Feasting With Panthers: The Curious Connection Between Boxing and Gay Rights

At the conclusion of James Toback’s 2008 documentary on Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion is seen on a beach, awkwardly wearing street shoes à la Richard Nixon, as he recites Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The scene is a convergence of harmony and dissonance, like a piece by Charles Ives; yes, both fighter and writer went to jail, but Tyson was a brutal man, accused and convicted of heterosexual rape, while Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright, was the quintessential effete aesthete whose only crime was consensual relations that the Greeks referred to as paiderastia — sex with boys. Surely no stranger pair of lips could be found to mouth Wilde’s words than Tyson’s.

Or perhaps not. In 2002 Tyson, who speaks with a lisp, an impediment commonly associated with effeminacy, grabbed his genitals and threatened a reporter at a press conference with violent anal sex. Other boxers — Mitchell Rose and Mitch “Blood” Green — have accused Tyson of being gay, and Tyson seemed to suggest as much himself in a 2002 interview with the Guardian, saying the two decades of constant media attention he had endured would make anyone a homosexual. In this light, he appears to be a sort of homophile/homophobe Möbius strip; a man who confounds sex and violence with other men, because he can’t separate the two impulses within himself.

In this light, he appears to be a sort of homophile/homophobe Möbius strip; a man who confounds sex and violence with other men, because he can’t separate the two impulses within himself.

The evidence for such a connection does not begin with Tyson. On the night of March 24, 1962, Emile Griffith defeated Benny “Kid” Paret by a knockout in the twelfth round, a bout broadcast on national television. In a doleful footnote to its entry on the fight, the Ring Record Book and Boxing Encyclopedia notes that Paret died ten days later from injuries received in the bout.
The two boxers had fought twice before in the previous twelve months, swapping the welterweight title back and forth each time. They had thus come to know each other, perhaps a bit too well; at the pre-fight weigh-in Paret, Cuban-born, called Griffith a maricon — vulgar Spanish slang for “homosexual.” As Griffith explained many years later, “I knew maricon meant faggot, and I wasn’t nobody’s faggot.”

That Paret’s taunt goaded Griffith to violence beyond the boundaries that distinguish boxing from unlawful street fighting was a tonic note with two overtones in a minor key; first, if any boxer was ever homosexual or bisexual, it was Griffith. By his own admission he has frequented gay bars, and in the early ‘90’s he was almost beaten to death as he left one in a drunken state.

As Griffith explained many years later, “I knew maricon meant faggot, and I wasn’t nobody’s faggot.”

Second, the rules that govern boxing today, and in force during the third Paret-Griffith fight, are based on the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, published in 1865 by John Sholto Douglas, the eighth Marquess (the English version of the title) of Queensbury and father of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the man whose homosexual relationship with Wilde started the chain of events that resulted in a sentence of two years’ hard labor for Wilde.

Wilde had sued for criminal libel after Queensbury, enraged by the attentions Wilde was paying to his much younger son, left a calling card at Wilde’s club in London for “Oscar Wilde posing somdomite” (sic). To the charge of libel Queensbury raised the defense of truth, and produced evidence that Wilde had consensual sex with “rent boys,” young male prostitutes from the lower classes. Wilde, like Griffith, denied the charge, but later admitted he was lying.

Paiderastia or “boy-love” originated with the Spartans as a bond between a boy and his protector, who lived a life of discipline together in the outdoors as the elder man introduced the younger to the concept of valor and trained him to endure hardship. As sports became a substitute for military training, the concept moved indoors to gymnasiums. An ancient law forbade the presence of men in the wrestling grounds, but over time it came to be ignored. Lucian of Samosata, a Greek satirist, said of one such boy-lover: “You care for gymnasiums and their sleek-oiled combatants.”

Boxing writers of the literary dabbler sort swooned over Ali in prose that would have embarrassed a boy band beat reporter for a teen girls’ magazine.

