In “Federer as Religious Experience” author David Foster Wallace writes, “high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.” Save for the apotheosizing power of resilience and the dangers inherent in miscalculated range, there seems little connection between a game once played by the affluent in v-neck sweaters and the naked brutality of the cruelest sport. But Wallace’s exploration of human beauty in sport reveals itself to be apropos of prizefighting.
“The human beauty we’re talking about here is a beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal…What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”
The power and appeal of violence—sanctioned or otherwise—is universal, and there is perhaps no sport that demands its participants reconcile with their own corporeality more than boxing (while also demanding they reject this reconciliation).
When the opening bell rings in the junior welterweight fight between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado something beautiful should transpire; an interplay between bad intentions and self-overcoming, between gloved fists educated in hurt and bodies steeled against it. Rios, 30-0-1 (22), is best known for his inexorable, bruising style, engaging opponents confident that the qualitative damage he delivers overrides any quantitative deficit. But there is a subtlety to his “rage that levels everything.” Rios is not frivolous in his approach, he is calculating; his defence is not negligent, but the product of a shrewd wager. That Rios, Oxnard, California, via Kansas, is often associated with crudity speaks more to the persona he has fostered than an accurate appraisal of his abilities. He embraces the role of clown, but it is his opponents that are left with reddened lips, puffed up noses, and frowns painted on their broken faces.
Yet for all Rios’ menace, the man standing across from him at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, next Saturday will not be intimidated. Mike Alvarado’s brand of belligerence embraces attrition, a contest where endurance, resilience, and psychical sturdiness render the verdict. The brawny fighter out of Denver, Colorado, is unlikely to see Rios’ bullying as anything but an invitation to produce his own bloody desiderata. And with a record of 33-0 (23), Alvarado has little reason to doubt the efficacy of his approach. He enters the fight knowing that he is the most physically imposing foe Rios has ever faced—a rancor in his own right. When his flesh betrays him—as it did when Breidis Prescott shredded his upper lip—Alvarado becomes only more oppugnant. Yes, there is kinetic beauty promised in this fight, we know that much.
But for all we know, questions persist. Rios has developed the ugly habit of failing to make weight, having exceeded the 135 pound limit for his last two fights, first against John Murray, then against Richard Abril (who many believed deserved the nod over Rios). While the move to junior welterweight could alleviate those struggles it is not unreasonable to wonder whether Rios won’t have difficulty with the 140 pound weight limit as well. There is also the question of his performance at this new weight. Rios has long exploited a physical advantage over his foes, strategizing with that trump card in mind. Alvarado’s size will negate that advantage, asking Rios to rely more on his boxing ability to win the fight. But a regression in form has accompanied Rios failures on the scale, and a dependence on his regressed boxing ability leaves Rios significantly less sinister. There is the question of absorption too: How will Rios respond to the punches of a genuine junior welterweight? And how will he react if Alvarado can endure his evil?
Alvarado also brings questions to the duke. It is unclear what Alvarado’s ceiling is, in part because he has yet to fight an elite opponent. Should the absence of such a foe be interpreted as a tocsin? Some would argue that Alvarado is being developed appropriately, that now is the time to add a distinguished scalp to his collection. Perhaps this is true, but this explanation begs the question of why Alvarado, who is 33 years old, is only now making this step. The answer to that question must include Alvarado’s having gone to jail twice during his professional career, first for domestic violence and traffic related offences, and then for parole violations. Ignoring hackneyed platitudes about fortification through hardship, time in prison is never good for anyone, and particularly not for prizefighters. Alvarado may be a well-preserved 33 for having delayed his sternest test, but the question of what toll his choices have taken may be answered when Rios is the inquisitor and the answers cannot be postponed.
Yet even in these questions, beauty, the body, and human being’s reconciliation with it, holds center stage. Through violence administered and endured each man will be forced to reconcile with his own flesh and bone, its potential and its limitations. Both in what we know, and what we do not, about the fight between Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado beauty abounds—its power and appeal, universal.
Read more from Jimmy Tobin at The Cruelest Sport, and find him on Twitter at @jet79.