Maurice Demus and Denzel Love Credit: Michael Courier

If sports were theatrical genres, boxing would be Greek tragedy—a very old, ritualistic invention that dramatizes elemental conflict and denies happy endings to its major figures. Few of the complicated, larger-than-life boxers who’ve fought their way to worldwide fame and major championships have managed a graceful exit. More often, they end up with battered bodies, rattled nervous systems, and empty bank accounts. At least George Foreman made a bundle selling all those grills.

In Sucker Punch, now receiving an emotional and intense staging under the direction of Dexter Bullard at Victory Gardens Theater, British playwright Roy Williams charts the rise and fall of a boxer named Leon in 1980s London. Most of the play unfolds at a rundown gym (fully realized in Tom Burch’s grimy and detailed set design), where Leon (Maurice Demus) and his friend, Troy (Denzel Love), train under the tutelage of the owner, Charlie (played with the requisite irascibility, as well as a suggestion of struggle with inner demons, by John Judd).

Charlie is white; the boxers are black. This causes some tension—Charlie, a Margaret Thatcher fan, refers to black men individually as “boy” and collectively as “you lot”—and allows Williams to make a subtle argument about race and the double bind that young men like Leon and Troy often find themselves in.

In dealing with his trainer, the even-tempered Leon follows a strategy of appeasement to the point of masochism, agreeing to Charlie’s demands even when they cause him pain, as when Charlie orders Leon to stop dating his daughter, Becky (a high-spirited Taylor Blim). Leon does as he’s told partly to get ahead, partly out of screwed-up love for a withholding father figure, and partly because his idea of strength is tied not to how much he can dish out but how much he can take.

Though he wins championships and a medal at the 1984 Olympics, Leon is labeled an Uncle Tom by those close to him and eventually he loses them. That includes Troy, who moves to Detroit, where he acquires a criminal record and some boxing titles of his own before (of course) facing Leon again in the ring.

Troy plays the part of the unapologetic bad boy, yet once we meet his merciless promoter (Andre Teamer), who’s determined to make as much money off him as possible, it becomes clear that Troy’s show of independence is just that and nothing more. Regardless of who wins their fight, both Leon and Troy are suckers in the end.

This sad tale could easily be pat or preachy, but it’s neither because Williams never loses sight of his characters’ complexities and the conflicting currents of love and resentment swirling among them. Ditto for Bullard’s vivid staging, which has a questing, restless energy thanks in large part to Demus and Love, who pull no punches in their sharp and ultimately poignant performances as Leon and Troy.  v