Terry Dooley explores the idea of Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misfortune of others) and its place in boxing
THE idea of Schadenfreude — taking pleasure in the misfortune of others — and its place in boxing has sporadically turned over and over in my mind ever since Audley Harrison, a former Olympian and standout amateur, lost for the third time, a stunning KO reverse to Michael Sprott in 2007.
Flat on his back, well and truly “chinned”, Harrison’s fall was not met with sympathy or grace, despite it being the destruction of all his dreams. No, Harrison was vilified and scorned. Dean Powell, who worked with Sprott that night, told me that he really felt for Harrison. Fans are supposed to pause for breath and hope for the best when they see a stricken fighter yet in this case Powell recalled that many in the arena were glad to see Harrison starched, boos even rang out.
At the time, it was the biggest British boxing outpouring of schadenfreude that I could recall. Harrison’s KO against Sprott seemed to be a high-water mark, a moment when many, many people on forums—Twitter was not launched until November of that year—celebrated Harrison’s “comeuppance…deserved reward/punishment for his arrogance”—whatever the reasoning, he copped a shedload of abuse.
Sure, he had lost twice before, yet this one was conclusive and concussive. A KO ending for the man who had turned his life around, secured Gold at Sydney 2000, and then had soured that achievement with a series of mistakes in the early days of his pro career. We like winners, the logic seemed to say; however, we like them to be modest, quiet and to play by accepted rules. Harrison dared to be different, failed, and then was vilified for his failures.
DOWN AND OUT: Harrison loses to David Price
More losses came, more knockouts followed, and, despite becoming a cult figure to some, this writer included, Harrison became more than a stick to beat boxing with, he become a piñata we love to beat—and to be fair he gave people plenty of opportunities to do it.
When he was knocked out by David Price in a round in 2012, Harrison’s career was served further notice. The southpaw had staged a mini-comeback in 2010, fought for a world title against David Haye, badly, and was now sent to the scrapheap by Price, the new heir apparent.
Harrison’s sin wasn’t success, it was taking pride in his successes and hoping for more. When it wasn’t to be, we went collectively crazy and his post-Sprott treatment is still a lingering stain on the sport.
Harrison’s misfortune that night was played out across forums. When Daniel Dubois took a knee against Joe Joyce in round 10 to protect a badly damaged left eye and live to fight another day there was another outpouring of schadenfreude, only this time it didn’t play out across forums, they are done, especially BoxRec, but on Twitter.
You expect to see negative Tweets and comments on there. The hypocrisy kicks in when we just shrug and blame it on the fans. People within the trade wrote Dubois off after he took that knee. Variations of the term “Quitter” rang out. His promoter, Frank Warren, had to come out with medical evidence to support the argument that he had sustained a broken orbital bone and nerve damage and would have been in serious trouble had he continued. It isn’t just unique to fans.
Dubois saved his eye, but you just knew that if he lost, by any means, there would be negative comments within the trade due to loyalties and ties. You could predict the algorithm of criticism going in. You expect it, you can’t deny it, yet you have to acknowledge that words that come from a position of personal interest or skewered bias do not resonate as strongly as genuine opinions do. Punditry isn’t punditry if you know in advance what some within the trade are going to say about a certain fighter or situation. It is lazy and ephemeral, at best — a ‘My views are here today but will be gone tomorrow depending on my personal situation’ approach.
Writers, fans and fighters wish fighters well, we pay lip service to safety, yet some will happily mock a stricken fighter if they feel he deserves that kind of reverse applause. Returning to “A-Force”, and I often do, his outpouring of schadenfreude was the direct effect of a cause: Harrison architected it himself, they said, and in that light it was somewhat understandable.
The second time I really turned my mind towards the subject was after Price’s seventh-round stoppage loss to Christian Hammer in 2017. That, and earlier losses to Tony Thompson (L TKO 2 and 5 in 2013) and Erkan Teper (KO 2), was met with a kind of pitiless mirth that may or may not have existed in the pre-Internet age—we cannot know for sure unless we trawl the old letters pages of Boxing News.
For many, Harrison got what he deserved, he netted gold then talked about it with pride, as did James DeGale, still a pariah to some, yet the schadenfreude that each of Price’s defeats was met with was both worrying and puzzling.
Price netted a bronze medal at the 2008 Games yet he was grounded, quite quiet and had not made any lofty claims. In short: he seems to be a nice guy, so why did some celebrate his misfortunes in the ring to such an extent?
For clarity, schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. A ‘self-satisfaction at another’s failure’—that small or large negative part of our humanity that all of us can attest to and feel. It is that part of us that is base and insecure, wanting to see the world burn just so we can justify our existence in a society that seems fundamentally unfair.
Aristotle pointed out that it is the cousin of phthonos, ‘a painful response to another’s good fortune’. Arthur Schopenhauer reiterated the idea, arguing that it is the most evil of sins: ‘To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is diabolic,’ he wrote. Again, it is not about the fighter but all about the feeling. That nagging negativity and callous causticity that some, bolstered by social media, spit all day every day and then well into the night in a bid to feel connected to something, anything. It appears that Price just got caught in the crossfire.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about ressentiment, the idea that some people feel so compartmentalised, so remote, that only hate or denial of anything other than themselves remains as a unifying force. Don’t get me wrong, boxing fans are great, often intelligent people yet there has been a move towards something a lot uglier in recent times.