In the twentieth century, heavyweight Muhammad Ali attracted the sort of attention from boxing writers that Aeschylus noticed in a “noisy haunter of gymnasiums” eighteen hundred years earlier. Boxing writers of the literary dabbler sort swooned over Ali in prose that would have embarrassed a boy band beat reporter for a teen girls’ magazine: George Plimpton — Ali had “great good looks”; Norman Mailer — The first round of the Ali-Frazier rematch was the “equivalent to the first kiss in a love affair”, and later the fighters “moved like somnambulists slowly working and rubbing one another, almost embracing, next to locked in the slow moves of lovers after the act”; Pete Hamill: Ali had “beautiful legs,” and so on.

As with much else about Ali, there is nothing new about the afflatus that boxers blow upon writers. In Pugilistica, an earlier 20th century history of British boxing, the author quotes the following description by one Firby, a correspondent for the Morning Post, of Jem Belcher, Champion of England from 1798 to 1809: “He . . . strips remarkably well, displaying much muscle. ( . . . ) [A] braver boxer never pulled off a shirt.” Such descriptions abound in 19th century newspaper accounts of prize fights, which were, like homosexual relations, illegal.

Boxing is the more primitive contest to which other sports are reduced when their rules break down. Rodney Dangerfield’s memorable one-liner — “I went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out” — is funny because of its absurdity; things flow in the other direction. It just so happens that professional hockey players resort to fisticuffs more frequently than athletes in other sports.

Perhaps boxing’s antiquity places it closer to a prelapsarian time when men could look upon each other with a shameless admiration.

Boxing’s elemental character has something to do with its ancient origins. Four boxers are mentioned in Homer’s Iliad; Polydeuces, Nestor (who says he’s lost the left-right combination of his youth) and Epeus, who drops Euryalus with a roundhouse hook to the head. Perhaps boxing’s antiquity places it closer to a prelapsarian time when men could look upon each other with a shameless admiration.

Consider, then; there are handsome men in other sports, but if a sportswriter ever filed a story about an NBA game (to pick the major sport whose players’ dress most closely resembles boxing trunks) that said he thought Steve Nash was cute, or that Kobe Bryant had nice legs, he’d be banished to the Lifestyle section.

Queensbury’s family tree included a cannibal who ate an entire kitchen boy, making Tyson’s bite into Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997 seem an hors d’oeuvre by comparison; yet it was Queensbury who reclaimed boxing’s good name after it was banned as a public nuisance by creating a set of rules that elevated fist-fighting from the barbarity to which it had sunk. In so doing, he made violence between males socially acceptable — within limits.

Queensbury’s family tree included a cannibal who ate an entire kitchen boy, making Tyson’s bite into Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997 seem an hors d’oeuvre by comparison

Wilde and Queensbury’s son Lord Alfred Douglas, though they were associated in the public mind as lovers, each preferred sex with boys. Wilde sympathized with the Order of Chaeronea, a homosexual rights group formed to fight an 1885 law that criminalized indecent conduct short of penetration between men. By offering himself up as a martyr in the Oedipal struggle between the hyper-masculine Queensbury and his effeminate son, Wilde made sex between males socially acceptable — within limits.

Queensbury, the patron of the fistic arts, brought boxers with him on more than one occasion when he confronted Wilde, the first time leaving Wilde’s residence “with his tail between his legs” (according to his son) as Wilde sent the two more virile men away using only the sheer strength of his personality. Queensbury’s wife, protector of her effete son, had mocked her husband for his lack of culture, banishing him to the 19th century equivalent of the Man Cave in the basement.

The 19th century’s domestication of previously-forbidden sex and violence has left us a legacy of muted passions. Boxing seems tame by comparison to mixed martial arts or “ultimate” fighting, to which it is losing spectators. The battle lines on gay rights have moved to a front where the debate is no longer about sex, but about the humdrum issue of gay marriage — state sanction for an arrangement that Wilde ridiculed by saying “Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; twenty years of marriage makes her look like a public building.”

What Wilde wrote about his forbidden relationship with a younger man in “De Profundis” was true as well of boxing in his time: “It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement.” Perhaps violence and love between men are two tributaries of the same river.

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