Only Connect: Michael Pattison reports from Thessaloniki on three boxing documentaries

Published on: April 1st, 2014

'Boxer'
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And this heart of coal has no plans for solid gold
Ready to leave at any moment without a thought or note
A product of my yesterday, so that’s all I know

One too many hooks to the hollow skull
One too many right crosses to the swallow hole
Broken teeth… A swollen tongue
An exploding temple beside a smoking gun
– D-Sisive, “That’s Entertainment
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The allure of boxing lies in a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction. On one hand (let’s say, the right fist), there are the countless styles and strategies—defences, evasions, lines of attack, combinations—that constitute what for many is a real art-form. On the other hand (the left), the whole charade is based in essence upon two people beating one another to fuck. Whichever way one paints it, violence is violence, and the way by which a spot of fisticuffs has for our own entertainment been legitimised and corporatised might be as sad indictment as any of the times in which we live.

There are also, of course, temporal tensions: how months of planning (and tons of money) go into the booking and promotion of something that can last minutes or even seconds. It’s like that marinated chicken that takes a whole night to prepare and a quarter of an hour to devour. Seconds? Maybe. But this gets to the crux of life itself: the juxtaposition between human time and geological time, the one demanding some degree of narcissistic self-elevation and the other dwindling all daily perspectives into irrelevance.

There’s another paradox too: that between the sheer spectacle of the sport and its unparalleled intimacy. That gladiatorial element, of an arena full of chants and cheers, with thousands of eyes all facing the same way, concentrating with fleeting but formidable ferocity upon two figures in the middle- to far-distance—two fellow humans to whom they may or may not extend compassion, whom they may or may not regard with complete awe. But also two humans from whose psychological state they are irrevocably, completely removed.

For when you’re in that ring, under the spotlight, nobody else exists but for the person before you, the one who’s bearing down upon you with predatory instincts and pounding fists. You and you alone know what you’re thinking. You and you alone are in control of that. To borrow a line from Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), delivered by the same actor who in 1980 came arguably the closest to portraying the inner tussles of a boxer: “That’s the discipline.” The others? Mere spectators.

That’s perhaps the tension, then, and the one by which we might define art as a whole. For viewers it’s a sport; for practitioners it’s a discipline. Sometimes there’s an overlap, more often there’s not. I haven’t boxed inside a ring in years, and have never followed it as a spectator, but three films that screened at the 16th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which ran 14-23 March, reminded me why boxing is such compulsive viewing—if not viewing in the weekly, religious sense, then in terms of not being able to turn away once these images (at once familiar and alien, of two athletes trying to outmanoeuvre, out-strategise, and outfight one another) begin to unfold.

Haye-Fragomeni

Dimitris Statiris’s Relentless (2013) focuses upon Milanese fighter Giaccobe Fragomeni, who for a brief stint in 2008 became Cruiserweight World Champion WBC. Fragomeni had it tough even before he stepped into his first boxing gym. Born in Milan’s Stadera District, which was originally built in the 1880s to house poor working-class evictees from Ticino, Fragomeni grew up amidst the “incredible drugs boom” in the 1980s with his abusive, alcoholic, “piece of shit” father and long-suffering mother. After his heroin-addicted sister died of AIDS, he reveals, he himself took to drugs: heroin, coke, amphetamine and ecstasy.

Boxing saved him. Eventual trainer Ottario Tazzi—affectionately and infectiously nicknamed ‘Granddad’ by Fragomeni—speaks in the film of the young lad who first came to his gym in order to lose weight: “He was fat, fleshy, flabby.” Beyond physical limitations, there was the question of style. “He was a bit clumsy,” says Tazzi. “Street fighting is one thing, boxing’s another… but he was never afraid.”

Indeed, Fragomeni is—in boxing parlance—a hard bastard. While in theory it’s the pugilist whose face hasn’t been touched who you ought to fear, Fragomeni has a visibly battered phizog; the street experience he draws upon and the memories he reveals in Relentless evoke the kind of bull-headed resilience that wins people over even when he loses. He doesn’t have a knockout punch, and he knows it. Consequently, he knows he has to get in close and wear his opponent down. He has to endure hits—and some of them from very hard hitters indeed—but he’ll never give in.

