ONE of the great, if still admittedly trivial, mysteries in boxing concerns how some boxers, despite having committed their life to the sport and entered its every room, are unable to then articulate the experience when in retirement they are asked to do so, usually for pay. This can of course be in either the form of punditry, which is most common, or, in the case of the more famous ones, an autobiography with zero artistic merit.
Whichever it is, invariably the same problem will arise. Details will be forgotten, more so in boxing than in any other sport, and everything they once did instinctively, without thinking, will be hard to put into words when only words are required. That, alas, is the nature of the beast; the paradox of any learned skill. For the idea of mastery, whether obtainable or not, happens to be tied up in the unconscious; that is, reaching a level of control and expertise whereby thinking too much, or heaven forbid talking too much, would serve only to upset what now comes naturally.
It is then in retirement, however, when a boxer’s physical genius is no longer a commodity, that they must earn a living trying to explain their former genius or, worse, someone else’s. This, as shown countless times on television broadcasts, is a skill of its own, one easier to grasp for some boxers than it is for others. The regulars, often those who are accomplished but perhaps not famous enough for their ego to intercept the pathway between their brain and their mouth, now find themselves preparing for an altogether different fight. Now, rather than doing it, they are discussing it – how it’s done, why it’s done, et cetera – and focusing on someone other than themselves. Now the retired boxer, who maybe once considered this the job of their coach, must discover a vocabulary and viewpoint they have never before needed to entertain. Experience, they soon discover, can only take them so far.
That is something they all have, of course: experience. It is also something the others alongside them – journalists, presenters – cannot match and to which, and quite rightly, they surrender. Experience, make no mistake, is vitally important – of utmost importance, in fact – yet it is not the only thing required of a retired athlete paid to voice their opinion. As well as experience they also need the words, and the ideas, and both the humility and honesty to get their point across. They need to open up in a way they never had to during their own career, back when their physical prowess was enough; back when keeping cards close to their chest was the key to success; back when interviewers cared less about what they had to say than what they had just done or planned on doing to an opponent.
“This stuff is stupefying, and yet it also seems to be inevitable, maybe even necessary,” David Foster Wallace wrote in his 1994 essay How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. “The baritones in network blazers keep coming up after games, demanding of physical geniuses these recombinant strings of dead clichés, strings that after a while start to sound like a strange kind of lullaby, and which of course no network would solicit and broadcast again and again if there weren’t a large and serious audience out here who find the banalities right and good. As if the emptiness in these athletes’ descriptions of their feelings confirmed something we need to believe.
“All right, so the obvious point: Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination. For me, though, the important question is why this is always so bitterly disappointing.”
This was something Foster Wallace explored primarily through Austin’s autobiography, and others like it, yet the point can be stretched to encompass interviews in general, as well as punditry work, and even training and managing. After all, it is common knowledge now that being a great fighter does not necessarily mean you will go on to become a great trainer. Again, any struggle in this regard can be attributed to the same reason why a great fighter is often unable to articulate either what made them so great or what other boxers, current ones, need to do in order to achieve a similar level of greatness. It is, in short, due to a block of some kind; a previously essential one – call it genius-slash-ignorance – which may have helped them reach the apex in their own career but reveals every one of their flaws in the real world.
“Maybe what keeps us buying in the face of constant disappointment is some deep compulsion both to experience genius in the concrete and universalize genius in the abstract,” said Foster Wallace, a genius in his own right. “Real indisputable genius is so impossible to define, and true technê so rarely visible (much less televisable), that maybe we automatically expect people who are geniuses as athletes to be geniuses also as speakers and writers, to be articulate, perceptive, truthful, profound. If it’s just that we naively expect geniuses-in-motion to be also geniuses-in-reflection, then their failure to be that shouldn’t really seem any crueler or more disillusioning than Kant’s glass jaw or Eliot’s inability to hit the curve.”
In the end, different modes of expression require different skills and usually, for a boxer, even when talking about the very in mode in which they were once fluent there will be a sudden need for a certain skill they have yet to acquire. It’s the acceptance of this, plus the acquisition of said skill, which makes the good pundits we see on our television screens far more than just men and women who are able to talk you through what they either do or once did for a living. Indeed, given the numerous bad examples who make the transition look so difficult, to merely possess the ability to discuss, with both insight and intelligence, either the experience of boxing or the mechanics of it is almost miraculous for someone whose early life was spent operating mostly on instinct.
“It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied,” said Foster Wallace. “And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it – and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”