Saturday, July 18, 2009

Disturbing the priest

One of the all-time greatest rock songs, from Black Sabbath's sublime "Born Again" album. The indefatigable Ian Gillan does so much screaming and cackling in this song, that it's a miracle he had any voice left after recording it. I never pay attention to lyrics, but this morning, I was reminded of a nice little line from this song: "Watch out for religion when it gets too near."

I was still in my ratty PJs and savouring my last cup of late-morning coffee when someone knocked on my door. I went to have a looksie, and beheld two very well-dressed young men whose appearance and demeanour screamed "Jehova's witness." I usually shoo these types of visitors away, but for some reason, felt a pang of sympathy for these two youngsters who were braving the insufferable heat for the sake of their so-called duty. So, for roughly two minutes, I let them chat me up about Christianity and the Bible -- no use clamming up about my faith, since I loathe lying and my cross tattoos were plainly visible -- before wishing them a good day and advising them to stick to whatever little shade they could find.

As they were leaving, one of the kids turned back and, rooting through his briefcase, told me he had a pamphlet he thought I might find useful. I was going to respectfully decline, but again, felt so bad for these kids toiling away in the dog days of summer in the name of their faith, misguided though it may be in my opinion, that I decided, "let this poor kid hand me his leaflet; if nothing else, it might provide some laughable bathroom reading." Imagine my surprise when I looked at the pamphlet and saw it was entitled, "Depression and Anger." The Jehova young'un proceeded to explain that this pamphlet not only referenced several passages in the Bible dealing with the evils of depression and anger, but also provided several additional references (Biblical or otherwise fanatically Christian, of course) that would help, and I quote, "a Christian who had strayed from the path" overcome the root of these evils. In the immortal words of Jack Slater, "big mistake." I gave Jehova boy the Manson lamps, and asked, "Wouldn't this pamphlet be a more appropriate choice for someone who answered the door while wiping their eyes, or insulted you, or slammed the door in your face? That's the kind of person that might be in need of counseling, anger control, or simple etiquette lessons." The obviously nonplussed Jehova kid tried to rally, and replied, "We like to leave these pamphlets so that good Christians like yourself can use them to stay on the path." "Nice try, but the damage is done," I told Jehova boy. "If staying on the path means making unfavourable snap judgements of people who open their door to your unsolicited Saturday morning visits, I'd rather careen right off your path, for it leads directly to presumption, which, last time I checked, was a sin." Hey, I figured waxing poetic was the way to go. Jehova boy tried to stammer out a reply, but I politely and firmly told him not to bother, and sent him and his pal on their merry way.

And that's how Bible-pounding zealotry transformed a nice Saturday morning coffee session into me standing on my porch in my PJs, looking like a disheveled swarthy hillbilly, and arguing semantics with two suit-clad Jehova's witnesses young enough to be my kids. Watch out for religion when it gets too near, indeed.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Alexis Argüello (1952-2009)

I've been a boxing fan for as long as I can remember. I guess it was unavoidable, given that my Dad was a boxing fan and, predictably enough, I took most of my behavioural cues from him. But my formative years need some credit here, too. The late 70's and the 80's were strife with boxing greatness. Heck, even the silver screen saw Rocky, a movie about a pug and his struggle for respect, win an Oscar. Unlike today, where the most charismatic champions are robotic Russians or dim-witted obnoxious loudmouths, the great champs of my childhood and adolescence were larger-than-life figures whose only concern was fighting the best, without worrying about sanctioning fees, purse splits, favourable match-ups, "getting my due," or whatever other pathetic excuses today's paper champions use to dodge good opponents. In those days, I liked a lot of fighters, but there were five guys whom I worshiped with an adulation that bordered on the maniacal: Salvador Sánchez, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Azumah Nelson, Julio César Chávez, and my all-time favourite, Alexis Argüello, by far the greatest boxing champion of my lifetime. Two days ago, Argüello passed away in his native Managua, Nicaragua, after suffering a gunshot wound to the chest. Argüello had been elected mayor of Managua, and although at this time his death has been decreed to be a suicide, the circumstances are decidedly suspicious.

I first saw "El Flaco Explosivo" in a televised bout against Arturo Leon, and during the pre-fight introductions, I remember being more impressed by Leon, a squat, muscular guy with a thick build, and thinking that Argüello was too thin, spindly, unassuming and unimposing to pose much of a threat against Leon or, for that matter, any other boxer. Of course, boxing matches are not won and lost based on appearance, something that became rather obvious when Argüello started following up his surprisingly quick and stiff jab with explosive right crosses. Leon managed to go the distance, mounting a few rallies here and there, but had absolutely no answer to Argüello's well-balanced, non-stop arsenal. As luck would have it, his next championship defense, a rematch against Alfredo Escalera, was also televised in Uruguay. Argüello delivered an even more impressive beatdown, knocking the rugged Escalera down three times en route to a late-round stoppage. Just like that, I was hooked. Here was a guy who was as relentless, ruthless, and unforgiving in the ring as he was decent, sportsmanlike, and gracious outside of it. This may seem hard to believe, considering today's "me me me it's all about me" chest-pounding, trash-talking athletes, but as soon as the refs finished counting out his opponents, Argüello's first move was to help the vanquished foes to their feet. This is not a romanticized exaggeration. No fighter was as universally loved outside the ring, and arguably no fighter was as universally feared inside it.

I was lucky enough to see quite a few of his subsequent fights, especially once we moved to the States, where Argüello was remarkably popular. The fact that he'd learned to speak very good English and even starred in a Lite Beer commercial with Billy Martin (Argüello's over-the-top "I got to meet thees guyyy!" punchline brings a smile to my face even to this day), as well as his crowd-pleasing, take-on-all-comers style, endeared him to an American audience that was, to be honest, just as xenophobic then as they pretend not to be today. For me, the summit of El Flaco's career took place in late 1981, when he took on media darling and tough-as-nails challenger Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and TKO'd him after methodically pounding him into submission over 14 brutal rounds. Immediately after the stoppage, he went to console the heartbroken Mancini, and promised him he'd be a champ someday. Mancini, a super-nice guy whose life saw plenty of tragedy and adversity, did indeed go on to win a championship, and to this day, credits Argüello with teaching him how to behave like a champ both inside and outside the ring.

Rest in peace, Flaco.