When the 80-year-old HBO boxing announcer Larry Merchant wistfully told Floyd Mayweather on Saturday night, "I wish I was 50 years younger and I would kick your ass," he was following a grand athletic tradition in which one man (and it's always a man) expresses a desire (never fulfilled) to propel his foot with malign intent at another man's posterior.
Before their teams met last December, Jets coach Rex Ryan said of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, "I came here to kick his ass." This seemed an unlikely proposition at the time, not least because the two men would be non-combatants in the game, in which the Pats would rout the Jets 45-3, after which Ryan would say of Belichick: "He kicked mine."
But that wasn't quite true either, as no asses were harmed in the making of that game. They never are, for these threats are only ever metaphorical. There is not a single documented occasion in the history of sports in which anyone has, with malice aforethought, kicked anyone else in the rear end.
Still, even when the threats are empty, or strictly for purposes of illustration, they're a complicated business. Ass kicking has more rules than most debutante balls. Bursting into John Calipari's postgame press conference in 1993, losing coach John Chaney of Temple informed his counterpart at UMass: "When I see you, I'm gonna kick your ass! Kick your ass!" Which was odd, as Chaney was seeing Calipari as he said it. That would have been by far the most convenient time to conduct such a transaction, but the etiquette of ass kicking requires an appointment. NO DROP-INS, as the signs in high-end barber shops like to say.
Even with proper notice, it is never enough merely to kick someone's ass. Protocol requires that you also -- and at the same time -- take his name. During their first fight at Madison Square Garden in 1971, Joe Frazier shouted at Muhammad Ali in the ring: "You in the wrong place tonight! I'm kicking ass and taking names!" A difficult thing to do while wearing boxing gloves, to be sure, but then there was only one name to take down. Thirty years later, in the throes of Parkinson's -- and hyping the fight between their daughters -- Ali said in response to a provocation from Frazier: "I'll kick his ass." In doing so, the champ demonstrated that he still had it, at least when it came to the ancient art of boxing bombast.
There are times when even kicking ass and taking names is insufficient. And so there is also the phenomenon in which a gentleman whose ass has been kicked will have it -- like a lady's dropped handkerchief -- handed back to him, as evident in the frequent lament: "We got our asses handed to us today."
On rare occasions, a defeat is so thoroughly humiliating that a single solitary bottom is returned, to be shared by an entire team, as when the Jets lost 47-10 to the Raiders in 1995 and linebacker Kyle Clifton lamented: "We got our ass handed to us."
In 1982, Colts quarterback Bert Jones filed a grievance claiming owner Robert Irsay had threatened to "kick his ass out of Baltimore," a highly unlikely proposition, given the age difference between the two men and the fact that the city sprawls over 80.8 square miles. Physically kicking a man out of Baltimore by the seat of his pants would have to be done -- if it could be done at all -- right at the city limits.
But as Larry Merchant well knew, nobody expects these threats to be acted on. Of the prospect of playing the President of the United States one-on-one in basketball, Charles Barkley told Conan O'Brien last winter: "I'm an old fat guy now, but I'd kick his ass."
And if some thought such language was indelicate in reference to the President of the United States, presidents have heard it all before. Presidents have said it all before. Bob Woodward quotes President George W. Bush saying of Saddam Hussein in 2003: "We will kick his ass." As vice president in 1984, George H.W. Bush said he "tried to kick a little ass" in his debate with vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. President Clinton's half-brother, Roger, allegedly told a bouncer in 2001 he would "kick his ass" if he didn't let him back into a nightclub, which was rich with irony, as nightclub doormen are the only people in human history whose job description is to both kick ass and take names.
Until the Merchant of Menace went off on Saturday night, the finest example of professed can-kicking came in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in which Judge Reinhold's character, Brad, is confronted by a fast-food customer who keeps demanding a refund because he's not "100 percent satisfied" with his breakfast. Brad finally snaps and says, "Mister, if you don't shut up, I'm gonna kick 100 percent of your ass."
That was 30 years ago, a golden age of A-kicking that appeared -- pre-Merchant -- to be on the wane. After the Flyers lost 5-1 to the Canadiens last season, Philadelphia captain Mike Richards said, "That was just an old-fashioned ass kicking," a familiar phrase that suggests ass kicking isn't what it used to be, that the new-fashioned variety is somehow less intense than that of yore.
And Richards is right. Today's sportsmen too often take the lazy route. With automation, actual kicking is no longer required. The modern man simply sits back, lifts an index finger and -- with a metallic click -- opens up a can of whoop-ass.