By Thomas Gerbasi
Mark Kozelek is like a lot of diehard boxing fans in that he hopes the aftermath of Saturday’s Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley bout will clear the final hurdle for a megafight between the Filipino icon and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
He’s even optimistic enough to believe that it’s going to happen.
“I think so,” wrote Kozelek in a recent email interview. “I have no doubt that Mayweather is gonna need / want that big payday in a matter of time.”
That opinion puts the Ohio native in the same boat with the rest of us who follow the sweet science, but where Kozelek differs from other boxing fans is that he has taken his devotion to the sport to the masses through songs that would fit right in with Sonny Liston’s idea of a blues song for fighters: "slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell."
Kozelek has left out the soft trumpet and bell, instead using poignant lyrics, sparse yet atmospheric arrangements, and guitar as his weapons of choice. As for his project’s name, Sun Kil Moon tells you immediately where the loyalties of the former frontman of the critically acclaimed Red House Painters lie.
“It sounds better than ‘Ike Ibeabuchi’ or ‘Henry Akinwande.’ ‘Sung-Kil Moon’ sounds nice,” said Kozelek when asked why he chose the name of the former two-division world champion for the project, which has produced two EPs and five albums, the most recent of which, Among The Leaves, was released on May 29th.
Yet while Sun Kil Moon does have a catchy and soothing ring to it, there is nothing light-hearted about Kozelek’s subjects when it comes to boxing. Salvador Sanchez, Vernon Forrest, Duk Koo Kim, and Pancho Villa all make appearances, with Wilfred Benitez even making an appearance on the Among The Leaves track “The Winery.” The common thread? Fighters who were tragically affected by life, either in the ring or outside of it.
“The passing of a hero makes us all pause, but when someone dies young, tragically, and in the case of Sanchez, at the height of their powers, they're owed a tribute,” he said.
The songs are tributes, capturing small vignettes of time that may either paint a picture in the midst of lyrics that have nothing to do with the sport or simply give a glimpse into lives cut short.
In 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, he writes:
“Watching an old fight film last night
Ray Mancini and Duk Koo
the boy from Seoul was hanging on good
but the pounding took to him
and there in the square he lay alone
without face without crown
and the angel who looked upon
She never came down”
For boxing fans, the image created by those words immediately transports you back to the ring at Caesars Palace and the Mancini-Kim bout in 1982. But what about non-boxing fans? Kozelek must receive some quizzical looks and queries when talking about his lyrics with fans or media who have no clue who Kim or Mancini are.
“I remember one journalist asking 'what in the #$%$ are you singing about in 'Salvador Sanchez?'” he said. “Ironically, it's one of my most requested songs. I imagine that most of my fans aren't dialed into the facts about the man, but it's the emotion that people connect with. The spirit of the music always eclipses lyrical themes. I meet an occasional boxing fan at my shows, but not many.”
‘Duk Koo Kim’ was named the 13th best sports song of all-time by Sports Illustrated in July of 2011 though, putting Kozelek in with an eclectic group that included Bob Dylan (Who Killed Davey Moore?), Simon and Garfunkel (The Boxer), Faithless (Muhammad Ali), Warren Zevon (Boom Boom Mancini), Mark Knopfler (Song for Sonny Liston), Ben Folds Five (Boxing), Bruce Springsteen (The Hitter), and the Dropkick Murphys (The Warrior’s Code). The fact that boxing had so many songs in the magazine’s Top 40 is a testament to the sport’s rich treasure trove of history that writers have been digging into for years. For Kozelek, the reason is simple.
“Rags to riches is the most compelling story out there, it's a theme that people connect with universally, and boxing is that story 99% of the time,” he said. “Manny Pacquiao, a guy who grew up poor in the Philippines, is, currently, the biggest name out there. Commentators couldn't get his name right ten years ago. Add this to fighters literally putting their lives on the line every time they step into the ring, and it's no wonder that writers are drawn to the sport. It’s full of controversial figures: Jack Johnson, Battling Siki, Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and now Floyd Mayweather.”
It’s clear that Kozelek knows his history, and he has a voracious appetite for the sport. Yet oddly enough, despite writing about many fighters from boxing’s last Golden Age in the 70’s and 80’s, he didn’t become a fan until later.
