music nostalgia

Punch drunk love

Boxing Day is such a random holiday, of the fabulous kind that Australia specialises in. You’d be hard pressed to find an Aussie that can explain the origins of Boxing Day, but we will argue to the death its necessity as a public holiday.

Oddly enough even the internet, usually quick to provide any number of definitive answers to indefinable questions, won’t be drawn on the etymological sources of Boxing Day. It seems likely to have something to do with Christmas season charity – possibly the Church of England’s practice of cracking open boxes of alms collected throughout advent, and distributing the contents to the poor on the day after Christmas. Or it could be a reference to the tradition of rich folks giving a little gift (“box”) often of money to their servants after Christmas.

So nothing at all to do with pugilism then. And yet ‘Boxing Day’ always sends me into a reverie soundtracked by my favourite Cat Power song. Soaring and swooning on strings lifted from “Moon River”, the title track from her 2006 album The Greatest is a sweetly crushing song of defeat.

Just those two words, “The Greatest”, are enough to conjure black-and-white newsreel memories of that most famous of boxers, Muhammed Ali. And while Chan Marshall’s song may be more generally about failed dreams, the very arrangement reels in circles like a punch-drunk old prizefighter. What is that brushed snare if not the shuffling of old feet in soft leather on canvas?

Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
Stars of night turned you to dust…
Once I wanted to be the greatest
Two fists of solid rock
With brains that could explain any feeling

A natural companion song is Ben Folds Five’s “Boxing”, from their self-titled debut album over ten years earlier. The songs’ similarities are surely no coincidence, with Folds’ song told directly in Ali’s voice as he considers retiring from the sport. The “Howard” he addresses is, according to Wikipedia, a famous sports announcer known for commentating the era’s boxing matches, Howard Cosell. Weariness seems to come naturally to Folds, and his words need little embellishment:

Howard, the strangest things happen lately when I
Take a good swing at all my dreams they pivot and slip
I drop my fists and they’re back, laughing
Howard, now my intention’s become
Not to lose what I’ve won
Ambition has given way to desperation and I
I’ve lost the fight from my eyes

In both these songs the boxer is a battered metaphor for the toll time takes on us. The knocks taken in stride in youth can send one reeling in old age. Thwarted ambitions puncture youthful invincibility, leaving frail forms shadowboxing at fears. Both songs question whether there’s a loss of dignity in not knowing when to bow out of the fight. Quite the opposite of Mr Thomas’ urging to not go gentle but “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. The age old question of rock & roll, the words Neil Young sang and Kurt Cobain quoted in his suicide note – is it better to burn out or to fade away?

But back to the boxer. Inevitably he winds up just past his prime but chasing that one last big win. Whether driven by pride, love, revenge or material need/greed, it’s a trope we all know well. After all the build-up, the trash-talk, the weighing of odds and the warnings of doctors… it all boils down to a man and his opponent on a square of roped-off canvas. Sweating under spotlights, despite the hoopla outside those ropes, all that matters is the two men within. Flesh and bone and skin. Who can deliver – and who can take – the most punishment?

Not that the talk surrounding the fight, and particularly the fighters, isn’t important. More than most sports, boxing embraces narrative, elevates characters and thrives on invention and reinvention. In any other arena, could Cassius Clay have floated fully formed from his chrysalis to become Muhammed Ali? Ben Folds cleverly considers how Ali might feel about all his machismo many years later, even working in a pun on his original name:

Howard, now I confess
I’m scared and lonely and tired
They seem to think I’m made of clay
Another day, I’m not cut out for this
I just know what to say, I say
Boxing’s been good to me, Howard
Now I’m told, ‘You’re growing old’
The whole time we knew
A couple of years I’d be through
Has boxing been good to you?

That centrality of narrative – both organic and manipulated – explains why boxing movies work so well. From Rocky to Million Dollar Baby, the arc never really changes; boxing movies are nearly as formulaic as dance movies. Because here is a skill that transcends class or money or opportunity. The result of a fight is indubitable, and it can’t be purchased. Not in an ideal world, anyway. So this most primal pursuit can be a means for a man, or a woman, to pull himself up from humble origins with little more than some self-belief and hard work.

Closer to home, Boxing Day is really just about one thing: the reassuring drone of cricket taking the edge off your Christmas hangover. After today, the Aussies are stunned on their bums on the canvas, with little cartoon Ashes urns circling their punch-drunk heads. Let’s hope they’re not out for the count just yet.

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