists, but larger-than-life legends representing their respective creeds: their suffering was immortalized, and every punch struck far more than flesh.”
Even so, yet, an unfortunate element of Lessing’s treatise that also characterized the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight was its foundation upon mythologized whiteness and its preservation. The sculpture of Lessing’s interest is a classical white marble fixture quite significant of the color-centric codes exacerbated by its respective era. Whereas in Ali and Foreman’s fight and the many others like it, the black bodies in the ring suffer as the white audience spectates, Lessing is doubly the white spectator, and inadvertent perpetuator, of such oppressive social norms being reinforced—and in both cases, whether the white man is doing the spectating or the suffering, a form of subtle, crudely consistent narrative is being played out: no matter what, the white man will be safe… and if he isn’t, deified by those that are. For whiteness, it is a win/win. For blackness, both in marble and in the ring, it is strictly win or lose.
Barthes, Wrestling, and the Unscripted Display of “Justice” in Primetime Boxing
In the famed portion of Mythologies he dedicates to wrestling, even though Roland Barthes suggests that whereas that sport is dedicated to exaggerated displays of justice contingent upon crude caricaturing, pre-fixed matches and performance art, boxing exists as a complete opposite (a display of excellence), televised prizefights still remain(ed) just as dependent on such portrayals of justice as their alternative. Wrestling appealed to the desire of audiences to identify “good guy” and “bad guy” tropes not only within the ring but across society; it allowed them to cast their own sociopolitical inclinations onto the set of characters doing battle, and relish in either the victory of their favored construct or the defeat of their antagonized societal adversary. “What is thus displayed for the public,” Barthes argues, “is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice” (17). Boxing, even long before Ali and Foreman would ever combat each other live in front of millions, banked on the vista of attaching beliefs and doctrines to fighters, in order to satisfy what ought to be characterized as, at heart, an innate human desire to see the “good” and “evil” in every situation and anticipate—whether practically or unpractically so—the dishing out of a form of “justice.” Much of this was staked in race. Up from the strict black vs. white selling points of matches between the likes of Jack Johnson and the “Great White Hope,” Ali’s fight with Foreman was anchored by a head-to-head display of two contentiously competing outlooks within Black America: while Muhammad Ali was a Black nationalist who publicly criticized the Vietnam War and became an outspoken face of the Nation of Islam, George Foreman was a passionate patriot who believed in the American Dream and made multiple substantial appearances, by invite, to the White House. Whereas the spectacle of what racialized fights populated boxing’s past often hinged upon straightforward depictions of battles for superiority between the white oppressors and the Black oppressed, this case’s basis, rather, found its crux in the ideological warfare plaguing one marginalized demographic—and as the question of justice loomed over the United States and Zaire alike, the spectacle of “Rumble in the Jungle,” much like Barthes’ wrestling matches, provided an enticingly immediate portrayal of its being served. The fighters, now, were not mere pugilists, but larger-than-life legends representing their respective creeds: their suffering was immortalized, and every punch struck far more than flesh.
Such a natural longing for enactments of justice, whatever one’s version of it be, is what has always granted primetime boxing it’s timeless appeal. When, some sixty years before Ali vs. Foreman, Black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson was knocked out by Jess Willard (dubbed “The Great White Hope”) in a match that lived on in its era as “proof” of white superiority’s biological validity, films of the fight—despite Johnson’s (legally-founded) efforts to prohibit this from happening—were shown in almost every theater of the hosting city. Such events make it difficult not to realize: without context, representations of suffering alone bear little-to-no meaning. Had Johnson’s knockout not been as racially significant as it was at the time, would it likely have been reproduced, re-watched, or revisited to nearly the same extent? With an absence of stakes, whether they be racial, political or social, boxing matches and wrestling exhibitions alike become mere footage of battered flesh scuffling until one sweaty mass ceases to move. Barthes’ citation of a desire for justice, despite his strict assertion that it solely applies to wrestling, goes just as far in deconstructing the mythical appeal of a televised boxing showcase: the viewer is in constant search of a victory not only for a fighter, but for everything that stands in the ring with him. Boxing did not, and still does not, require the excessive caricaturing, pre-fixed bouts nor crude humor significant of Barthes’ wrestling matches to accomplish the same exact thing that they do—whether the defining elements are exaggerated or not, suffering is being put on display, and the primary thing making it worth tuning in to is the mouth-watering issue of whether our innate convictions will be justified.
