The Word Made Flesh: What writers do and what boxers do is more alike than you might imagine.

Author:McCann, Colum
Position:TUNING UP - Essay

Boxing. You can press the language out of it. The sweathouse of the body. The moving machinery of ligaments. The intimate fray of rope. The men in their archaic stances like anatomy illustrations from an old-time encyclopedia. The moment in a fight when the punches slow down and the opponents watch each other like time-lapse photographs--the sweat frozen in midair, the blood still spinning, the maniacal grin like the teeth themselves have gone bare-knuckle.

Writers love boxing--even if they can't box. And maybe writers love boxing especially because they can't box. The language is all cinema and violence: the burst eye socket, the ruined cartilage, the dolphin punch coming up from the depths.

Language allows the experience, and what you have with a fight is what you have with writing and they each become metaphors for each other--the ring, the page; the punch, the word; the choreography, the keyboard; the feint, the suggestion; the bucket, the wastebasket; the sweat, the edit; the pretender, the critic; the bell, the deadline. There's the showoff shuffle, the head spin, the mingled blood on your gloves, the spitting your teeth up at the end of the day.

Literature re-creates the language of the epic. And what's more epic and mythological than a scrap? For those of us who can't fight, we still want to be able to step into a fighter's body. We want to walk off woozy to the corner and have our faces slapped a little bit, then suddenly get up to dance, and hear the crowd roar, and step out once more with a little dazzle.

Boxers get told to imagine punching a spot behind your opponent's head, to reach in so far so they can extend the destruction to the back of the head. Writers do the same thing--they try to imagine a spot behind your brain and punch you there. Boom. Head spin. Skin-slip on the canvas. Ten, nine, eight. Get the fuck up off this page. Four three two one Mississippi. Get the fuck up. Now.

Mailer. London. Liebling. Oates. Baldwin. Remnick. Kimball. Mencken. Who stole their title, 'The Heart of Darkness"? Football has never really made great literature, nor has tennis, or cycling. Baseball and chess get a bit of literary attention, but never on the level of boxing. And I don't know a good poem yet about curling. Let's face it, the Great Book says that in the beginning was the word. And then the word was made flesh. And then it dwelt amongst us.

What's most beautiful about boxing are the lives behind it. They're so goddamn literary...

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