Validation and Sense of Self

Boxing is a sport that has been celebrated for many years, and the boxers have been immortalized for their heart and determination against greater odds. From fictional characters like Rocky Balboa, to real life examples like the “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest of all time) Muhammed Ali. Boxing and other combat sports are also celebrated for the violent, glorified spectacle of beating up and knocking out another human being. But that violence and validation from winning or losing can have earth shattering effects on the boxer’s psyche, and I think Michael J Seidlinger really tries to explore that idea in his novel.

The Laughter of Strangers has us follow the narration of Willem Flores, an aging boxer that was once the “G.O.A.T.,” even carrying the famous nickname reserved by only a few boxers in history, “Sugar.” Willem uses third person perspective at times to describe his former glory and his current shortcomings, almost as if he hasn’t fully admitted that it is him out there fighting or doing interviews for publicities sake. The novel starts with Willem and his trainer/manager Spencer trying to bring relevance back to their brand by using a publicity stunt, a fake murder to be exact, to get under the skin of an opponent that had beaten him in a previous match. When Willem describes the tactic, it is dizzying and hard to fathom, which could be a purposeful writing choice as Willem has difficulty understanding Spencer’s managerial choices. The whole thing goes awry, and Willem has a confrontation with Spencer, but also with himself. At first, Michael J. Seidlinger seems to be talking about Willems deteriorating boxing prowess and loss of respect after being in the ring for decades, but instead, he goes down a rabbit hole of existential dread, marred by a lack of understanding of who Willem thinks he is, of who he is supposed to be. And much to the delight of his audience, their approval or lack thereof is understood by laughter, which haunts Willem.

Muhammad ALi in 1973. Credit: Jan W Faul. Edited from Original.

Reading this book reminds me that boxers have a tough job. They choose to put their lives on the line for the entertainment of everyone around them, and at the cost of their brains, bodies, and like any celebrity, their sense of self. When Muhammed Ali went up against Trevor Berbick for his final fight in 1981, the fight was dubbed “The Drama in the Bahamas,” however, some publications called it “The Trauma in the Bahamas” as there was public concern for Ali’s safety.  Ali’s Parkinson’s was becoming more noticeable, and with this fight coming after his loss to Larry Holmes, it appeared he was closing in on retirement. But Ali believed he was great and could never loss, and rightfully so, his record is amazing. He made an excuse when he lost to Holmes, saying the thyroid medication he was on weakened him, and he did the same against Joe Frazier when they first fought, never conceding his loss to him. Ali was disillusioned and believed he still had it in him to win, that he was still his self-proclaimed nickname the “G.O.A.T.” Even his trainer, the famous Angelo Dundee couldn’t persuade him when asked about it for a 1981 Sports Illustrated issue, but instead reminded him of his greatness. The promoting of the fight was questionable as well, with many issues arising regarding the payment of the fighters, the fact that everyone shared gloves, and the sanctioning of the fight, which was also riddled with unethical proceedings. Many boxing committees didn’t want to sanction a fight because they didn’t want to be responsible for anything that could happen to Ali. And when all was said and done, the fight was an unfortunate disaster for Ali, revealing him to be a human like us, losing his superman status in the ring against the younger boxer Trevor Berbick. Seeing him fall from grace during those years must have been hard for him, but also for the fans, with one reporter being in tears as he watched Larry Holmes pummel Ali to submission. And Ali knew it after the Berbick fight, admitting that “Father time has caught up with me” and retiring afterwards.

There can be a disillusionment to athletes, and they can be brought forth by those around them, the coaches, trainers, or the audience that watches and views them constantly, judging and critiquing. At one point during The Laughter of Strangers, it becomes puzzling trying to figure out if the events playing out are real life or are all in Willem’s head. However, once his name starts being labeled next to the various nicknames of boxers that are coming up in the ranks, it becomes apparent he is suffering from some kind of mental disorder, or rather, a false reality. When Willem tries to come to terms with his current reality through his inner dialogue and debate, he cannot relinquish his past glory, even having mental sparring matches with the various boxers that represent his former “self.” Willem seems content in keeping these boxers around in his head to remind him of his greatness, while also letting him know he is not the man he was. This is made clear when he acts out of jealousy against some of these “boxers” by hanging them up in his mental basement, threatening and starving them to death. He is an example of an individual that has relied on validation from the media, coaches, and the audience; and once they turn on him, he suffers as it was all that kept him afloat. The violence of the sport also wrecks havoc on his psyche, as he describes boxing as a way of life, “If you aren’t fighting, you’re dying,” and with assertions like “…need to be beaten the shit out of,” or “Need to be beaten to feel alive.” I used to believe in these kind of statements because life likes to find a way to knock you off your feet; but to push the human potential as much as he does without much consideration for his well being indicates the pitfalls of his environment, and what both the training and the spectacle are doing to him.