The Racial Stakes of the “Rumble in the Jungle”
Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s illustrious WBA Championship bout took place in Kinshasa, Zaire in lieu of a U.S. venue in hopes of making it a “symbolic black happening”; but for as much as this may have been accomplished, the same consistent beneficiary exemplified by Lessing’s Laocoön emerged victorious: the white gaze. The racial stakes of televising the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight went far beyond the fissures of America’s Black community in light of the Civil Rights Movement—centuries prior to the Black suffering that would be broadcast live from a boxing ring on HBO, Zaire’s colonial history bore it to extents far more heinous than that implicated by Ali and Foreman’s rubber gloves. From 1908 to 1960, Congo was a colony ruled by Belgium, wherein by way of plantations, paternalism and inhumane violence, cash crops were sold to private European and American corporations. The era was defined by several periods of deadly uprisings, the last of which resulted in the independence of Congo fourteen years before Ali and Foreman would square off in its heart. Surrounding the event, whereas years of Congo’s colonial past were defined by roads, railroads, electric stations and public buildings being built by way of forced labor under the eye of European colonists, 1974 saw similar advancements—a new airport, a new highway connecting directly from said airport to a new stadium, a satellite station with one hundred newly-linked phones, etc.—implemented as part of a $15 million dollar initiative by Zaire’s then-President Mobutu Sese Seko to take hosting the event as an opportunity to publicly present his country to the world as an “example of black liberation from European colonialism.” For as much as this notion presents an uplifting vision of what hung in the balance encompassing the fight, a macro-level assessment gives it a much more dystopian outlook: on the same grounds that bore witness to the suffering of black bodies under colonialism, freedom from this colonialism was being represented on a global stage via… the suffering of black bodies. Think back to the aforementioned image, in which a triumphant Muhammad Ali struts his way across the ring from the unconsious body of Cleveland Williams. Who are the sufferers, and who are the spectators? In some ways, the “Rumble in the Jungle” event was a theoretic continuation of the same haunting thread, this time with the symbolic settling of a black issue being carried out by African-American bodies in physical, and mental, warfare with one another, all the while white spectators with lessened sociopolitical stake—whether ringside in Zaire, or across the ocean from a U.S. television screen—looked on and were entertained.
“No matter which side of the issue television viewers found themselves on, as the worldwide wait for a real-life resolution drew on outside the ring, the spectacle brought on by the “Rumble in the Jungle” was the unveiling of just that: a justice that was, at last, within perceivable grasp.”
One of, if not the only, boxing-adjacent argument(s) Lessing makes in Laocoön ruminates on the idea that “when we see that someone is about to receive a blow on his arm or shin, we naturally start and draw back our own arm or leg, and if the blow actually falls, we too feel it in some measure and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer”; with a highly-racialized event like the “Rumble in the Jungle” match, one must consider that with the same punch to one hero or the other, different watchers may have felt different things. Prior to boxing’s 20th Century intermingling with broadcasting technology, exhibitions were comparatively local events, with storylines, if they were emphasized at all, encompassing relatively region-specific narratives. The advent of the television gave boxing the position of global judge, with larger issues, larger characters and larger stories being relayed to the largest possible audience: the world. This meant that whether or not the issues at hand directly included the watcher, there was the sense of bearing witness to an international court case, where sympathies could either be placed with the defendant—the champion—or the plaintiff: the challenger. As much as George Foreman was WBA Champion in a literal sense, the ideas he symbolized bore a form of ideological championship, in the realm of which Ali was just as much of an underdog—Foreman’s proud patriotism stood in the corner of what exploitative aggressors implicated both Belgian Congo’s deadly, decades-long battle for independence, and Black America’s perpetual lived struggle in a society founded upon its inferiority; Ali’s Islam-informed Black Nationalism, meanwhile, seemed to stand in as the voice of the oppressed, outspoken in its resilience and iconoclastic in its willingness to battle overpowering enemies despite being ostensibly outmatched. The case was set, and a jury of millions across the globe—traversing racial vantage points—were bound to, no matter which fighter won, come to that many different conclusions as to whether justice had been served. “-wrestlers remain gods because they are,” Barthes argues in Mythologies, “for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a justice which is at last intelligible” (23). No matter which side of the issue television viewers found themselves on, as the worldwide wait for a real-life resolution drew on outside the ring, the spectacle brought on by the “Rumble in the Jungle” was the unveiling of just that: a justice that was, at last, within perceivable grasp.
