If you like boxing or have even a passing interest in what it means to be human, please go read novelist Sergio De La Pava's wonderful essay "A Day's Sail" in the latest Triple Canopy magazine. De La Pava looks at two of the best rounds in boxing history — the one mentioned in the title of this post and the stirring tenth from the first fight between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo — to extract some truth about the nature of men who not only choose to fight for a living but choose to get back to their feet when others would stay down.
De La Pava is a novelist and, therefore, must use Virginia Woolf as a means for understanding fisticuffs. Don't let that put you off. His boxing writing is beautiful. We've included some of it below, although you really should go to the original story so you can click on all the nifty online footnotes:
On May 18, 2002, Arturo Gatti fought Micky Ward in a ten-round nontitle bout. If that means something to you now, realize that at the time it meant very little beyond the promise of an entertaining scrap. Gatti was thirty years old with four losses and Ward was thirty-six with eleven. That's where the promise came in, because truth is every professional boxer (about twenty thousand worldwide) looks astounding on a heavy bag. To paraphrase Bruce Lee though, bags don't hit back.
See, the pursuit's dirty little secret is that its truly elite practitioners simply don't get hit cleanly that often. By cleanly I mean the kind of cinematically flush, head-snapping bombs someone like Rocky Balboa specializes in absorbing. The most technically proficient boxer of our lifetime, Floyd Mayweather Jr., has fought professionally forty-one times and has had that happen to him maybe thrice. So if you want to see that kind of greatness go to his fights because he's the Tolstoy of boxing and you will see highest-level, once-in-a-lifetime, skill. But if you want to see another kind of greatness you need to go down at least one level, maybe two, and that's the level where Gatti–Ward took place, a level where fighters do get hit cleanly in something at least approaching Hollywood etc., and, because getting hit hard by another person who is good at hitting is no fun, a level where we feel we learn something visceral about the people involved.
Until round 9 the Gatti–Ward fight conformed perfectly with this expectation as both fighters were skilled enough to deal significant punishment but not so skilled that they could avoid its return. But it is Arturo Gatti's actions in the ninth round, a face he forms, a conscious decision he makes, a course he wills himself onto, that continue to linger almost a decade on. Watch the round again the way you might listen to an unfamiliar piece of music you want to form a relationship with.
The round begins with announcer Larry Merchant wondering whether Gatti can continue to absorb punishment from the stronger Ward, a concern no one would ever again voice regarding this individual. The left hook Ward lands a mere fifteen seconds into the round is almost inhumanly cruel. To truly understand these three minutes in human history you have to appreciate that even among the insane subset of humans that is professional boxers it is not the type of punch someone gets up from. (To see the overwhelmingly default reaction to such a punch when even elite boxers are involved watch this or this.)
The face Gatti wears while kneeling by the referee's count certainly doesn't suggest he will rise again. That he does and even almost wins the fight go beyond telling us everything we ever need to know about Gatti to almost beginning to tell us what we need to know about ourselves, and I am not going to explain that further beyond asking you to look at that face again.
De La Pava also takes a look at Corrales-Castillo 1, which was the best fight of 2005. Here's video of the round followed by the relevant section from De La Pava's story:
On May 7, 2005, Diego Corrales fought Jose Luis Castillo. Again we are on the not-quite-elite level where will tends to predominate although also on a higher level than Gatti–Ward's. This time it's the tenth round that informs: The face that lingers here is the state of Corrales's before the round even begins, that is, before he takes two more hellacious hooks that drop him on his back and even his stomach. That he rises both times is astonishing but somewhat conventional, that the round ends with him as the victor and Castillo senseless defies credible explanation. Though apparently not to his trainer, the brilliant Joe Goosen, who can be heard after each knockdown urging his fighter to "get inside" his opponent.
Reflect on that for a moment: The person most charged with ensuring Corrales's safety is urging him to get inside, that he put himself in more harm's way, and he is doing so after witnessing the two vicious knockdowns; and he was right! Again, these are not normal human interactions.
I don't know. What intelligent can be said about these two moments in human time? Can you not download them onto the latest device, walk through the halls of Sloan-Kettering and up to the child in the wheelchair, play them, and say: This is like what you have to do, you have to get inside this thing. Are they not instructive distillations? Because they feel like that and I feel something like love for Gatti and Corrales, two men who rose not in expectation of victory but rather in defiance of defeat....
And, finally, at the last, we are told this of the two men:
On July 11, 2009, Arturo Gatti was found dead in a Brazilian hotel room; authorities would later determine that he had hung himself using his wife's purse strap. (Those close to Gatti continue to dispute this finding, arguing that if there were one thing Gatti would not commit to it was suicide.) Diego Corrales died on May 7, 2007, when he fell off the motorcycle he was operating through the haze of a 0.25 blood-alcohol content. On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat's pockets with stones, walked into a river, and purposely drowned; her explanatory note to her husband explaining that "I can't fight any longer."
Early in James Ramsay's joy at his mother's opening words we learn that the lighthouse he longs to go to is separated from him by "a day's sail." Like everyone currently fighting we hear the echo of his request to undertake that sail through relentless dreary waves and maybe fear being swept out to sea. Except some of us don't do fear. These people recklessly answer Yes, we're going to the lighthouse no matter the cost and in so saying purposely forget that weather determines everything when it comes to its prisoners.
A Day's Sail [Triple Canopy]