During the documentary Ali and Cavett: Tale of the Tapes, Dick Cavett talks about how the public image of Ali changed a number of times over the years, from his resistance to the Vietnam War, his joining hands with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, his conversion to Islam, and his losses in the ring. When he was exiled from boxing for refusing to go to the Vietnam war, he was steadfast with his assertion and claimed that it made him better, and that it brought him peace. However, he was vilified, and all of America despised him for what he did. Ali said in to a group of reporters:

“My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? … How can I shoot them poor people – Just take me to jail.”

Ali, however, was defined by his ringmanship according to sportswriter Dave Kindred for Courier-Journal. When he visited Ali during his exile in 1968, he noticed how boxing, or lack thereof, was affecting him, and that boxing defined him more then he let on. During his exile, he was invited onto The Eamon Andrews Show via satellite to talk about it. The TV host David Susskind was there to ask Ali questions, but he ripped Ali apart for refusing to go to Vietnam. Susskind said when asked by Eamon if he had any questions for Ali:

 “I find nothing amusing, or interesting about this man. He is a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughably describes as his profession” and “He’s a simplistic fool, and a pawn.”

David Susskind, 1968 The Eamon Andrews Show.
Muhammad Ali in 1966

But Ali was persistent and found work speaking at schools about war and his opposition to the Vietnam war. In time, the public image of the Vietnam war changed, with many people seeing the death of the thousands of American soldiers being unjustified. Because Ali was already against the war and continued to oppose it publicly, Ali became a hero in the public eyes, without throwing a single punch. Dave Kindred says that Ali was walking around like a champion again, carrying an air of confidence like he would when he was the heavyweight champion. Ali got his chance to fight again after gaining the Atlantic boxing commission’s blessing in 1970, beating Jerry Quarry in the third round via TKO, and fighting Joe Frasier in the famous “Thrilla in Manilla” a few months later. His case was ultimately overturned in 1971 by the supreme court. Ali was exemplary during a time of racial tension and public torment, and he stayed true to his beliefs despite the hatred, so much so that he ended up being redeemed for them, even being bestowed the Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005. What if things were different? What if Ali wasn’t redeemed, and people didn’t forgive him for his inaction during the Vietnam war?

Willem has no such luck in his story, and he has trouble accepting the path that has been laid out before him. The consequences of his actions after going down a path of self-destruction are catastrophic after an interview on a late-night show. Willem goes into a state of self-deprecation and decides to talk honestly about his lies, his sabotage, his deceit and his lack of sense of self. This receives much disdain from both the host and those in the crowd, with the crowd laughing and booing, and the host yelling to “Get this piece of shit out of here!” After that debacle, his coach Spencer leaves him and starts working with another fighter, one that is much younger than Willem, which hurts Willem as it reminds him of his deteriorating mind and body. His mental prison of boxers continues to grow, and he continues to create apparitions of all the fighters he knows or has fought. It also seems he has an internal battle in figuring out which version of himself is supposed to go out in public, with the moments where he sits in front of the television to watch the news being his way of discovering who went out into the world, who spoke on his behalf, or who spoke against him.

The epiphany, while very late, still makes for a strong statement for Willem’s identity. He finally comes to terms with himself as a person that was once a champion of the world, but is now someone else, an unknown, and that it is ok to not be the boxer he was. Ali has a similar revelation after his fight with Trevor Berbick as the world around him still respected him, and he in turn saw that he didn’t need boxing to define him anymore. Willem Flores has a new story to carve, and he must embrace the journey of not only healing his broken self, but taking the steps to do so. It is a great turning point for him, even using his narration to remind us that he can’t keep talking to himself if he wants to not only heal, but to show that he isn’t just making this up further. Willem Flores, Muhammad Ali, and the author in turn, show us the trials and tribulations of the sport of boxing and how public perception and validation can lift us above the clouds, or really destroy our sense of self. And the violence of boxing is used to highlight Willem’s deteriorating mind and body, and in Ali’s case, it is said that all those hits to the head played a role in his Parkinson’s. But Willem’s self-realization that it is ok to face the music, or rather, the laughter from the audience, is a growing point, and one where perhaps even those that suffer the most from a violent and traumatic past can truly heal and see purpose in life again, beyond boxing.

Check out this great bit by George Carlin.

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