It seems to have increased apace since the demise of boxing forums, which lost a lot of posters, and therefore influence, as Twitter became the place to be. Forum is a Latin word meaning a market place, square or any space where people can gather and mix outdoors. The idea stems from the Greek Agora, a public place used for commercial purposes that would sometimes also allow people to hear political statements. The ideal idea of a forum is a place where debates can take place in as civilised a manner as you can get when sharing opposing viewpoints.
The difference between forums and Twitter is length and pace. Forum posts can be as long as you want them to be, within reason, and we all know Twitter has a 240-character limit. Twitter, though, is an endlessly moving river whereas the major forums, BoxRec and Checkhook, have become stagnant ponds. It is understandable, people want an instant reaction so the call and response of Twitter suits the modern boxing fan.
In George Orwell’s 1984 the way language is used is dramatically altered to change the way people think, resulting in Newspeak. For example, English Socialism becomes ingsoc and words are spliced together to form a brutally efficient and economic vocabulary that outlaws synonyms, anonyms and any diversity of language and therefore thought.
In a similar sense, Twitter’s limited word count makes it harder to get points across in the same way that you can on a forum. It lends itself to a more bombastic, binary way of thinking and how boxing is approached increasingly reflects this. On Twitter, the squeaky wheel gets the most attention and the long, often thoughtful, posts that we could produce on a forum started to fade away.
The idea that Twitter could change the way we think is similar to the argument in Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid’ (The Atlantic, July/August 2008), in which he postulated that the popular search engine may make it harder for us to develop the skills required to retain information as: ‘[S]omeone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.’
Similarly, Rick Paulas wrote in the Pacific Standard about the effect Twitter has had on our ability to communicate effectively, stating that: ‘It forces a terse tone in messages and eradicates the existence of nuance.’
In the push to get your voice heard, and we all want to be heard, at least those of us who have an online life, it is easier to go to the worst places, utter the darkest, most negative thoughts, and then others fall over each other to follow suit.
In my opinion, this is what has happened in boxing, with the ire directed to boxers, promoters, networks, pundits, and then, in an act of self-cannibalisation, we turned our fire on each other, the fans, and the sport itself: Casuals Vs Hardcore, The Resistance Vs The Cult, Team AJ Vs Team Fury (to be fair this is the closest we’ve had to a fight between the two).
Some online fans have forged personas based on black and white thinking, and they revel in these personas despite the fact they have become stale, even laughable. Due to its relative nature, boxing can be a vehicle that drives argument for the sake of it or a way of venting pre-existing feelings of dissatisfaction with, well, pretty much everything.
In the early days of forums, I often found myself in arguments with someone who I later discovered was arguing the toss on other, non-boxing forums about stereo equipment. It was as if in boxing they had found the perfect home for never-ending, circular debates.
Indeed, and in the main, we are now engaging in the equivalent of what Martin Heidegger called idle talk, conversation for the sake of it without really scratching the surface or coming to any form of a consensus, and producing discourses that go nowhere or are limited and limiting due to deeply entrenched views. A human form of simply chewing the cud. Like Nietzsche’s idea of people living in herds like cows. Unblinking and unquestioning. It is like sex without orgasm, quite good fun at the time yet the lack of a resolution is always bound to frustrate and disappoint.
Instead of coming together, which was the whole initial point of the Internet, we seem to be pulling away or at least gathering in groups and throwing a fence around us, with everyone else outside and most definitely in the wrong.
At this point it sounds like I am slamming boxing fans when I’m actually trying to speak up for us. If negativity and bile is a symptom of the schadenfreude effect then we have to look for the cause, and we don’t have to look too hard because it is boxing itself. As it lurches one step forward only to stagger three steps back you have to ask if there is any other sport that has such a shocking disregard for its fans.
Football fans are exploited, no one can deny that, yet they actually get something in return as they are guaranteed a certain number of big games. Boxing fans pay out an increasingly large amount of money, there is no austerity at work here, only to be treated with either indifference or disdain by the sport.
Fights either don’t happen or fall through, dates are announced, and therefore plans made, only to be ditched without an apology, shows are cancelled, and on and on the circus goes. The way boxing treats its fans is the equivalent of a seriously ill patient viciously beating the doctors and nurses that are trying to keep them alive. It is untenable. And, speaking of repetition, it is something we return to again and again.
Every time boxing registers a “fail” someone will point it out and add #boxing. Boxing is now failing so hard and often that the use of this hashtag to ridicule the sport is becoming widespread and does not even have to have a comment attached to it.
Some fans, long-term and genuine fans, can and will easily argue that the sport keeps making it difficult for them to love it, yet love it they do and they opt for the first part of the “Either laugh or cry” approach to the shenanigans surrounding it.
Others just want to laugh at the misfortune suffered by fighters they deem to be worthy of derision. They gather in groups so that they can mock and ridicule people who take the ultimate risk in order to provide entertainment for others. They are the unwanted passengers on any boxing bandwagon that they jump on, and there are many of them about.
However you cut it, we live in an age ripe for schadenfreude as we live in an age of negativity. We have turned away from the wider world, and are submerged in our mobile devices and online bubbles to the point where boxing fans—so-called, either way—can glibly celebrate a bad KO loss if the “Other” loses, and this is not a good place for us to be as a community.
Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message”, and if the mediums boxing fans turn to have become soured then it underlines the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong, across the board. The Internet is a mirror. If you held that mirror to boxing then it isn’t quite as horrible as online political debate has become although, sadly, we have journeyed well down the same path.