A Libertarian in Boxing Gloves

NEW YORK — Few great boxers make it through their careers without a great nickname. In team sports, nicknames like the Manassa Mauler, Sugar Ray, Marvelous Marvin, Raging Bull, Smokin’ Joe, and the Hitman — to say nothing of less genteel names from earlier eras like the Brown Bomber, the Jew Killer, and the Boston Tar Baby — would seem out of place, an elevation of the individual above the unit. But in boxing, the individual is alone.

Evander Holyfield was a great fighter for a long time, but his official nickname, “The Real Deal,” has always been a bit underwhelming. For years, though, he has worn on the waistband of his trunks a more appropriate moniker: “Warrior.” Holyfield is beloved by boxing fans for the oldest of reasons — he fights. His dull bouts are few and far between, and his comebacks from the brink of extinction, both in the ring and out, are legendary.

Now, however, Holyfield faces two obstacles that even his warrior’s heart may not be able to overcome: age and bureaucracy. He is 42 and has only won two of his last eight fights. After losing on November 12 to journeyman Larry Donald, Holyfield had his boxing license revoked by the New York State Athletic Commission. He is appealing the suspension.

“It’s the commission’s responsibility to save a boxer from himself,” said NYSAC commission chairman Ron Stevens. “To my practiced mind, Holyfield shouldn’t be fighting anymore.”

It is clear to even the most casual observer that whatever is left of Holyfield’s skills is flickering like a very weak candle. Over the course of the 10-round fight with Donald, Holyfield was credited with landing a mere 73 punches. He won only one round on the official scorecards.

Chairman Stevens is right that a boxing commission’s job is to protect fighters when they can no longer protect themselves. This is the reason for suspensions of fighters who have been knocked out, to allow for a proper period of recuperation.

But Holyfield has not been badly hurt in his recent losses, and the NYSAC is wrong to deprive him of his right to continue fighting. The commission should consider stepping in if Holyfield becomes defenseless, but up to now, Holyfield has not demonstrated sufficient incompetence to be banished. His only sin is that he no longer wins.

“What have I done to this game that they don’t want me in it anymore?” Holyfield asks. It is the kind of question for which there is no answer, unless one of the NYSAC’s bureaucrats were to reply, “Because we know what is best for you.” But even the commission’s doctors admit that Holyfield has come through neurological testing just fine.

The Holyfield episode is an interesting clash between the heightened awareness of health and safety that now permeates our culture (for good and ill), and the libertarian value of freedom to do what one wishes, even if it is dangerous.

IT CAN ALSO BE LINKED to a conflict described by Michael Barone as Hard America vs. Soft America. Regarding Holyfield, Hard America says: “Let the man fight, if that is what he chooses. Make sure we have a stretcher to carry him out if he gets hurt.” Soft America says: “Protect him from himself. And by the way, what kind of country allows such a barbaric sport, anyway? What is wrong with you people?”

Let’s hope that America never becomes so Soft that boxing disappears. The warrior ethic that inspires Holyfield to continue, even in the face of evidence that he can no longer excel, is the same ethic that drives other Americans to solve problems on their own, without waiting for government; to start businesses; to form voluntary associations; to enlist in the military and walk away from a life of comfort. In doing so, they often labor against a naysaying chorus of “professionals,” and prove them wrong.

Holyfield probably won’t prove them wrong. He may well join history’s somber line of broken down ex-fighters who stay in the game too long. Many find it a scandal that such men are served so poorly by their profession, and indeed, no sport is more unjust in its workings than boxing. But even if all the corruption was rooted out, even if pension and medical benefits were provided, as I hope they will be someday, the danger remains.

We will never be free of damaged ex-fighters, as long as we have boxing. That is the nature of the sport. It is also the nature of risk and freedom.

Holyfield’s defiance of the bureaucrats reflects a deep American strain of individualism. Never the most quotable of champions, he fittingly chose this moment to say something memorable, offering a neat distillation of libertarian principles:

“There isn’t that much love in the world to go against a person’s will,” he says.

You might say that’s the Real Deal.

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