INSIDE THE BELTWAY: In an ironic twist, an unpopular sport proves popular for the most part in political lexicon

Of all American sports, it’s fair to say boxing is the least popular.

Of all American sports, it’s fair to say boxing is the least popular.

Of all American sports, it’s fair to say boxing is the least


Except for the occasional artistic interlude of a Muhammad Ali, a Sugar

Ray Robinson, an Archie Moore or (so we are told) a Jack Dempsey, it is

a brutal sport, poorly policed and administered (What young man aspires

to be a boxing commissioner?) And in the immediate past decades, it has

gotten increasingly corrupt and gang-ridden.

When one adds that roughly half the population actively despises the

sport and almost never attends a match or watches a fight, it is hard to

believe the game has survived this long or that it will make it, as the

sports commentators say, deep into the coming millennium.

By contrast, we read almost daily of the increasing popularity of

soccer, particularly among the suburban intelligensia who tend to

dislike contact sports, and who welcome the opportunity for girls to

compete in team sports.

Could politicians ever compete for the vote of ’boxing moms?’

How surprising then, to discover it is the scorned sport of boxing - the

’Sweet Science,’ as A.J. Liebling used to call it in some of its only

literary (and literate, for that matter) depictions - which has

contributed by far the most to our language, far out-distancing such

favorites as soccer, horse racing and basketball, or even chess and

bridge (competitions, at least, if not sports). There are, on a

preliminary check, no soccer words that have passed into the language,

and it even has appropriated a few from other contests to describe its

own features - e.g., ’shoot-out.’

Save for boxing, horse racing seems the leader, particularly in

political language. Words such as starting gate, homestretch, setting

the pace, wire-to-wire, handicap, photo finish, long shot and dark horse

are conspicuous examples; we read of ’early foot’ among political

contenders and even of those who ’left their race in the barn.’

Baseball has a few - out in left field, curve ball, pinch-hit, home run,

foul ball and (lately, to be sure) ’born on third base and thought he’d

hit a triple.’ These are all standard English, to which we could add

checkmate, King’s Row, grand slam, trump and finesse from other

’intellectual’ pursuits, but boxing - despised boxing - beats them all:

knock-out, glass jaw, low blow, below the belt, count of 10, in his

corner, the champ, sucker punch, saved by the bell, counted out, throw

in the towel, raise a hand in victory, drop one’s guard, come out

fighting, neutral corner; the list goes on.

Football borrows its language from war, but boxing provides words and

phrases for action of all kinds. Do we really hate it, and if so, why do

we preempt its language?

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