by Cliff Rold
One can only imagine the scene if there had been cameras and microphones in, approximately, 1000 BC.
“I’d like to thank God for allowing me to find just the right pebble. I knew Goliath was going to be a tough task, but when God is with you, can’t nobody be against you.”
There is plenty of religion in the air right now. It is time for celebrations of Passover and Easter. They are juxtaposed with U.S. Supreme Court cases confronting questions about the construct of marriage that pit distinctly secular arguments against the dominant legal status quo and outright points of faith.
In sports, religion is present every day of the year. It isn’t always a focus in the games and contests viewers enjoy, but for many of the competitors it is at the core of what they do. It is also a steady source of conversation and debate among viewers who carry a variety of takes about the marriage of sport and spirituality.
This week, imminent Welterweight title challenger Robert Guerrero appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. He also, at a press conference, stated that he believed God had put him in position to “humble” Welterweight Champion Floyd Mayweather.
Mayweather won’t have to fight God on May 4th. To Guerrero, God will surely be in the ring. His family story, his wife’s cancer survival, are the sorts of things that can fortify devoutness in believers.
There are some who will embrace Guerrero’s overt religious display and others who will be offended by it. The right or wrong of this sort of invocation of faith are not the point here.
That it occurred, that it seems so woven into the fabric of primal competitions and combats, is unmistakable. The most graphic displays are often in wars where even secular combats become imbued with religious overtones. Norse mythology told of valkyries, women who would select of the greatest slain warriors and deliver them to their rewards. The Abrahamic faiths have been invoked in countless struggles over the centuries.
In sport, the stakes are less but that doesn’t make the displays inherently subtler. Sometimes it can be the opposite. Every competitor doesn’t participate, or care. Enough do. There appears no divorcing faith and competition.
Modern athletic calls to God, whether they be in the NFL during Ray Lewis’s recent retirement tour, or in the boxing ring with Ferdie Pacheco trying to get Evander Holyfield to comment on the actual fight after upsetting Mike Tyson in 1996, are nothing new.
They weren’t new at the time of David either. The ancient Greeks made a formal affair of it. The initial Olympic Games were held in honor of the Gods. In our world, God is regularly invited onto the field of play, prominently, in football and boxing.
There is hardly a football game, from Pop Warner to the Pro Bowl, that doesn’t have a mass of praying players assembled before and after games. Even with someone as outspoken as Lewis, the religious factor can be somewhat contained in football. While displays can be seen on camera, interviews on the field after games are not consistently reverential. It depends on the player.
The same is less true in boxing. Watch more than one fight in a given weekend with a post-fight interview. Chances of hearing even a brief thanks to a deity, typically Christian, are high.
It’s impossible to mistake the irony of two men attempting to concuss one another followed by the more successful of the two taking a moment of worship. It’s also easy to see the draw. Boxing is dangerous.
While most of those who watch it put it out of their mind, it’s always there.
Anytime two men step into the squared circle, there is a chance one of them will beat the other to death with his fists.
It’s easy to see how the threat of death has a way of making one think about a maker. Those thoughts might be deep for some and superficial for others. The same could be said of their proclamations. It’s still simple to understand where the connection is coming from.
Holyfield was his era’s most outspoken when it came to religion. Infused with politics as well as faith, Muhammad Ali was just as overtly religious in his day. It’s impossible to disregard their faiths as integral to who they were as athletes.
In the case of an athlete like Guerrero, blessed in his own life by his wife’s victory over cancer, exposure to the threat comes in two directions. There is also the fear of just plain old defeat. Mayweather is a tough out, a puzzle no one else in this generation has solved. It’s a cliché fused with truth: the mental aspect of sport is often as critical as the physical. Drawing on faith as part of the reservoir for preparation may be as important to Guerrero’s chances as doing his roadwork.
In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether or not his God really wants Guerrero to humble Mayweather. What matters for Guerrero is that he thinks it is the case. Even with his faith, the odds say Guerrero will lose.
But he might not be able to win without it.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]