Whether in the sandpit, the park or positioned around a board game, we're told from an early age that friends are supposed to play together, not fight. It's okay to be competitive and seek victory, so long as nobody gets hurt or cries and you still remain friends at the end. Truth be told, there is no greater thrill than when conquering a friend or family member on the Monopoly board or at a game of badminton on a summer's day. Victory feels extra special when you know so much about a foe, and are aware of just how much setback will hurt and frustrate them. Remember, so long as you play nicely and nobody gets hurt, it's okay.
But what happens when two friends play at fighting? An anomaly perhaps, this idea of friends choosing to actively engage in conflict (as opposed to being riled into it) is something that has littered the annuls of combat sports for years. On the face of it, these men match up for the same reason they would as kids, only moving the Monopoly board into the ring and applying leather gloves in place of a dice. The reason is competition, the desired result is victory and the hope is that nobody will be hurt or cry at the end of the 'fun'.
However, while dry eyes and unblemished features are, one would hope, an expected outcome of any Monopoly game, such assurances cannot be applied to the perilous world of combat sports. After all, disfiguration, of the physical and mental variety, are often byproducts of conflict and the greater the colouration the greater the sense of victory.
If you didn't know by now, combat sports are dangerous. They are unlike any other sport or game and, in contrast to tennis, basketball, football and baseball, cannot be played in the literal sense. Whether combatants like to admit it or not, the mindset required to participate is one of unbridled aggression and the aim is to inflict physical harm on an opponent. The money is real and the pieces hurt, quit and sometimes die. In no other sport or activity is the concept of defeat so potentially damaging and feared.
In 1991, welterweight boxing champions Simon Brown and Maurice Blocker knew exactly what they were getting into and knew the reasons why. The pair were best friends, former sparring partners and belt-holders in a sport offering few alternatives or assurances. They shared a manager, promoter, trainer and room and were mirror images in both their desire to stay champion and make a heap of money. As a result, they agreed to fight one another and unify two belts.
Amid the pre-fight hullabaloo, the two fighters recorded promo interviews for HBO sat alongside one another in matching orange jumpers. They laughed, joked, reminisced of days gone by and appeared fully at ease with what they were about to do.
"This is not a personal thing, it's a competitive sport," explained WBC champion Blocker. "We're just going to try our skills out against each other."
Blocker diluted the ferociousness of his sport and made the March date sound like a game of checkers. It was a battle of skill, not kill. They would practice what they'd learnt and see who knew more. The stockier Brown, on the other hand, spoke with more ominous tones.
"It's hard for me to make the money I want to make against other guys, so I have to go up against my best friend," sighed the IBF champion. "It's gone through my head quite a few times, but I feel I'm old enough to understand and I can only leave it in God's hands. I hope I come out a champion and that he (Blocker) comes out unhurt and able to go home to his family."
Thankfully, both men returned to their families in good health that March night. Brown went home with IBF and WBC world titles and Blocker left empty-handed and with a bruised face and ego. Given the subplot, the fight was surprisingly vicious and fast-paced and Brown's climatic tenth round assault was shocking in its intensity. Unwilling to let his friend endure a hurting, Brown sought to instead switch his lights out as quickly as possible.
Fights like Brown vs. Blocker quickly come to mind when one hears modern day boxers and mixed martial artists express disgust at potentially fighting a training partner or friend in their common pursuit for glory and riches. Aware of the potential for damage, these fighters would rather seek out a figure of hate or indifference to trade blows with than face up to someone they know, have trained with or, gulp, even grown to like. In order to summon the required mindset for combat, they demand blank and lifeless canvasses upon which to paint. When emotions and relationships become involved, the picture becomes blurred.
This problem appears to be particularly prevalent in mixed martial arts, as the unique and somewhat annoying idea of training squads seems to be on the rise. Unapologetically an individual sport, mixed martial arts, like boxing, is often described as the loneliest activity of its kind, yet it's 2011 and the ring or cage is fast becoming a college campus. Fighters attach themselves to a gym or 'team' and, upon first shaking hands with anointed members of the fraternity, solemnly do swear never to trade punches or kicks in anger. A silent peace treaty is signed and everybody within the gym is sworn to unity.
This growing sense of community has been highlighted most notably at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose and Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque. Many of the top UFC contenders of the day are spread between these two gymnasiums and yet the nod-wink agreement assures that none of them will ever meet in the name of competition. Welterweights Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Mike Swick refuse to entertain the idea of ever fighting -- irrespective of the reward -- while top light-heavyweight contender Rashad Evans recently expressed his disdain at the prospect of meeting anybody within a one-hundred mile radius of his Albuquerque gym. Great for team morale, I guess, but a slap in the face of those fans that generate individual income.
Common-sense and money-sense has now, thankfully, prevailed, and Evans will leave Jackson's gym and later this year face new light-heavyweight king and former team-mate Jon Jones for his old belt. Much has been and will be made of their alleged friendship, but, when one considers the fact Jones has only been training at Jackson's for one year, it's hard to imagine either being best man at the other's wedding. A handshake and occasional sparring session do not best friends make. This is not Brown vs. Blocker we're talking about here.
It's not Ali vs. Holmes, either. Remember how Larry spent many years earning and learning in the presence of The Greatest as go-to sparring partner, only to then later be appointed as the man to bring down his teacher's curtain in 1980? Everybody knew the set-up and everybody was aware of how far Ali had slid, yet Holmes, a long-time friend and disciple, was the one armed with the power and purpose to hurt him. Holmes hated himself for accepting the role he carried out, but still performed the deed regardless. He was a fighter. For better or worse, they both were.
How about the trilogy of fights between Arturo 'Thunder' Gatti and 'Irish' Micky Ward? Essentially two punching peas in the same pod, the working-class junior-welterweights crafted one of the most gruelling ten-rounders in boxing history in 2002 and then promptly became the closest of friends. They spent many long afternoons at one another's house and shared hospital wards after each of their next two ring battles. Despite forming a close friendship after bout number one, Gatti and Ward continued to punch one another for twenty more rounds and did so because they were getting paid and because their innate competitiveness overpowered all social niceties.
Nobody ever said combat sports were easy and nobody promised the path to greatness would be straightforward. This isn't chess, Monopoly or football and it isn't collegiate wrestling. Squads and teams don't exist and there's nobody to high-five when it all goes wrong. Anybody remember the name of Brown or Blocker's gym or chief sparring partners? How about their trainer and chief second? No, when all is said and done, it's far easier to recall their world titles and classic fights. For the good of the sport, it seems Jones and Evans now realise true champions have no time for false friendship. Friends play, fighters fight. If you choose to do this thing only halfway, you're just playing at it.