The “sweet science” is on life support. And the prognosis is not very good, writes Nirmal Shekar

Watching a boxer knock his opponent down time after time — perhaps five times — in the London Olympics, a gentleman sitting on the bar stool next to me at a private club in Chennai, turned his contorted face away from the television screen and cried out in sheer disgust: “You call this a sport?”

No other sport polarises sports fans as emphatically, as clearly, as does boxing. There are those who hate it — and in 2012, this category of sports fans, it must be acknowledged, forms a huge majority — and then there are those who love it.

This is very much true not merely about lay fans but also about intellectuals, artists and opinion makers of all variety since the dawn of time. You can well imagine a hunter-gatherer tribal elder intervening to stop a bout of fisticuffs between two younger men in the Pleistocene age.

Is boxing savagery or sport? Is it, as the pioneering American sportswriter Pierce Egan (1772-1849) called it, a “sweet science,” or a murderous relic of the brutally violent times through which human civilisation has arrived at this point?

And “this point,” according to many experts in the field, is perhaps the lowest point in the history of what quite a few believe to be the most masculine of all sports.

Even as women’s boxing has made its debut in the London Games, and many a lady — including India’s heroic  Mary Kom — has won over fans from all over the world, men’s boxing is a parody of what it was when Joe Frazier and George Foreman and Cuba’s noble giant, Teofilo Stevenson, dominated the ring in the Olympic Games.

Now, men’s boxing is neither sweet nor a science. It is just another sport where men seem to be going through the motions, leaving you thinking wistfully of the days of the peerless Muhammad Ali and Frazier and Foreman.

From the time James Jeffries came out of retirement  in 1910 to take on the first great African-American pugilist — Jack Johnson, nicknamed “Galveston Giant” — with a nation unambiguously split on racial lines, no sport has captured the imagination of male American sports fans as convincingly as has boxing.

Jeffries was reportedly offered $12,000 to “kick the black man’s butt” and show him his place. In front of over 20,000 people in Reno, Nevada, Johnson outclassed his white opponent and pocketed a princely sum of $65,000.

It was an epochal event, for a pioneer had yanked the door open in the world of sport for the long-suffering men of his race in a nation where racial hatred is still very much alive — the Wisconsin shooting of Sikhs in a temple must have come as a sober reminder of this stark truth to many in America and elsewhere who might have believed otherwise.

From Johnson to Joe Louis — who dealt a body blow to Adolf Hitler’s illusion of white supremacy — on to Muhammad Ali was a long, long way, along a path strewn with landmines, hunger, humiliation and despair. But by the time Ali touched his peak, and then beat his greatest rival Joe Frazier in their third and last meeting — called Thrilla in Manila — in an epic 15-round encounter, boxing had reached its pinnacle in terms of popularity.

Ali was not merely a champion boxer; to the black underclass, he was a shining symbol. If, psychologically, he offered them liberation, then, in the ring, The Greatest had the gift of subtle creativity. He turned what was essentially brutal into something sublime. He was a dream merchant who rose above the sport with gift, charm, intelligence and extraordinary charisma.

Ali turned what was essentially a sport into a metaphor for many things in a flawed American society with his special knack for bringing out the extraordinariness in the ordinary as he rode on the anti-elitist Zeitgeist of the Vietnam-war days.

“His body knew. His limbs had intelligence,” wrote Jean Cocteau of Vaslav Nijinksky, the great ballet dancer. Norman Mailer paid a similar tribute to Ali, if not in exactly the same words, in what I believe is the greatest book (The Fight) written on a single sports event — Ali versus Foreman in Zaire in 1974 — in the history of sporting literature.

Then again, the point here is not about what the great man accomplished in and out of the ring. That is history. That memorable era is being recalled simply because men’s boxing in America has sunk to an all-time low, both in terms of quality and public appeal.

Sociologists and political scientists would perhaps see this as progress. They might point to the fact that people from the African-American ghetto class have now climbed the rungs and no longer need the platform of a boxing ring to assert themselves. They would rather look at Harvard or Princeton or even the White House for opportunities.

Only a demented bigot would argue that this is not a welcome development. But the shift in priorities among African-American males is surely a loss to the mother of all sports — something that is obvious in London where men’s boxing has turned out to be an ersatz competition for mediocre athletes.

“Boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire,” said Foreman.

There might have been a ring of truth to that statement. One man against another— no balls, no bats, no racquets, no swords. Just a pair of hands to take on an adversary.

Ah, what a loss. The “sweet science” is on life support. And the prognosis is not very good. For boxing haters, there can be no better news. But for men like me, it is time for serious mourning.

For, boxing’s visceral magnetism is unmatched.