Though the singing of the American national anthem at sporting events retains vestigial trappings of patriotism, the real point of the exercise is entertainment, the more violent the better. If the anthem is a ritual, it is no longer one of faith in the fatherland but of mortal sacrifice. The thousands in the stadium—and in cases of televised blockbuster events like the Super Bowl, the billions worldwide—watch, listen, and pray that the national hymn will fell the singer like an angry bull goring a grandstanding toreador. Botched or forgotten words, cracked high notes, wandering intonation, suicidal ornamentation: all these draw blood and gleeful jeers. And once this enraged bull of a one-time English drinking song reclad in bombast by a racist Maryland lawyer and amateur poet called Francis Scott Key has the combatant down it stamps and snorts and slashes without mercy. The anthem was bred to kill and kill it does. There is no ear to be cut off the beast and given to the vocalist should he or she survive the ordeal: until a few days ago, the only victory to be had was merely the avoidance of public humiliation.
Thus when movie star Jamie Foxx stepped into the ring last Saturday before the latest “Fight of the Century” pitting Floyd Mayweather against Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas all were eager for the first slugfest of the night: Foxx versus Key. It proved to be far and away the best of all the bouts.
But first came the undercard of this slugfest of song: a stocky tenor with the everyman name of Julio Lopez and a neck like a Virginia ham faced off against the Mexican national anthem. The scheduling of this matchup spawned puzzlement and wisecracks from the newsrooms of London to the bars of Mexico City. Though he speaks Spanish, the boxer Pacquiao is from the Philippines, where, by the way, the language is in decline. The silver-haired ring announcer described this seemingly random insertion of the Mexican hymn as a prelude to the “upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebrations” then still three days hence. This was a tenuous pretext at best. There were unconfirmed reports that Tecate beer, one of the sponsors of the event, insisted on the singing of the Mexican anthem as a subliminal advertisement for their product. In his 2007 Cinco de Mayo matchup against Oscar de la Hoya in Las Vegas, Mayweather had donned Mexican colors and an outsized sombrero. At least Saturday night’s Mexican anthem brought back fond memories of that outlandish get-up.
All this theorizing about the reasons for the inclusion of the Mexican hymn was quickly forgot once the bout got under way. Lopez has gone to-to-toe with his country’s anthem many times in Las Vegas, and had moved up at last one weight class for the latest rematch against this always-daunting opponent.
The Mexican anthem was contrived in the 1850s in the aftermath of Mexico’s defeat in the war with the United States after which the American Southwest—including all of Nevada—was deeded over to the Anglos. Only a few will enjoy the irony of such macho posturing about Mexican military swagger hymned in the very region lost more than one-hundred-and-fifty years—never mind that its singing comes in the context of continued political resistance to immigration reform. What better way to kick-off a boxing duel than with a paean to the glories of combat? The English translation of the opening stanza runs:
Mexicans, at the cry of war
Make ready the steel and the bridle
And let the earth shake to the core
At the roar of the cannon
And let the earth shake to the core
At the roar of the cannon.
The Mexican hymn assumes the brawling stance of so many anthems born of the nineteenth-century nationalism that repurposed the melodic contours of the church for the unifying imperatives of the state.
Lopez took the microphone and the pair went at it with vicious zeal. The opening uppercut of an arpeggio—ascending rather than descending like its American counterpart, the Star-Spangled Banner—shook the tentative Lopez. He wobbled in the knees and the vocal cords went slack and he nearly collapsed at the descending chromatic scale on the second line: “Y retiemble en sus centros la Tierra” (and let the earth shake to the core), a musical low blow that conjures not only the tremors of battle but also the shudderings of the seismically volatile country itself. For a long moment it looked as if Lopez wouldn’t even last the full two-minutes.
But then he gathered his wits and voice and fought his way from the corner, landing several combinations as the hymn lurched towards flat-side harmonies. A whirr of Lopez punches ushered in rapturous crescendo up to a glancing high B that shook the anthem but did not bring it down. The Himno can take a punch and had staying power to land a series of body blows in a toe-to-toe exchange that continued past the final bell. All the singer could manage was an exhausted descent to the barely audible reprise of the “roar of the cannon.” The resulting draw left the future of both Lopez and the Himno México in doubt. Most hope that retirement beckons for the fighters, and well-deserved decades of poolside relaxation, Tecate in hand.
Then came the main event. The actor turned vocal pugilist, Foxx looked resplendent in his cream tuxedo, black shirt, and abundant gold necklace. Gleaming in the spotlights’ blue glare, his face was thick with lubricant meant to lessen the blows to be inflicted by the iron-fisted anthem.
But for all his bravura, Foxx looked uncharacteristically nervous. He later claimed that his earpiece had fallen out just prior to entering the ring. Foxx therefore had to try and find his pitch and bearings directly from the florid Hammond B-3 organ accompaniment emanating from distant speakers in the cavernous MGM-Grand arena. The look of panic on his face would seem to confirm that claim. The anthem stunned him at the opening bell and the auditorium hushed in euphoric anticipation of the spectacle of an A-list Hollywood titlist about ready to crash to the canvas in the first moments of the fight. This grandstander had wanted to rock out, but was instead being rocked by non-stop blows from his unflappable and merciless opponent. Foxx would later concede, “That it was a little off.”
He may have been hurt but he did not drop.
Instead, he did what all smart fighters must: he kept his feet moving, dodging knock-out punches with melodic feints and bobs, weaving around the original melody with deft, if dazed, slides and turns. From his distant corner the organ urged its man on like Angelo Dundee spurring on Ali.
Indeed, Foxx’s dismal start revealed itself to be pure musical rope-a-dope, as he stung the anthem with jabs and flurries of ornament. The Banner was sagging under the jubilant assault as Foxx got stronger and stronger. Now it was the Founding Father of American song that was on the ropes, and Foxx toyed with him, keeping him upright for more melismatic combinations and the knockout falsetto right cross on the final “Brave.” With a black church Hallelujah coda, Foxx did a boastful dance above the fallen champion, the strutting menace that had knocked out so many great heavyweights of song.
Francis Scott Key’s worst nightmare was, as he put it, “to associate and amalgamate with the Negro.” Now his greatest work was out for the count as an ecstatic Foxx glared defiantly into the blinding lights, the fans unsure whether to cheer or riot.
Pulling itself up from the matt, with broken nose and bruised ribs the body politic tried to spin the defeat instead as a debacle for Foxx. The movie star’s performance was subjugated to a savage smear campaign. That’s all just so much hype. Promoters are already trying to convince Foxx to climb into the ring with the Mexican Mauler next time out.