On The Armenian Question And Boxing
Armenia became the first Christian state in the year 301 AD. Some years before that, Noah’s Ark is said to have landed on Mount Ararat, which was once in Armenia. Nevertheless, the dictionary in my new MacBook computer has a blurb on Armenian history that begins with Turkish rule in the 16th Century. It then describes the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turks in 1915, but declines to use the word genocide–a sad inaccuracy from an authority on the meaning of words.
Today, April 24, is Armenian Martyrs Day, also known as Genocide Remembrance Day. As a half-Armenian who does not speak the Armenian language and does not have an Armenian last name, today is a strange day. I am not ambivalent about the need to recognize the Genocide, which the Turkish government continues to deny. But I do wonder how much my Armenian-ness is defined by the legacy of the Genocide. What am I responsible for doing to the young Turks in my midst? Is it better to let go of the suffering after 3 generations? Or would today’s handshake further obscure the atrocities put upon my ancestors? This is what I call the Armenian Question. It is a tugging, agitated feeling that comes with trying to set the record straight.
As a boxing fan, for some years I have looked to the boxing ring as a suitable place for taking on the Question: it is an ancient place, a place of upsets and secrets. George Plimpton once wrote that tears would stream down his face whenever he boxed–it happened even when he sparred with Archie Moore. He called this ‘The Sympathetic Reaction,’ and it is this type of observation that has led me to believe boxing itself might sympathize with The Armenian Question. It is a sport that requires you to know your own pain.
The thing about boxing is that you will get punched in the face. If you’re unsure what to expect, you can at least expect to be punched in the face. You will come to know the vinegary taste of being struck, and the pinks and greens that linger in your vision afterwards, and you will learn to proceed through dizziness. It is a sad, scary thing, and it does not teach you to be fearless. But in my own experience boxing, I have instead learned how to bite down on the things that hurt. As a young writer following the example of George Plimpton, I have found boxing to be a sport in which the thing that makes you cry is also the thing that makes you tough.
And so we turn to Vanes Martirosyan, the undefeated Armenian light-middleweight contender. With so few popular Armenian role models to choose from, I have chosen Martirosyan. If this young boxer has not motivated himself on the strength of the Armenian Question, then everything I know about boxing is wrong. I should say now that there are other Armenian boxers, but I watch Martirosyan in particular because he is less than a year older than I am, and because I have taken the strength of his record, 29-0-0, to be a direct measurement of the weight of the Question.
To be clear: I am not calling for Vanes Martirosyan to fight a Turkish boxer, nor am I suggesting that such an occasion would be equal to what happened between the Armenians and the Turks one hundred years ago. Let me be the first to acknowledge the potential for race-baiting that lurks in the subtext of today’s Armenian Question.
Even so, one prepares for certain outside possibilities: what if an Armenian and a Turk did get in the ring, but they were both Mixed Martial Arts fighters? This would be a disappointment. For reasons that are part historical and part mystical, MMA is the wrong arena for this. It is too close to actual combat. It is not at all symbolic, and it does not have the formal constraints that make boxing special. If MMA is a free-verse poem, then boxing is a 14 line sonnet. It has more rules and is more old-fashioned. It forces the fighters to choose from a smaller array of moves, and therefore it confers a precious advantage on the boxer that can deceive his opponent. The surprises in boxing are more spectacular, because they are designed from fewer maneuvers. To put it another way, MMA is not the sort of thing that Joyce Carol Oates would choose to mythologize. Only boxing has the history of surprises, and paradoxes, necessary for addressing The Armenian Question.
For instance: consider Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who defeated Great White Hope after Great White Hope. Johnson used to fight with a grin on his face, and he made a point to appear in public with his white lovers. “No one understands him, this man who smiles,” wrote Jack London. Twenty years later, Joe Louis beat the German Max Schmeling, in a victory that Americans took to mean the Nazis were destined to lose. If nothing else, we can be grateful to the history of boxing, grisly and tainted as it is, for proving that one can draw strength from the power of one’s righteousness. At the risk of making a dangerous observation, I remind the reader that the five men who beat Muhammad Ali were all black. In a certain other contest, the contest against whitey, Muhammad Ali remains undefeated, which is of course to his credit. But it is also to the credit of boxing.
So is Vanes Martirosyan really fighting for the Armenian Question? I take it as an article of faith that he is. But I also used to wonder if his name meant The Son of Martyrs, and then I learned that it doesn’t. One thing remains certain to me: the sinking knowledge that the Armenian Question will always be there is another version of the decision every boxer makes: to participate in a sport in which he is certain to receive blows. In the fights that he wins and loses alike, there will always be blows. He has chosen to prevail against an endless tide of blows. And therefore, Vanes Martirosyan is on the verge of doing something impossible. He is proving, at last, that the Armenian Question is a sad advantage in the heart of a boxer. It gives him stores of vengeance from which to draw, and it makes him unknowable to his opponent. He is fighting for something that no one understands, not even his own oppressors. More than that, he understands how to struggle with something that may never release him. He holds within himself unfinished business, and a strength born from carrying a paradox: that the Armenian Question is meant to be unanswerable.