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Boxing Metaphors: Fancy Footwork?

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As late as the '50s and '60s, Americans (well, at least most of the men), if asked, could tell you who was the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Today, especially since there seem to be three or four at any given time, hardly anyone can. Boxing is a sport hated and shunned by almost half the population, reduced to scant notice in the sports pages, and yet -- it remains by far the source of more idioms and catch phrases in our language than any other sport, and especially so in this election season by those writing and broadcasting about politics. I've been casting about for the source of this phenomenon, that Americans who do not follow the sport, if at all, nevertheless can be expected fully to understand and place in context an infinite number (well, maybe 50) of references to the sport -- as applied to current politics.

Hillary Clinton, in responding the cheers of the crowd greeting her triumphs last week in Texas and Ohio, referred exultantly to those "who've been knocked down but not counted out" and counted herself in that number. Within a few days, the campaign analysts had noted she had earlier been "on the ropes" but was now ready to "slug it out," presumably in the center of the ring. With the primary in Pennsylvania next on the schedule, writers began to note an advantage for Hillary with Governor Rendell now "in her corner," and some thought it was time for Obama to "take off the gloves" and that perhaps the Clinton-Obama struggle had become a "bare-knuckled" contest.

Think about it. Candidates -- not just for the championship belt of the presidency -- have seemed to be "down for the count" only to be "saved by the bell;" some, of course, knocked out -- a "body blow" to their constituency, perhaps because they failed to "counter-punch" at the right time, or perhaps because they "led with their chin" or perhaps had a "glass jaw" to begin with. Lately, we've seen the likes of John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich "throw in the towel." In the case of Mitt Romney, it was because of the "Sunday punch" John McCain had landed -- the "haymaker" in fact, on Super Tuesday.

Now, as the two remaining Democrats begin a long struggle until the Convention, a sharp controversy over tactics has emerged. I have seen, in the past few days, accusations that one candidate or the other has hit "below the belt, or even landed a series of "low blows." This will always lead the other side to point out that politics has never been a sport played by the "Marquis of Queensbury Rules." A candidate -- or a campaign -- can be admired for "fancy footwork" but not for "low blows."

Why this reliance on the language of a largely neglected -- if not despised -- sport? Perhaps because political writers are older than their counterparts in journalism, and thus more familiar with the lingo of the Joe Louis era? Or because boxing most suggests the hand-to-hand combat political writers see -- or would like to see- in politics? Or is just we're more comfortable with the idioms of past generations? Whatever the reasons, the language is there, and neither baseball nor the new National Pastime -- pro-football -- comes even close in the idiom contest. It's boxing by a "unanimous decision," if not a knockout.