Phil Davis, Paulie Malignaggi, John McCain & Austin Trout at Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. (Photo: Getty)
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Much will be written about late Sen. John McCain over the next couple of days. Political websites and newspapers will discuss his voting history and scuffles with GOP leaders; professors will debate his legacy and historical impact; and one fact seems destined to be glossed over: McCain was a boxer, and the sport played a pivotal role in creating him.
When McCain boxed at the United States Naval Academy, he was short, scrawny and by his own admission not very good. While he was not the best pugilist in the Navy, reports are that he was one its most feared. The reason for this reputation was simple, as one of his classmates explained: “He was not the most skilled, but he was the most feared ... He never gave up.”
We have become so accustomed to watching battered, beaten men carried out of the ring that we sometimes forget the simplest rule in boxing: You can stop the fight whenever you want. Prizefighters are not captives trapped in the ring. They can take a knee and wait for the referee to count to 10 anytime they want, refuse to leave the safety of their stool or simply turn to the referee and declare “no mas.” Whether it is self-belief, a feeling of obligation to the fans or a stubborn refusal to accept defeat, anytime you have seen a fighter enduring permanent damage with no hope of turning a fight around, the fact is he could have stopped his own beating at any time.
In Vietnam, McCain could have stopped his own beatings anytime, too. As a prisoner of war, he was beaten daily, suffering injuries that inflicted permanent and irreversible damage on his body that lasted until his death on Saturday. When the Viet Cong realized his father was an admiral, they wanted to give him an early release, but military protocol called for prisoners to be released in the order they were captured. McCain refused to go without his men, and soon after had his arm broken and his ribs dislocated for this decision. Still, McCain endured, taking blow after blow knowing he could go home if he just said the word. Fortunately for McCain, he had learned to endure physical suffering from an old hobby: boxing. “It helped that I had suffered physical punishment before,” he told reporters. “I knew how to take hard blows.”
There is an oft-repeated line in American politics that declares, “Politics is a team sport.” McCain did not play team sports; he boxed, and in boxing, you have to act for yourself. Yes, you have a trainer and, yes, you belong to a gym, but at the end of the day, win or lose, you are all alone in the ring. You are the one getting punched; you are the one getting cut; and you are the one who has to do something about it.
When he entered politics, McCain became “The Maverick,” the exceedingly rare politician who did what he thought was right and what he believed would help the American people, no matter what his Republican “teammates” told him he should be doing. What McCain would have become if he “played the game” like everybody else is impossible to say, but you do not play boxing, and McCain refused to play politics.
Boxing headlines are consistently negative. With fighters testing positive for PEDs, punch-drunk fighters suffering from permanent brain damage, promoters stealing money and boxers going broke or getting arrested, there are times when finding reasons to keep the Sweet Science alive can be hard to come by. However, the next time you start to question why we should fight so hard to keep such a damaged sport from disappearing entirely, remember that John McCain was an American hero, and it was boxing that made John McCain.
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