Gotta Box

Primordial, basic, intensely focalized, boxing is an incredibly simple metaphor that still yields incredible prose, with writers from Ernest Hemingway to Joyce Carol Oates waxing rhapsodic about the sweet science.

It's doubtful, however, that either of those two famed writers ever witnessed a boxing match quite like the one staged at South Coast Kick Boxing in Costa Mesa last week. And staged is the operative word. Two young men, neither of whom had ever laced up a boxing glove in serious competition, squared off against each other to settle the ultimate in arguments: Who could kick the other's ass? What began as a drunken conversation over empty pint glasses at the Goat Hill Tavern had turned into the friendliest of grudge matches.

Because both men—Chris Fowler, 27, and Sean Hesketh, 23—are theater guys who've worked with most of the better storefront theater companies in the county in the past few years, there was plenty of pomp and circumstance, turning what could have been just another amateur bout into something approaching performance art.

All boxing is art; as Oates writes, it's metaphor, dance and spectacle. While there wasn't a whole lot of fancy footwork in the ring last Sunday, there was plenty of spectacle. The ring announcer was the big and brash John Beane, actor/director/theater administrator, who introduced the fight as Another Round Kicks It's Own Ass (Another Round is the company that both Fowler and Hesketh belong to; in fact, the fight was a send-off of sorts for the company. Three members are heading to New York in the next two weeks, embarking on that grandest of theatrical adventures every person serious about the craft has to take at some point in life; Hesketh heads the other direction, to Hawaii, for perhaps an even greater adventure).

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The ringside commentator was Steven Lamprinos, who reprised his OCIE-nominated performance in last year's Fuddy Meers as an escaped con saddled with a viciously sarcastic hand puppet named Hinky Binky. The duo's improv could use a little work, but lines like "These guys haven't taken a beating like this since they came out of the womb" had the crowd rolling.

Other theater guys were outside running the odds; Hesketh, who had 30 pounds, about six inches and a much longer reach, began as a 4-1 favorite, but so many people took the smaller, more agile Fowler that those odds swiftly dropped to 2-1. A collection of family members, friends, actors, theater administrators and general hangers-on packed the small gym. There was no shortage of insults, barbs and one-liners throughout the four-round fight.

But inside, it was all serious, from the first time Hesketh delivered a roundhouse right to the left side of Fowler's face to the last agonizing moments, when Hesketh, wounded and spent, dropped to his knees, signaling to the referee that enough was enough—a knockout by Fowler with 12 seconds left in the final round.

The preceding 11:48, while not exactly a boxing clinic, certainly didn't disappoint in terms of competition or ferocity. Both guys trained for three and a half months under Alex Dorman, another local theater guy who's also an amateur boxing trainer, and while they didn't have the grace of Oscar De La Hoya or the power of Roy Jones Jr., they didn't come close to embarrassing themselves or the sport.

And that's key. These two actors could definitely have mailed it in, gotten up there and fucked around and enjoyed just one big goof. But they didn't. And in that respect, they contributed absolutely fearless performances.

Every person who walks on a stage and delivers a line is vulnerable; that may be why, off the stage, so many actors are so incredibly neurotic and borderline pathological liars. How difficult is it to be honest, truthful and open offstage when that's what you're required to do onstage every night? It can't help but play havoc with the psyche of all but the healthiest individuals.

But there's a world of difference between the art of being a character and delivering lines as someone else and the art of walking into a boxing ring, wearing nothing but shorts, gloves and headgear, and being called upon to beat someone else senseless while avoiding it yourself. Every actor opens himself to ridicule and embarrassment. But forgetting a line or stumbling over a chair ain't shit compared to putting your very manhood on the line in pitched battle in front of your closest friends.

Yet they did it, with complete commitment, follow-through and sincerity. And by doing so, they achieved that most hallowed of theatrical rites: catharsis. In her 1987 book On Boxing, Oates writes, "In the brightly lit ring, man is in extremis performing an atavistic rite or agon for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America's tragic theater."

There wasn't a great deal of tragedy at work last Sunday; but there was plenty of theater. And if the stuff we saw onstage at local theaters—hell, if our daily lives—possessed one ounce of the passion and fearlessness and commitment that Messrs. Fowler and Hesketh displayed inside those ropes, we'd all feel a little more alive.

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