Briefly home from boarding school back in 1951, I went to a bar with a phony draft card, ordered a beer, and watched Rocky Marciano knock out my idol Joe Louis. Joe was 37 and trying for a comeback, as he was broke—and as he sat in his stool after having been counted out, he looked a lot older. Rocky crossed over from his corner, bent down to speak to Joe, and began to cry. Joe was his idol, too. Rocky went on to become world champ and retired undefeated after 49 fights, only to die in an airplane accident.
Pugilists respected each other back then, and no one was more respected than Joe Louis, the first “Negro” that white boxing aficionados idolized. While he was champion of the world for 12 years, Joe never spoke ill of an opponent. The press tried hard to get him to trash-talk, but Joe never bit. The furthest he went was to say that Billy Conn, a very good-looking light-heavyweight challenger, could “run but couldn’t hide.” In their first match Conn had Joe licked, running and jabbing for 12 rounds. Before the 13th his corner told him, “All you gotta do Billy is run for three more, and you’ve got the title.” Conn turned and said, “I’m gonna knock this bum out—just watch me.”
As they watched, Louis knocked out the reckless Conn, who was leading on all three cards. Conn got knocked out again in their return match seven years later, after both had served in a thing called World War II. I sat next to Billy Conn once in the back of a car and asked him about Joe. “Best fighter and best gentleman ever,” was his laconic answer.
The noblesse oblige in the noble art vanished when one who refused to serve—Cassius Clay, AKA Muhammad Ali—became champion. He stood over a fallen Sonny Liston (who allegedly had taken a dive due to fear of retaliation from the Black Muslims) and baited him to stand up. Ali humiliated opponents. He tormented and badgered them for publicity purposes, establishing a terrible precedent which has only gotten worse with time.
Compare a tearful Rocky in 1951, a boastful Ali in, say, 1971, and the two black thugs who last month spat, slapped, and insulted their white opponents before the real fighting started. The two thugs were British—what else?—one born in Blighty and the other in Zimbabwe, whereas the two white fighters were gents with Ph.D.s born in the Ukraine and fighting out of Germany. The fact that in the ring, the two thugs ran and ran and never threw a meaningful punch is immaterial. They both lost big to the Klitschkos. Despite the slaps, the spitting, and the insults, the two brothers restrained themselves and acted like the sportsmen they are. So degraded is our culture that one of the thugs was invited on a major television program back in London to publicize himself further.
And why not? Only last month, a white Labour member of Parliament, one Eric Joyce, got drunk and went berserk in a House of Commons bar. He head-butted, punched, and attacked several people, including fellow MPs. If that’s good enough for an elected Member of Parliament, why not for a couple of third-rate beak-busters born on the wrong side of the tracks? The reason martial artists bow to each other is simple. Despite the violence on the mat, respect for one’s opponent is imperative. I have never disrespected an opponent in close to fifty years of practicing karate and judo and have never been disrespected in return.
Mind you, I’ve had some bad fights outside the dojo, two of which took place where people are sent to pay their dues to society—I won the first and tied the second after we both collapsed with fatigue—but both times we shook hands afterward. I’ve walked away from more fights than I can remember. In one egregious case the Greek who insulted me was too weak and small to hit. He had a grievance with me because of a woman, natch. Another time long ago Andrew Parker Bowles, ex-husband of Camilla, said something to me in a nightclub about me being in the Fourth Division. I answered in football parlance about perhaps being in the Third. I am glad I didn’t take it any further. I also regret not saying that unlike him, I don’t rent my wife out to the Prince of Wales.
Fighting has consequences. If one must fight, the best way to go about it is to hit first and keep hitting until the enemy lies prostrate. But in all my years I have only hit first once. It was in a Paris nightclub, over a girl naturally. I became a friend of the victim and apologized to him for close to fifty years until his death, and I still feel ashamed.
Getting hit is not like in the movies. A proper punch breaks the jaw, knocks out teeth, and causes concussion. A judo slam on the pavement can cause death if the head makes first contact. Cowardly thugs fight. Walking away is the best policy, and brave men do it all the time.
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