Whereas the common question proposed by both Lessing and Barthes’ theories aks how much we are willing to endure in order to see our desires for justice satisfied, the actual “Rumble in the Jungle” match upended the implied challenge: it wasn’t a matter of how much brutality watchers were willing to sit through—it was the banality that made sitting through it conceptually difficult. Nicknamed the “Rope-A-Dope,” much of Ali and Foreman’s battle saw the former intentionally allow himself to stay latched onto the ropes, a tactic that famously allowed Foreman to burn himself out with punches that eventually grew weaker and weaker, until in the eighth round, his challenger was able to suddenly spring from the perimeter and knock him out with two swift punches to the nose. It is here that Lessing’s gripe with Laocoön’s palpable lack of visual pain (or, at least, as much as one would expect) becomes more vastly applicable to the “Rumble in the Jungle” showdown: even if storylines, characters and overlying narratives are stripped away, the entertainment value in a boxing match is derived from its display of a contentious fight; but, presented with Ali and Foreman’s version, a watcher constantly finds themself desperately pulling—much like Lessing—for slivers of what displays of pain should expectedly be present. The dull nature of this fight also plays directly into what distinctions Barthes drew between boxing and wrestling: just as much as both sports may play on the same human desire for representations of justice, boxing, especially in a match like this one, falls short of the over-the-top entertainment value intentionally provided in its exaggerated counterpart. “Rumble in the Jungle” was, and overwhelmingly so, nothing but a well-marketed fistfight without the contextual pedestal it stood atop on a world stage. It is a relatively boring fight compared even to boxing matches it shares a history with, let alone the high-flying, scripted wrestling matches that have always served as its antithesis. Yet, at the same time that this is true, it has been watched and cited by millions across the globe as one of the greatest, most historically significant clashes of all time—why? What makes a boxing match in the television era is not merely the physical prowess exhibited, but the social spectacle that commands the eyes of the world. Justice cannot be cast onto two random, wrassling masses of flesh. The justice—and the viewership—only becomes a factor when the flesh carries with it politics, convictions, doctrines and ideologies.
When boxing matches become the perfect storm of spectacle, wherein skill and myth are interwoven to the point of a broadly relevant affair, the verdicts reached in the ring long outlast the actual fight. Moments before the cameras cut out on Ali’s post-match interview, he squinted vehemently forward and told everyone in the room to be silent at once. “I told you I’m the real champion!” he shouted angrily, as a shaky journalist desperately tried to regain control of the conversation. “I told you I’m the champion of the world! All of you, bow! All of my critics, crawl! All of you suckers, bow!” Whichever side of the bout’s many narratives one found themself on, there seemed no ostensible option but to feel as if while the ideologies, perspectives and nations were standing trial in that ring, so were they. Yes, Ali reveled in his physical victory—moments before his closing outburst, he boasted that he made his opponent “look like a baby”—but physicality was something only Foreman could attest to. It was when he demanded his audience to bow, declared all that he stood for superior, and crowned himself the greatest, that “justice” was, depending on what one believed in, either justly served or viciously revoked. Detractors didn’t have to feel Ali’s glove smashing into their noses. With every damning word that spilled out of his mouth, another blow was unleashed upon what little pride survived seeing Foreman knocked out.
Wherever there is a television set, no matter what channel happens to be on, the overarching trope of good versus evil is ever-present. It is a quality we naturally seek out as human beings; when, in reality, the good guy doesn’t always come away victorious, television offers a utopia in which some form of justice always purports itself to be served. Once boxing was placed onto a television screen, it became subject to the same rules: no matter how much it may have, in previous eras, strictly been an exhibition of skill, a new medium gave way to a new message, and the crux became equally vested in show business. When boxing becomes something to be watched, especially rather than listened to or heard about, the question automatically arises of why it is worth watching. In the days of Barthes and Lessing, yes, boxing’s central appeal may perhaps have been the suffering short-served by the plastic arts, or the display of prowess only simulated by wrestling. But, all the same, the second it appeared on television, it became just that: television.