Fragomeni won one fight in 2002 despite having detached a tendon in his arm midway through the bout; he was immediately taken to hospital for an Achilles tendon implant. Three years later, he bested Brazil’s Daniel Bispo for the WBC International Cruiserweight Title. In 2006 (“suffering punches that were like the express train from Naples to Milan”), he fought David Haye for the EBU Cruiserweight Title, stopped in the ninth after Haye dazed him with a hook to the back of the head—though only after Fragomeni’s own fearlessness had struck ‘The Hayemaker’ with some alarm. The international press voted it the year’s best scrap.

Why so resilient, why so dogged? Because for a man born in working-class Milan in 1969—with domestic odds and social odds heavily stacked against him—the kinds of discipline demanded inside the boxing gym become a meaningful distraction. They give a guy purpose. Fragomeni’s fellow boxer Angelo Valente notes, “He told me, ‘I want to die in the ring’. The ring has kept him out of jail.” Statiris’s film celebrates its fighter’s triumph over adversities. It is emotive rather than analytical, and in foregrounding the relationship between the boxer and ‘Granddad’ Tazzi—so key to Fragomeni’s success—it provides a real-life correlative to that between Rocky Balboa and his loyal, down-to-earth trainer Mickey (played in the Rocky films by Burgess Meredith).

As touching as that sometimes is in the film—Tazzi wells up whenever talking about the sacrifices and improvements Fragomeni made in taking up boxing as a career—the ones that really contain oomph here are those in which the boxer’s childhood pals (those who are still alive) attend one of his fights. To see these grown men chanting and cheering with such sincerity is to realise what it means for people from unthinkably tough backgrounds to have a local hero to root for. Though for some spectators there can never be a way into the mindset of a boxer, for many boxers the sport remains a way out—of a life much more harsh and undisciplined.

China Heavyweight

That’s the tension at the heart of Yung Chang’s China Heavyweight (2012), in which two young hopefuls are told by trainer Zhao Zhong that “if you don’t train hard, you’ll end up selling tobacco—then you’re no one but your mother’s kid.” With the help of super bantamweight pro Qi Moxiang, Zhao is leading a recruitment drive in China’s Sichuan Province, in an effort to develop the sport that Chairman Mao banned in 1959 “for being too American and too violent.” The film follows promising youngsters Miao Yunfei and He Zongli, from Sichuan’s Huili County, as well as Qi’s own deliberations over whether or not to return to the ring.

Mao’s ban was specific to western-style boxing. Early on in Yung’s film we see the iconic image of Ali standing over Liston hanging from a wall in Qi’s home. Throughout, Qi himself wears a Manchester United zip-up. Though it’s never explicitly addressed as a theme, the apparently western values of fame and recognition loom large in the film, especially for young Yunfei, for whom names such as Pacquiáo and Tyson represent a dreamily and unproblematically bright future.

Not just fame and recognition, though: identity too. This is a young lad following a sport that was reintroduced by a country when it was itself undergoing huge social and economic transformations—and which now is trying to systematise means by which it can claim real global dominance, not just economically and politically, but sportingly too: by cultivating and exporting machine-like talents.

Aptly enough, Qi advises his students to “turn on the machine, be alive when you’re boxing. Remember you’re in the spotlight when you’re boxing. Remember that it’s your concert.” Spotlights and concerts: that remains the dream for Yunfei, whose eagerness to turn pro is repeatedly rebuked with presumably legitimate claims that he’d be a third-rate boxer on the pro circuit, that he’d be humiliated, even. His desires, in fact, make him a wayward pupil even on an amateur level; Yunfei overlooks the importance of a daily, ritualised training regime. Do endurance and dedication—two terms spoken of by Qi—belong in the same semantic field as spotlight and concert?

Though Yunfei parts from national amateur championships training, his pal Zongli stays behind under the tutelage of Coach Ye, who says, “Essentially, boxing shows a person’s willpower to be persistent.” Indeed, part of what makes the sport such compulsive viewing are those same qualities that mark any athletic event: it’s the visible fitness of these lads, the bodily discipline that announces itself long before the first punch is thrown. For me, there was (and is) no better way of staying all-round fit than boxing. No cheaper way, either: often recruiting from society’s lower ranks, boxing is inclusive, with no expensive martial-arts attire or specialist equipment required to become a participant.

