Elections inspire boxing analogies. Candidates are forever said to be getting up off the canvas, going for the knockout, and such. Usually the analogy’s off, and sometimes it’s just plain wrong, as when someone is dismissed as “a lightweight”—which should be a compliment, since lightweights are usually a lot more competent than heavyweights.
Every once in a while, though, a boxing analogy is just the thing. Case in point: As he gloves up and whacks the pads in his dressing room before his second and last debate with Donald Trump, Joe Biden should bear in mind the example of Marco Antonio Barrera, the Baby-Faced Assassin.
Among Barrera’s accomplishments was putting an end to the reign of Prince Naseem Hamed, a left-handed featherweight of the 1990s and early 2000s with a freaky rubber-bodied fighting style that flummoxed opponents. Hamed was a showboat, preening and mooning over himself without shame, but he had power. Delivering hard shots with deceptive leverage from unlikely angles, he backed up his big talk with crowd-pleasing knockouts.
The Prince’s most Trumplike attribute was the edge he gained from the chaotic way he fought. In almost every boxing match, the two fighters agree tacitly on how they will proceed. One will lead and the other will counter, for instance, or one will stalk and the other will evade. Hamed did not abide by any such agreement. Lurching and flailing, radiating a signal-jamming aura of confidence and fear and confusion, he made a staggering, posturing mess of a bout.
It wasn’t clear that he did it in any sort of strategically purposeful way; it was just how he was. His balance was so sloppy and he pulled away so awkwardly from incoming punches that even a glancing blow could make him flop about in apparent distress, which would make an opponent overconfident about his own power. The messiness of the fight would irritate his opponents, and tasting the unsettling force of Hamed’s punches would encourage them to look for a quick finish. A fighter who is simultaneously excited, disturbed, impatient, disoriented, and angry is ready to be led astray.
“Forget strategy, forget tactics,” Hamed’s style said. “I do everything wrong, and I’m making us both look awful, so come on and kill me.” Soon they would be fighting on his terms. Now he had the advantage.
Hamed got to be a big star for a little guy. His handlers were shrewd about matching him with second-raters and declining warhorses, and he had beaten a couple of reputable veterans on the downhill slope of their careers. One of them, Kevin Kelley, scored three knockdowns in his bout with Hamed, but he got carried away in the rush of incipient triumph over the irksome hotshot and walked into a fight-turning punch that he should have seen coming. Hamed had a couple of decent wins and a title belt, he was making money, and he had a claque of die-hard fans who thought he was making boxing great again. Life was good.
Then the Prince’s handlers made a mistake. Matching him with Marco Antonio Barrera didn’t necessarily look like a mistake on paper. Barrera was the same age as Hamed, but he’d had a lot more fights. He’d won most of them, but he was a straight-ahead bruiser, and he’d been in plenty of wars. It looked like the wear and tear might be catching up to him. He was hitable, he had to come up in weight to meet Hamed, and despite his baby face he was starting to look old. The oddsmakers installed Hamed as a 3-1 favorite.
On fight night, Barrera came out and boxed in textbook fashion—restrained, measured, strictly Marquess of Queensberry. He didn’t look to crush Hamed or trade crowd-pleasing shots in the style for which he was known; he just moved in behind the jab, judiciously throwing heavier crosses and hooks only when he had created a clear opening. Compared to the blood-and-guts action expected of both men, it was workmanlike, uneventful, boring, strangely soothing.
Hamed tried to get Barrera to go wild, initiating clinches so frantic that the two men fell together to the canvas, but he couldn’t get him to take the bait. Barrera essentially ignored Hamed’s style and fought a generic opponent by the numbers, as if the vaunted Prince were nothing more than an animate assemblage of punching bags
The bout was fairly close on points going into the final rounds, when Hamed wilted and Barrera came on to lock up the win. It was no landslide; just a clear decision for Barrera on all three judges’ cards. There was only one moment when Barrera allowed himself to slip the leash of his own discipline. In the final round, with victory certain, he frogmarched the Prince across the ring in a clinch and banged his head off the turnbuckle, for which he had a meaningless point deducted.
And that was the end of Hamed. He had one more bout, but losing to Barrera essentially finished him. There had been no life-changing beating, no epic blowout, but the matter-of-factness of the drubbing he got from Barrera popped the balloon of his delusion of invincibility. Hamed lost interest in boxing and got serious about eating; Barrera fought on for another decade.
Nancy Pelosi might be the Democrats’ Barrera, but she’s not on the card. Biden may be more Kevin Kelley than Barrera, but he’s what they’ve got. Judging by the way he’s been restraining the urge to try to do too much in campaigning, it appears he’s mostly remembering to stick to the game plan, though in the first debate he lost focus too often.
The scheme Biden needs to remember for the rematch this Thursday is pretty simple. When Trump starts flailing, Biden should turn to the camera and speak directly to the American people about the basics of life: making a living, being healthy, taking care of loved ones, getting along with your neighbors. When Trump fouls, Biden should just say, “That’s not true” over and over until Trump stops lying, which usually means he has stopped talking. In the first debate, Biden repeatedly forgot himself and responded to Trump as if the literal meaning of the words the president was saying mattered, which was unwise. There’s no percentage in accepting Trump’s invitation to join him in flailing.
If I were Biden’s trainer, I would caution him not to open himself to danger this Thursday by coming out flush with the frontrunner’s feeling that he’s in command, too eager to finally succeed in bouncing Trump’s face off the turnbuckle. He almost pulled it off last time, but Trump, feeling himself seized and frogmarched across the ring, managed to grab his opponent and drag him down to the canvas in a tangle of limbs before Biden could spit out the speech about his son’s military service he had been holding in reserve.
Don’t lose control and try to destroy this guy, I would tell my fighter; just ignore his nonsense and box by the numbers, as if you were hitting the bags in the gym. If I were Biden’s manager, I might consider not bothering with a rematch at all. Nobody looks good against this maniac, and you already beat him once; why risk separating a shoulder in a sloppy clinch?
But Biden doesn’t really have a choice. The normal, reasonable, orthodox thing to do is go ahead and debate, just as candidates do every four years, so that’s the only stylistically consistent option. And if he keeps the Baby-Faced Assassin squarely in mind throughout, he should get through it all right.