There is a phrase the Japanese use to describe their most powerful works of art, an essence that seems to flow through certain prominent postwar novels and films, and is epitomised in nature by the cherry blossom that blooms so spectacularly for a just few short days a year. Mono no aware, roughly translated as “the pathos of things,” is a refined awareness of the transience of all that there is, of the impermanence that defines everything beautiful in the world. A gentle sadness, such as one finds coursing through the films of Ozu or the greatest literary works of Mishima, it is that which accentuates our appreciation of greatness and true beauty, whilst at the same time offering a constant contextualisation, an ongoing reminder that it will never be quite like this again.
Boxing is a sport that brings out this ephemeral appreciation like no other I’ve encountered. We watch fighters grow and evolve — sometimes out of all recognition in the case of weight class defying specimens like Manny Pacquiao and Roy Jones, Jr. — before, eventually, they fade away or burn out in near-instantaneous, often tragic style. Memory and a refined awareness of the past provide the emphasis on continuity essential in the search for that heightened awe. Careers always seem much too brief once they’re over, with fans obsessively lining up to compile hagiographic accounts of the dearly departed, and yet the fact remains that this is pugilism, an endeavour that by its very fundament seeks to dim the lights and bring things to a terribly abrupt halt.
This past weekend we saw a dying star flicker for perhaps the last time as Miguel Cotto dismantled Delvin Rodriguez over three triumphant rounds. Cotto looked excellent, make no mistake, but it would be foolish to suggest that at 32, and with a handful of wars behind him, he can rediscover the same killer instincts that made him so feared before his historic meeting with Antonio Margarito in 2008. And that is not to denigrate Delvin Rodriguez, who is a good, solid fighter capable of causing problems for anyone bar the elite of the division. Those labeling him a journeyman are way off, just as those jovially declaring Cotto’s return are jumping the gun a tad. It was a good win, one through which we could glimpse the spark of that which had previously blazed, but it was little more at this stage.
The rabid excitement was hardly a surprise, however. Boxing fans have an inclination to draw wider conclusions based on striking individual performances such as this. They revel in joining the hypothetical dots and positioning such outings as pieces of a far larger puzzle. The fact that this puzzle is almost never fully realised, given that even with the best will in the world it is virtually impossible for a fighter to take on all possible comers in a given era, does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm. Those taking the performance in isolation find themselves in the minority, but that doesn’t equate to a lack of desire to scrutinise. In this case, I could count myself among them, and I maintain that it stems not from an inquisition deficit, but rather from an appreciation of the temporality embodied by Cotto’s performance. “It is what it is,” I might say, if I were feeling especially lyrical.
Watching the performance at an ungodly hour on Sunday morning I was reminded above all else of a simple, singular truth: That the terrifying Miguel Cotto, the one who threw the left hook to your body with such vigour it made your ribcage erupt from your chest, is gone, lost to the calmly lapping transience of all things. His continued presence is nothing but a big-budget epilogue, an exercise in underlining all that there once was. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any trace of his foremost years still operating prominently in the game today. Margarito’s gone. Zab Judah, Paulie Malignaggi and Shane Mosley are shadows of their former selves, no longer holding any real relevance. Even the men Cotto chopped down in his absolute prime, the likes of Carlos Maussa, Ricardo Torres, and Carlos Quintana, have become names that now resonate only in our memories, retaining a semblance of power solely in conjunction with the dual acknowledgement of what they were once upon a time, and what they will never be again.
In a pathos-drenched move worthy of Ozu himself, Cotto’s name has now been placed alongside that of fellow great Sergio Martinez, still king of the middleweight division in name, yet a shadow of the fleet-footed, indefatigable dynamo that had so utterly dominated the division for the past three years. Talk has shifted to a catchweight contest at 158 pounds, something that would doubtless put bums on seats, even if it is devoid of any contemporary meaning. There is an argument to say both Cotto and Martinez have earned such a parachute, of course. Each came up the hard way — the exceptionally hard way in the case of the Argentine — and neither has anything left to prove in the game. They will both enter the Hall of Fame, quite possibly in the same year and in their first round of eligibility. Their legacies are safe; they are sure to be remembered fondly by fans as long as records of their careers still exist.
Should they fight now, it will be for little beyond money. Little, that is, besides offering up a poignant dose of mono no aware, a gentle reminder that there is another way to all those who would stipulate that a great career must end in a bang. Martinez could face Gennady Golovkin, certainly, but I have no personal desire to see a formerly spectacular fighter broken in half by the heir apparent. The man they call GGG will reign over the division once Martinez is gone — something the champion has never moved to deny — but I believe a fistic passing of the torch is unnecessary here. There will be few questions should the fight fail to materialise. The line of succession is clear and, in reality, the de facto mantle has already passed. It did so when Golovkin chopped down Matthew Macklin in June, following Martinez’s lacklustre showing against Martin Murray a few weeks before.
Yet despite any lingering dissatisfaction at the lack of a showdown, I believe it is in moments like these that the core beauty of the sport shines through, when a reign or era comes to an end and is greeted not with anger, but with a softly-spoken melancholy, a quiet air of reflection on all that has passed. I can’t speak with any detailed knowledge of the NBA or NFL, but I’ve never found it to be quite the same in other sports, especially coming from the U.K. where soccer fans seem to be routinely driven into fits of rage, eternally left frothing at the mouth when eras end. They will, regardless of league or level, incessantly pour scorn on their team’s alleged inability to source adequate replacements for the departed. They proudly fly in the face of all logic when it comes to the impossibility of extending one’s halcyon days ad infinitum, of eternally replacing special talent with special talent. When a group of players retire, or a team is broken up, anger is the default reaction. It is as if, given the correct management and scouting system, nothing ever really need change.
In boxing there is no such fallacy. Individual fighters come and individual fighters go, but there can be no replacements, no flawless transition from hero to hero. You appreciate the ones that have come before through the gradual acceptance that their exact like will never be seen again. The beauty of the sport lies in the knowledge that the men we see step between the ropes can vanish at any moment, never to return. Once we accept that, their every move becomes more meaningful. Their victories are infused with a greater sweetness, while their defeats become time machines, time machines ceaselessly drawing us back to when we had the best of it.
This coming weekend, with the memory of Cotto’s victory still lingering, we will see Tim Bradley against Mexican great Juan Manuel Marquez in an exceptionally high level fight that promises more than its fair share of action. Yet somehow, more fundamentally, it promises to reveal to us if the rumours are true, if Ruslan Provodnikov really did “beat the prime out of Bradley” during their brutal encounter this past March. As a contest, it will be alive with ephemerality, just as any good fight should be. It will serve not just to entertain and potentially shock its audience, but to remind us of past greatness in the only way it knows how: by illuminating its passing under the brightest of electric lights.