Boxing, then, does not reflect a barbaric world because it legitimises gladiatorial violence. Boxing reflects a barbaric world because for too many young people—rural and urban alike—it’s seen (and indeed, promoted) as the only way out of dead-end economic drudgery. Qi closes China Heavyweight by saying to a group of young schoolgirls, “You must use boxing as a means to leave Huili and Sichuan, and advance towards the world.” What happens beyond that, once a boxer graduates to the corporate world of the professional circuit, of course, is another matter…

So refreshing, then, to watch a film like Yiorgos Panteleakis’s Boxer (2013), a portrait of an amateur boxing gym in Athens, run by palpably talented and generously dedicated fighter-cum-teacher Yorgos Ioannidis. Shot over a three-year period, the film focuses primarily on the specific boxing techniques advocated by Ioannidis, and on the several promising youngsters coming through the gym’s ranks.

More than this, the film accumulates evidence about how philosophies pertaining to boxing’s physical strategies inform the spiritual element of the sport. Even its title suggests a functional, unassuming discipline. Indeed, as one of the younger boxers says here, training as a fighter imbues a level of fear into a person. As Ioannidis’s predecessor and former trainer, Yorgos Kapadaithakis, says, “Fear makes us better boxers.”

I remember this aspect of the sport myself, and still think it today: it isn’t fear of another person, but fear of the damage you yourself could do to them. As a result—as one of Ioannidis’s trainees corroborates—a boxer learns to respect his opponent. And why wouldn’t they? Gunning down upon someone to bash their face and torso, only to have your own face and torso bashed, garners a certain respect. It’s humans becoming conscious of their own fallibility. You punch hard only out of fear that the other guy will hit even harder. Proceeding with this assumption lends every extension of a fist a certain reverence.

Such mutual respect in the ring, of course, is an alien concept to the outsider. Here we have two people apparently “respecting” one another, and yet both are strategising to lamp their opponent harder than they themselves can be lamped. There’s definitely something juvenile about this. As Alex Kostas, a visibly excellent protégé of Iaonnadis says, “Within the body of a man there is a little kid.”

That’s another tension. A child-like activity participated in between growing men (and women). But in a world that has historically divided mental and physical activity—from the Ancient Greeks onwards, in fact—it’s easy to see how a culture based upon people striking one another isn’t given the same degree of seriousness as other disciplines, whatever they may be.

This is perhaps especially the case for the Basdekis Gym in Athens, over which Ioannidis presides. As Ioannidis’s mentor Kapadaithakis says in Boxer, “There is no material gain in boxing in Greece—just personal gratification.” And if something only has value to an individual, why should it matter to the rest of us?

Here’s why: as these films by Panteleakis, Statiris and Yung reveal, boxing holds a meaning and function for people that many others take for granted. And as far as athleticism goes, the footage in Boxer of Ioannidis in action for the 1988 Acropolis Cup (which he won) should rank up there with any other sporting account, not only for the visible determination of the man but for the expertise with which he combats. For there is an expertise to such forms of combat—and it’s one that pupils like Ntinos Moutsioulis and the aforementioned Kostas demonstrate in Panteleakis’s film with such awesome grace.

Tellingly, Ioannidis subscribes to an Eastern European school of boxing, which emphasises ‘guard’ and the very specific ways in which to hold one’s stance. That means every manoeuvre in the ring, even attack, is designed to protect oneself. Most offensive blows, consequently, are straight: no  flamboyance. Watching the archive footage of Ioannidis fighting, one begins to see the benefits of this. It has a functional quality, something completely opposed to the flashier elements of the sport. It might have something to do with an opposition to professional boxing in general, in emphasising repetition to the point at which the automatic, instinctive physical mechanisms of fighting kick in.

The reason I think of this as opposed to the professional circuit is because of the showmanship forced upon that over-priced arena, and the way in which such a spotlit stage seems to negate all the ground-level grind found in an amateur gym. As Kapadaithakis remarks, “Boxers have a mesmerising effect on people.” As a younger trainee states, “boxers are ascetics.” That’s just it: when the world allures men and women of a certain way of life into its brutal circus, and when these women and men take it upon themselves to challenge within that brutal circus, they leave behind a social toughness for a professional one. That’s a lifestyle choice. That’s the discipline.

Michael Pattison
31st March, 2014

second report

more from Michael Pattison on this festival: here