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From Issue #56 November 20, 2014

Boxing and God in Shantou

A professor of the divine explicates the sweet science in a Chinese city left behind.

By Brent Crane Twitter icon 

Image from “The art of boxing, swimming and gymnastics made easy” (1883)

“It was March 8th of ’71. It was at Madison Square Garden. Ali had won a couple of fights after finally getting his license back. Frasier had rung up close to 30 wins; he was undefeated. Two guys, peak of their careers, both undefeated — immensely good.”

Kelly Nicholson sets the scene for the night’s viewing. Holding the remote and standing in front of his living room television, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier paused facing one another on the screen, the 6-foot 2-inch, 63-year-old man is in his element. He speaks to an audience of five Americans, all but me professors at the local university, in Shantou in southern China.

We are enthralled as we sit on his couch or in chairs, nodding along to Nicholson’s description of one of the most famous matches in boxing history. “I don’t know if in your lifetime you’re ever going to see a rivalry like this. Two guys this good, matched at the peak of their careers. The tension in Madison Square Garden was unbelievable.”

To see Nicholson speak about boxing is to see a man speak from his soul. And as a professor of religion and philosophy, lecturing on the divine at the city’s university, Nicholson knows a thing or two about souls.

A city mostly forgotten

Nicholson is a large man — thick neck, wide forehead, big hands — with a wispy puff of white hair and a white mustache. Though he speaks elegantly and precisely, you can detect a hint of backwoods western America in his accent if you listen closely. And when talking with Nicholson, it pays to listen closely.

He speaks of his two great passions, the soul and the ring, with poise and intensity. These would seem to be two conflicting subjects: brutish, sweaty, commercialized violence on one hand, and an ancient intellectual quest for truth and meaning on the other. One minute he’s going off about two heavyweights “beatin’ the mud out of each other,” and the next he’s exalting the transcendental soul and talking about the “raw blood of human wisdom.” It’s as if there were two distinct Kelly Nicholsons.

But whether the topic is Kant’s transcendental idealism or the 1975 Thrilla in Manila, he attacks the subject with self-assurance and visible enthusiasm. The contrast is made even stranger when I remember where I stand: in Shantou, one of the last places I’d expect to hear a person speaking deeply on either topic.

Shantou is a city in the province of Guangdong. It is a backwater; for centuries, a remote fishing village; the kind of place that when you tell people you are going there, they put on a suspicious face and ask, “Why?” Most Chinese ignore it. China’s ruling classes thought of its residents as barbarians and exiled out-of-favor politicians there.

Shantou got a chance at a new beginning in 1980 when it was designated as a special economic zone to spur private business activity and foreign investment. But a culture of corruption and a centuries-long history of weak central governmental control prevented Shantou from making the most of its newfound opportunity. While the rest of China rose and rose, Shantou stagnated at the bottom.

Today its degradation is striking. While much of modern China is a place of newly paved roads and swanky airports, hotels, and apartment complexes, Shantou has torn-up streets, stained and crumbling facilities, and dilapidated automobiles that honk endlessly in constant streams of traffic. Locals call it the “Forgotten City.”  

Perhaps due to its remoteness, Shantou is home to one of China’s most liberal and progressive universities. That attracted Nicholson to take up a six-year teaching post there. It is also what allows him to speak so openly about religious ideas in a country where religion is regarded as a politically sensitive topic.

Kelly Nicholson

Salve and salvation

I first met Nicholson at one of his regular viewing parties, where professors from the university congregate to drink red wine, eat greasy dumplings, and watch vintage boxing matches. Each night is dedicated to a different fighter. The night that I joined starred Muhammad Ali. It was me, Nicholson, two English literature professors, one globalization professor, and one professor of international business, all there to watch Ali plow his legendary mitts into the faces of Joe Frasier, Sonny Liston, and George Foreman — and to hear Nicholson hold forth about it.

Sitting in his chair and holding a glass of cheap Chinese wine, Nicholson narrates each fight night with the odd color commentary of an expert: “Frasier actually went to the hospital when this fight was all over!” and “Ali would go around the world and fight the challenger in his hometown. Who’d do that today?” and “If you scaled Marciano pound for pound, I think he would have knocked out most of the heavyweights in the last 30 years!”

Nicholson talks about a fighter as a sommelier would talk about a fine Malbec. Through his commentary, the belligerent clobbering of the sport transforms into an epic encounter, and the sweaty brutes into Homeric heroes.