“For the most part, I ignored the sport until the 90s,” he said. “My girlfriend would work late and I started watching fights to divert my attention away from music and the stress that surrounds the music business. I need heavy subject matter to draw me out of myself, to take my brain off things, and the intensity of boxing is just the escape I was looking for. I'm glad I found the sport. I never knew, when I started following boxing, that the sport would work its way into my music, but how can it not? There is much excitement there, culture and history, and as I got into it so late, there is still so much to learn.”
It’s not always the easiest endeavor either, as the business of the sport can suck away some of the joy you get on fight night, where the only business that matters is what’s happening between the ropes. But as far as Kozelek is concerned, he’ll take that tradeoff, considering that he’s not a big fan of other sports.
“Most people follow team sports and I never understood the appeal,” he said. “The whistle blowing in basketball drives me insane, and the slow pace of baseball makes me want to jump out the window. It doesn't help the sport of boxing that you have to have HBO to follow it, or that there are multiple titles and a zillion weight classes, so it's not the easiest sport to follow. I guess most people only see boxing as guys throwing punches. They don't see the art, craft, the self defense of it all.”
Kozelek does though, and he tries to make it to as many fights as he can, though his touring and recording schedule can often make that a little more difficult. He missed May’s Mayweather vs. Miguel Cotto bout while playing in Israel, and the fight between Pacquiao and Bradley will be a no go as well as he performs in Australia. But you get the impression that he will make himself available should a Mayweather-Pacquiao showdown come to fruition. And while he hasn’t been following the sport all his life, the 45-year old has studied enough to know that this is a fight that needs to happen.
“I did a lot of rewinding to get caught up, but the best fighters fought each other in the 70s and 80s. Ali-Frazier, Hearns-Leonard, etc. For being the pound for pound best, Mayweather and Pacquiao come off pretty weak when it comes to fighting each other. I don't buy the 60/40 excuses and the rest of it. I realize that's there's a lot of business to tend to when you put something of that magnitude together, but their fear of each other is palpable.”
Needless to say, it’s no surprise that when asked for the one fight that he would put into a time capsule for future generations to see, he leans towards fighters who never ducked anyone. And yeah, he couldn’t pick just one.
“Probably Hagler-Hearns,” said Kozelek. “They just went out there and went at it; that was a fight in the purest sense of the word. But, on the other hand, I think of Gatti-Ward. That trilogy was a display of great sportsmanship and bravery. The Gatti story kills me too. I was a huge fan of his.”
Kozelek also had a great level of respect and admiration for the late Johnny Tapia, having read his autobiography and followed his career, and perhaps we will see both Gatti and Tapia make their way into his lyrics. It would be a way to keep the memories of both fallen champions alive, and while you have to assume that some listeners will hear these names and research things a little further, Kozelek is aware that may not be the case.
“I don't put their names out there for those reasons (for people to educate themselves on the fighters), but if people get an education from my music, that's great,” he said. “Anybody who doesn't know who Vernon Forrest is, should. He was a charitable, big hearted person, and he deserves the song. He beat (Shane) Mosley twice, he could be out there making that money Mosley is making. It's just really sad, that story and what happened to him.”
Knowing Vernon Forrest, who was murdered in 2009, he would have been proud to have been immortalized in song by Kozelek, who does see a kinship between touring musicians and fighters in that the real work that goes into the final product on stage or in the ring is rarely seen or appreciated.
“For sure,” he said. “My passport will be held up in three different Asian consulates when I return from Australia in order to get my visas to tour in those territories in July. There's a lot of preparation that goes into recording, releasing records, and setting up a tour. I'm a working musician, and there's a lot of 'work' involved in playing music for a living. People never see that, they never see the logistics that go into putting it all together.”
But when it’s time to go on stage, all that matters is the performance, just like all that matters for boxers is the fight. That’s something Mark Kozelek can certainly relate to.
“I like seeing them (fights) live because you see the fight for what it is without the commentary,” he said. “I saw Lewis-Holyfield II at the MGM Grand and it put me in a spell, seeing how silent 18,000 people could be in anticipation of what might happen. Unfortunately, not much happened in that fight. But of all things, I shared a cab with (longtime Sports Illustrated boxing beat writer) Pat Putnam after that fight. My friend left in the middle of the fight, said she got 'vertigo', but she was bored, that's all. I was standing there waiting for a cab after the fight, and as I was getting in, a guy said, ‘which hotel are you going to?’ It was Pat Putnam! We talked about the fight, and he seemed tired and grumpy, but hey, I'll never forget that.”
Now that’s a true fight fan.