For most of human history, the concept of single-combat has existed – one champion vs. one champion to settle a larger dispute.
The premise: rather than fighting a full-scale war over a territorial or otherwise political disagreement, during which many people would surely die, each side in the conflict would choose a champion, their greatest warriors, who would then fight, often to the death. The winner of this “single-combat” gave the entity they represented victory in the larger dispute with minimal bloodshed.
There are many historical examples.
According to legend (and, perhaps, history), a young Julius Caesar fought Prince Nennius of Britain in single-combat. This type of thing was not uncommon in the Roman Empire.
But single-combat also appears in the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah, as well as in Islamic tradition. It appeared amongst the Samurai in Japan, in the Iliad, and in ancient Indian tradition. Tales and legends from the Middle Ages speak of it often. Even the semi-modern notions of the duel and the wild west gunfight regularly gave examples of single-combat deciding larger disputes.
In Russia, there is an old expression – bash na bash, which literally means “one-on-one.” The expression represents a tradition of single-combat between regional leaders and/or their champions to avoid bloodshed and broader national strife.
The reason I bring this up… on Saturday afternoon, now in fact, as I write this, there is a boxing match happening between two great undefeated champions in the finals of a multi-year tournament known as the “World Boxing Super Series.” The winner will become the undisputed champion of the cruiserweight (200lb) division.
One of the competitors is a man from Vladikavkaz, Russia – a city in the southwest of the country, at the foothills of the Caucasus mountains; just east of the Black Sea, and just a few miles north of Georgia.
The other competitor hails from only a few hundred miles away in the city of Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.
Translation: One of the competitors was born and raised in, and still represents, a city and a region which in 2014 was annexed by Russia. The other competitor is Russian; from a city just east of the still-disputed Crimea region his opponent is from, and to the southeast of the Donbas region, where armed conflict currently rages.
The man from Crimea – Oleksandr Usyk (OO-sick, great name for a boxer) – has refused a Russian citizenship since the annexation and proclaimed, “I am Ukrainian and Crimea is Ukraine.” For much of his career, he has worn his hair in a way which seems to be a middle-finger to Russia – shaved on the sides with a long lock on top, a modern version the Ukrainian-Cossack top-knot. This is sometimes referred to as a “Khokhol.” In Russia, “Khokhol” is a derogatory slur toward Ukrainians. Wearing the Khokhol as you win gold medals and world championships appears to be Usyk’s way of shoving discrimination back in Russia’s face.
The fight, Usyk against his Russian adversary, is taking place at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow in front of tens of thousands of flag-waving fans. The air seems politically charged, as if with an electrical current. Looking at both of the combatants, I’m not sure I’d be eager to meet either in a dark alleyway.
The situation in the Donbas region of (for now) the Ukraine – what is being called ‘The Ukraine Crisis’ – is becoming increasingly dire. Over 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far. Hundreds of thousands live in areas littered with landmines and subjected to daily artillery shelling. Movement is restricted for many of the region’s four million residents, food insecurity is a reality, and basic services like health care are limited or non-existent.
I watched this past week as Presidents Trump and Putin had their much-publicized meeting. One of the issues they purportedly discussed was the Ukraine Crisis. Putin wants a referendum at the point of a gun in the Donbas region, just as was done in Crimea – a very American solution to this type of problem if ever there was one. It is unclear, as it usually is, just where exactly Trump stands on the issue. Since the meeting with Putin, the U.S. has announced another $200 million to the Ukraine to “strengthen its defense capabilities,” part of over $1 billion since 2014. However, whispers that Trump might consider the possibility of Putin’s referendum precipitated an uproar amongst Ukrainians.
That is kind of the point though. There is always this geopolitical long-game at play, back-room meetings between steely-eyed leaders with firm handshakes, committees and non-binding resolutions, headlines, and nightly specials. By the time Putin and Trump next meet, maybe even in Washington, D.C., how many more people in Donbas will have died? How much more infrastructure will be destroyed for a generation?
It is almost enough to make a person wish …
Ok, if Usyk wins, Crimea and Donbas are part of Ukraine, if the Russian wins, they are part of Russia – single-combat, “bash na bash”… let’s get it on.