Boxy Music

The other night I watched the excellent world title bout between Manny "The Pacman' Pacquiao" (origin of nickname obvious) and Miguel "Hangover" Cotto (he gives men sore heads--I made that one up). Pacquiao, a wiry Filipino who relies on speed of thought and fist, was taken to the twelfth round by the bigger, much fancied Cotto, but proved too good to lose. At the fight's conclusion I sloped off to bed, having been drinking for hours. Pacquiao's evening had barely started. Something of a popular crooner in his native islands, he was booked to perform a set at a nearby hotel ballroom.

Let's get this clear--he wasn't cracking into the odd chorus at a press conference, or joining in with a band, or performing a wuss rock weepie on Jimmy Kimmel, though he's done all these things before. No, he was engaged, for a reported fee of $100,000, to perform a show on the same night he fought for the Welterweight Championship of the World. That is confident. And demoralising for his opponent, who knows that only hospitalising the champ, or maybe landing a few blows to his throat, can stop him taking the stage later to get knickers thrown at him by fans, despite looking like (and being) a man who's just gone twelve tough rounds. It's notable, incidentally, just how unaggressive Pacquiao's choice of material is--he must get all of that out of his system in his day job.

The Pacman might take music further than most sluggers--he releases whole albums back home (he's not all that as a singer, but who's going to tell him?). But pugilism and music have a lot in common. It's well-known that heavyweight Sonny Liston was a trenchant, rarely challenged critic, unfavorably comparing Ringo Starr's drumming to that of his dog. (Muhammed Ali, in contrast, buddied up with the Fabs in Miami in 1964--they were there to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, he to take Liston's title). Like those of Bobby Fuller, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Johnny Thunders and Tupac Shakur (murdered after watching a Mike Tyson title fight), Liston's early death remains mysterious.

Business-wise, music and boxing share similar models. Both are famous for their love of hyperbole and relaxed attitude to financial probity. Multi-million dollar deals that fail to survive scrutiny, with every single expense charged to the performer and huge cuts taken by promoters, are staples in both fields. For fans there are endless stats to peruse--and who can honestly say that records and fighters haven't been undeservedly hoisted into the Top Ten? And both have more than a whiff of bad boy about them. Musicians like to identify with men who stand their ground--from Morrissey ("Boxers") and Ben Folds ("Boxing") to Bruce Springsteen ("The Hitter") and Simon and Garfunkel's perennial "The Boxer."  Bob Dylan sang about Davey Moore, Cassius Clay (as he then was) and, most famously, one time contender Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and his dubious conviction for murder.

Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon not only perform tunes about boxing, such as "Salvador Sanchez" and Duk Koo Kim, both contenders who died young. They're actually named for Korean pugilist Sung-Kil Moon. Kim died after a bout with Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini, himself immortalized in a Warren Zevon classic. Back when we were kings, weedy Englishman Johnny Wakelin made a career out of exalting Muhammed Ali, making the British top ten with "Black Superman" and the Afro-tastic "In Zaire." Schoolchildren loved these songs.

Rap has produced plenty of punchy tunes, from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince claiming "I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson" (these days Will Smith can buy Mike Tyson) to LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out." Shoutouts have been shouted out to Pernell Whitaker (Clipse), Zab Judah (Wu Tang) Roy Jones Jr. (Nas) and of course Tyson (Redman, Tupac, Kanye West, Eminem, Canibus).

The reverse is less common. Though we've all heard plenty of acts that sound like they're playing in boxing gloves, the reality for fighters is an endless round of physical demands while being berated to try harder, and being beaten around the head and body while working. Unless your boss is Grace Jones, then that's the very opposite of the music business. But Roy Jones Jr. received some acclaim for his attempts at rapping, his style compared to DMX (who by curious coincidence actually fights as a pro next month in Alabama.

The famously astute Oscar De La Hoya--boxing's gain was lawyering's loss--released a rather slushy album in 2000, even employing the ubiquitous Diane Warren to write a tune cunningly titled "With These Hands." Ernie Terrell, beaten up by Ali in the notorious "what's my name" title fight, is the brother of Jean Terrell, Diana Ross's replacement in the Supremes. After quitting the ring, he became a record producer and led vocal group the Heavyweights (duh) for years.

Yet the imagery of boxing remains seductive. "Get in the ring" squeaked Axl Rose unthreateningly, personally offering out all his enemies, or "the entire world except my current bodyguards" as they're often described (his shorts were more WWF than WBA though). R.Kelly's "The World's Greatest" featured in the soundtrack of Michael Mann's Ali movie, and came with an unwittingly hilarious video that exploited 9/11, Schindler's List and the great boxer himself. As for record sleeves, the eleven-fingered boxer on the cover of The Pogues Peace And Love is a better gag than the notorious sleeve of Below The Belt by '70s rockers Boxer. God only knows what their original choice of title was.

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