By Thomas Hauser
Most people have been on a baseball diamond and a basketball court. At least once in their life, they've walked across a football field. But relatively few people have ever set foot inside a boxing ring.
The ring is a fighter's office. Unlike most sports playing fields, it's a temporary structure. Four people can assemble a boxing ring in less than three hours, although promoters complain that workers being paid by the hour often take longer.
The basic components of a boxing ring are the same whether the site is Madison Square Garden, a glitzy Las Vegas hotel-casino, or a small union hall in Pennsylvania. Plywood boards roughly five feet long and three feet wide are set on top of a skeletal steel frame. Foam padding an inch to one-and-a-half inches thick is placed on top of the boards. Then a large piece of canvas is stretched over the padding. Steel ring-posts are set into each corner of the skeletal frame. Ropes covered with velour, vinyl, or leather are attached to the posts. The ropes can be tightened or loosened by turning one of eight turnbuckles. Corner cushions shield each turnbuckle and post.
Most sports have variations in playing conditions. Artificial turf versus natural grass is a universal divide. Baseball fields have different dimensions beyond the infield. There are dead spots on the parquet floor at the Fleet Center in Boston and patches of soft ice in many hockey arenas. There's more variation in boxing rings than meets the eye.
First, there's the matter of size. Most professional rings are between 18 and 22 feet squared inside the ropes. Punchers prefer a small ring. Stylists would rather do battle in a large one.
The "speed" of a boxing ring depends on the thickness of the foam padding, the tightness with which the plywood boards are wedged together, and how tautly the canvas is stretched. The "faster" the ring, the better it is for movement. A slow ring negates speed, much like heavily watering the basepaths in baseball cuts down on stealing. But the firmer the canvas, the more likely it is that a fighter will be hurt if he's knocked down and his head slams against the canvas.
The more flexible the ring ropes, the better able a fighter is to lean his upper body back away from punches.
For decades, ring canvases were grayish-white. That changed in the 1970s to accommodate the demands of color television. Now most ring canvases are blue. They're tough enough to withstand the constant pounding of fighters' feet and the stiletto heels of round card girls.
When a fight is televised, the ring is well-lit. In most non-televised fights, the lighting is regular room light, which is often poor.
Entering a boxing ring has a feel that's different from walking onto any other surface where sports are contested. Climbing between the ropes is an awkward maneuver that requires bending, stretching, and stepping at the same time.
The canvas isn't a uniform hard surface. It has a spongy feel that takes a while in the gym to get used to. Moving on it isn't like walking on a regular floor.
Inside the ring, the fighters are alone under bright lights in the boldest relief possible. Everything is focused on one small square of illuminated canvas. Every eye in the arena is upon them.
A boxing ring looks different from the inside; particularly when it's shared with another man who is intent upon rendering you unconscious. There's no place to hide. Once a fighter climbs the stairs, he's roped in, unable to leave until his night's work is done. The outer reaches of the arena fade into darkness, but the fighters can hear the roar of partisans screaming for blood.
Ancient Rome, the Colosseum. "Morituri te salutamus . . . We who are about to die salute you."
The fighter blots out the crowd and focuses on his opponent. He is standing on Muhammad Ali's dance floor, Mike Tyson's killing field.
When a fight ends, the multitude pours into the ring. Often, the ring canvas, which was clean at the start of the evening, resembles a Jackson Pollack painting fashioned from mucous and blood. The promoter, each fighter's camp, and hangers-on jostle for position to be seen on television and stand at the victor's side. The boxing ring, which moments before was the site of glory and pain, no longer seems like hallowed ground.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org