Suddenly, sportswriting is like the funeral beat. Every time I look up, another athlete I used to love has gone and left the building. It’s a queasy feeling. Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti and Steve McNair — all departed under startling, sudden, noir-ish circumstances. All were performers of exceptional, almost irrational, courage. Maybe if I can get through the obituaries, an actual game will break out somewhere, and I can write about that.
So here goes:
Arguello was a rare specimen of athletic beauty and elegance — a kind of junior lightweight Clark Gable. During the 70s and 80s he was a dominant presence in boxing, a brilliant and subtle tactician who is nevertheless best known for some of the most violent brawls in the history of the sport. Arguello’s late-round knockouts over Rubén Olivares, Alfredo Esclara and Boom Boom Mancini are a part of the fight game’s poetic lore, commemorated in song by the likes of Warren Zevon. When Arguello finally bit off more than he could chew against the bigger, younger Aaron Pryor in 1982, he nevertheless fought magnificently, succumbing in the 14th round only after Pryor battered him unconscious with a terrifying fuselage of unanswered punches. Following the fight — which is widely acknowledged as one of the best in history — Arguello lay unconscious for several minutes. Doctors and cornermen worked frantically to revive him. Had Arguello never regained consciousness — the knockout was amongst the most brutal in recorded history — the final images of him would have been as an astonishingly beautiful man, laying in resolutely dignified repose. He was one of those people that could collapse like a demolished building and make it appear intentional. He was effortlessly artful.
Artful, on the other hand, is not a term anyone would ever think to ascribe to Arturo Gatti.
Gatti was a fighter of significant physical gifts, who simply could not resist a Pyrrhic bloodbath. Many times he would willfully neglect his own advantages in speed and size in order to trade the maximum number of punches with lesser athletes that he could have easily outboxed. He never appeared angry. It always seemed like he enjoyed being punched.
This fearful compulsion manifested itself most famously during Gatti’s three legendarily savage brawls with the club fighter Micky Ward in the early 2000s. The contests were maniacal acts of mutual abuse, which occurred only because Gatti allowed them to happen. By far the faster and more skilled fighter, he could have easily beaten Ward from a distance. Instead, Gatti walked right towards him time and again. What evolved over the course of the three fights was a strangely intimate pairing between two kindred warriors. In fact, something weird began to occur, a vaguely S&M vibe. As they pounded one another mercilessly, Gatti and Ward stopped to grin and hug between — and even during — rounds. The ringside crowds were understandably driven to pandemonium by the spectacle. It was exhilarating, unseemly, and almost impossible to turn away from.
Most of Gatti’s fights provided action on this scale and his reliable penchant for in-ring mayhem earned him a large and fiercely devoted cult following. For better or worse, his career can be seen as a portent of the Mixed Martial Arts phenomenon, in which any fight that does not end in a spectacular act of violence is considered a failure.
Steve McNair was not the best quarterback of his generation, but he was pretty great — a near Hall Of Famer who could beat you singlehandedly running or throwing. But what McNair was best known for was his stoicism in the face of extreme pain and even serious injury. The reaction to his death by close friends like long time fellow Tennessee Titan Derek Mason was, “What I have seen him play through on the field, and what he dealt with during the week to get ready for a game, I have never known a better teammate.” And this is what you heard constantly from his former coaches and teammates in the time following McNair’s startling demise. The stalwart way in which he would suffer through anything short of a crippling or even life-threatening injury is what defined him as a leader. McNair was praised as other things as well — polite, generous, intelligent and community-oriented. But should one ever forget that the coin of the realm for NFL greatness consists of a willingness to suffer through nearly unimaginable, lifelong physical hardships — well, you couldn’t forget it after reading about McNair.
As regards the startlingly strange and disturbing cases that put all three to rest, I haven’t much to offer. In Arguello’s case, his iconic status in his native Nicaragua led to his being elected to political office as both a right-wing apparatchik and later a socialist Sandinista. He was an apparent suicide, shot through the heart, although he was currently serving as mayor of Managua, and some have intimated rumors of political assassination or other foul play.
McNair, we now know, was the victim of a terrible murder/suicide perpetrated by his too-young mistress, who had apparently interpreted McNair’s unwillingness to leave his wife as the final straw of existence. This seems particularly sad and avoidable to me. We’ve all been 20 years old and in love, which essentially equates to psychopathy. Something should probably be said about the ability of this clearly unstable woman to attain a handgun two days after she had just been arrested for DWI, but that political argument is now over in this country. Everyone gets a gun.
Gatti’s case is, perhaps appropriately, strangest of all. Strangled apparently, by the purse strings of his tempestuous wife in a Brazilian hotel, although of course no definitive explanation has yet been found.
These gifted men could be described without insult, as individuals for whom brinksmanship was a way of life. Did the frequent recklessness they displayed in their respective sports — that recklessness for which they were cheered and compensated — somehow portend their early demise? Is it fair to even consider such an extrapolation?
Maybe it is more interesting to ask what we as fans expect. For years we have gloried in the small deaths and illusory imperviousness of these athletes who laugh in the face of the fiercest abuse. Now they are all gone. I have no answers. Maybe it is all a terrible coincidence. So, I guess, let’s get back to sports.