SUCH is the nature of boxing, and the bloodlust of its fans, it is simply not enough to just lose a fight. Ideally, if that’s to be your fate, you should have the decency to do so spectacularly and decisively, perhaps ending the night not upright but instead horizontal, eyes closed, limbs stiff, roused only by smelling salts or the light of a ringside doctor.
As harsh as this may be, as an image, it is the preferred outcome of any fight. It is the preferred outcome of the victor, he who looked to put you in this position from the first bell, and it is the preferred outcome of the judges, too, for all three have been saved having to do their job (maybe even properly) by virtue of the fight ending prematurely. What is more, it is the preferred outcome of all those watching the fight, for they now have something to talk about and remember and replay.
No other sport, in fact, promotes and celebrates the beauty of a conclusive finish quite like boxing. Indeed, one could even argue there is no finish in sport as total or as devastating as the knockout blow and therefore no victory more convincing than one that ends with the defeated competitor unable to pull himself upright and carry on.
Not in football, tennis, rugby, or cricket is there the same sense of true victory. In each of those sports the losers retain something of themselves even in defeat; be it consciousness, dignity, pride, or merely the ability to stand. In each of those sports there is only ever the sense of having lost a contest or competition, never anything more than that.
Which is why boxing remains such a compelling sport to follow and why knockout victories remain the most thrilling sight to witness either on TV or in person. It’s why knockouts are forever chased and coveted, both by the fighters themselves and the spectators, and it’s why anything less than a knockout leaves the door ajar for ambiguity, controversy and debate.
Jack Catterall’s inability to knock out Josh Taylor, for instance, meant that what looked like a clear victory, both to Catterall and anyone with eyes, could still somehow be called a defeat. He didn’t, after all, knock Taylor out that night in February 2022 and therefore, with no conclusive ending, he left himself open to being persuaded – or not – that he should have done more than just outbox his opponent to walk away with his belt.
This weekend in Liverpool, by the way, Catterall, still belt-less, fights Jorge Linares, a man whose name remains the only thing familiar and notable about the Venezuelan in 2023. His body, sadly, has as good as given up on him by now, with his form suggestive of this, and at 38 he these days resembles the Linares of old only facially and only if you squint; meaning the single hope of selling the former lightweight champion as a viable opponent for anyone, Catterall included, requires the watching audience to be either blind or so green and ignorant that they fail to remember a time when Linares was not only young but actually rather brilliant.
For the rest, it’s a tougher dish to swallow, let alone digest. Twenty-one years a pro, Linares nowadays isn’t just long in the tooth but his teeth, in boxing terms, are no longer even his own. They are instead dentures, the kind he removes before removing his glasses and falling asleep. Worse, even these dentures are chipped, largely due to Linares’ desire to continue competing with them in and going against doctor’s orders.
It’s somewhat disturbing, in fact, that Linares, 47-8 (29) and coming off three consecutive defeats, is being used in a fight like this against Catterall on Saturday. He is being remunerated for it, sure, which is precisely why he has said yes, but there remains nevertheless an uneasy feeling with this one, so cynical and ruthless is the execution of it. That is to say, at least with other fights of this variety, fights in which a torch is timidly passed, there tends to be an effort made on the part of the promoter to ensure the older of the two boxers does at least come into the fight in some kind of form (even if just, say, winning a fight against journeyman opposition).
Here, however, there is no such reassurance or even effort. Instead, there is every chance that what will happen on the night is this: Linares’ recent defeats against Zhora Hamazaryan, Zaur Abdullaev and Devin Haney will all be ignored entirely, as if they never happened. There is every chance, too, that rather than focus on those defeats and what they may mean for Linares’ hopes against Catterall, as well as his overall status and health, the fight-night pundits and commentators will choose to remind you of the time Linares came to Britain and taught lessons to Kevin Mitchell, Anthony Crolla (twice), and Luke Campbell. If you are then able to ignore the fact (please) that the Mitchell win was some eight and a half years ago, footage of Linares outboxing this trio will, it’s true, perform quite the tease; here he is, after all, dazzling for periods against all three. But, again, to brainwash in this way, the promoter must rely on the script being followed and the people listening to and watching the ensuing drama believing it to be real.
As for the script, meanwhile, Linares himself will be more than happy to collaborate and rehearse lines. Frankly, in this matter he has no choice. If just to get ready for fights, Linares, like the promoter, must these days do all he can to suspend disbelief and convince himself he is something he is not and that he remains impervious to Father Time. It’s this very delusion, in fact, which likely fuels him, both during camp and fight week, and which makes this fight an easier sell than it should be for a promoter merely looking to capitalise on his name. “Despite my age, I’m feeling better than ever,” the ageing fighter will always and inevitably say before fights like this. “Though I may have lost some speed, I have gained experience and will use this to my advantage.”
As fans, too, while not exactly complicit, we all want to believe. We want to believe not only in the faded boxer and their bizarre but intriguing anti-ageing cream, but also in the idea that regression is somehow preventable or manageable or something that can be stalled, as if by some miracle. For it is often in these boxers we see our own lives flash before our eyes and our own youth run away from us without even so much as waving goodbye. It is also in these boxers we are reminded that time waits for no one and that even the strongest and fastest and most skilled athletes will invariably one day be viewed as being “there for the taking” in the eyes of a younger model and a promoter for whom only their name, torn and tattered, now has any relevance or value.
To see them then triumph in this desperate situation carries some appeal, albeit niche. A win for Jorge Linares on Saturday, for example, is a win for all men of a similar age who admired Linares back when he was quite the artist; a beautiful mover and as smooth and technically sound as any combination puncher in the last decade. More than that, it would be a win for those who still believe in the admittedly questionable notion that form is temporary and class is permanent and that every boxer, regardless of age, has one last great performance in them.
If not that, perhaps the appeal of this fight is to be found, much like the appeal of a knockout, in the possibility of a conclusive ending. By that I mean not only a stoppage, which many will tip and expect Catterall to deliver, but also in the respect of Linares and his exhausting 21-year professional career.
After all, whether it’s recommended or not, this is the way most careers end in boxing. Just like the knockout, they end conclusively and brutally, often with an old fighter dragged (or carried) from the ring kicking and screaming as everyone around them, all happy to get paid, say to themselves, “I did tell him it was one too many.” Backstage, they are then comforted, or consoled, and they are told at last, “Enough is enough,” but only if they are lucky, and only if they are surrounded by the right kind of people.
For most, alas, only conclusive and brutal defeats manage to get the point across; the more of them the better, it would appear. To some degree as well, it’s almost a rite of passage, just as how on their way up boxers are fed a steady diet of journeymen and novices in order to inflate their record and showcase their skills. It is something they must do for themselves, in other words, a sort of necessary purging of all their remaining energy, power, ambition, and delusion. Only by going there and doing this, it seems, do they know, understand and accept once and for all that it is over.
Otherwise, should they just retire the way most normal sportsmen and women retire, there will, like a judges’ decision, always be room for both debate and improvement.