Nicholson hosts the viewings in his apartment, a sixth-floor walk-up on the Shantou University campus. It’s a simple setup, the type of living quarters common throughout China: tiled floors, white walls, beige curtains. But Nicholson has spruced it up with photographs of famous boxing matches, printed from the Internet and taped to the walls like pinup girls. On a desk lies a pile of vintage films: The Wizard of Oz, Wagon Train, Vertigo, Kon Tiki. It is a small slice of Americana in a place nothing like home.

Nicholson’s interest in boxing started as a child in Vancouver, Washington, then a rural community and now an extension of greater Portland, Oregon. “My father and I watched the old Friday night fights — flickering black-and-white images — when I was just a few years old.” He grew up in a poor, multi-racial neighborhood, a housing project built during the Second World War. His father was a warehouseman for Bonneville Power; his mother was a homemaker from rural Minnesota. “I think I absorbed a great deal of my sensibility about life and about spirit from her,” he recalls, his white mustache ruffling as he speaks. “I think of her as the substance of my own philosophical outlook.”

As a child in rural Washington, in a time where some people could still remember reading about Custer’s Last Stand in the local newspaper, Nicholson rooted for the Indians while everyone else cheered for the cowboys. He used to get angry at the local theater shootout shows that always had more Indian casualties. “I thought, what’s the matter with the Indians? Can’t they shoot straight? Why don’t any of the cowboy guys get shot?”

He didn’t make many friends as a child, but he cherished the sense of belonging that he felt during Sunday school at the local Methodist church. That was his first run-in with the Divine. In his senior year in high school, he was drawn to a pentecostal church. “Although I didn’t stay with it, I was quite deeply struck by the way that lives had been transformed in that experience.” But he couldn’t bring himself to commit to the rigid theology of the church. “I couldn’t believe that salvation was parceled out that narrowly,” he recalls.

While working towards an MA in Philosophy at the University of Washington, Nicholson boxed at the amateur level at local gyms when he could find the time. In the summers, he worked as a firefighter for the National Forest Service, and narrowly avoided death twice. Now he’s decades into a life of nomadic teaching, ranging across universities in Wales and the Slovak Republic to New Jersey and China.

Nicholson’s bibliography lays bare the intensity of his paired interests. Along with the four books he’s written on existential philosophy and religion, he has also put out two books on boxing: one a biography of James J. Jeffries, world boxing champion from 1899–1905, and the other a collection of life stories of prizefighters from 1890–1910. He has been published in the International Boxing Research Organization Journal as well as The Ring magazine, two of the world’s most influential periodicals for the sport.

Nicholson lectures on a wide range of philosophical topics: the problem of evil, the divine nature, moral subjectivism, mysticism. This remains a challenge in China, where the state is founded on atheism, and organized religion is viewed with suspicion and regularly faces suppression. Students who enroll in Nicholson’s classes are often being introduced to these sorts of ideas for the first time in their lives. But he doesn’t force spiritual belief on students; he wants only to open up the possibility of spirituality to them.

The eponymous heroes

If Kelly deifies anyone, it is the pantheon of great thinkers who have come before him: John Mills, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, John Hick, Plato, William James, Rudolph Otto. You might think from the way he speaks about his favorite boxers — Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, and Carlos Monzon — that they too would be objects of Kelly’s worship. But the man doesn’t see a connection between his life as a philosopher and his life as a boxing aficionado.

The challenges that come of soul searching, of keeping one’s spirit pure, of keeping close to objective truth, of dodging the metaphysical punches — are they not also reminiscent of Ali and Frasier duking it out at the Garden? “I’ve always said that life is tinged a little here and there with a sense of what’s beyond; that this is not all there is,” says Kelly.

We’re sitting in the campus restaurant. Outside, the Forgotten City comes awake with the racket of cars honking and rusty motorbikes rolling over torn pavement. But inside, we sit in air-conditioned tranquility. “Sometimes you get inklings and flashes of this,” Kelly continues as our coffee cools. “People say they don’t believe in miracles — I do.”

Photos by the author.

Brent Crane is a freelance journalist currently on a long stint of travel through Asia (mostly the Chinese parts). In between rickety bus rides and introspective train journeys, he writes for the Telegraph, VICE and the American Interest, among others.

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