I have never really understood what this song is getting at. It starts out with a lonely kid leaving home to make it in New York, where he stays lonely and eventually return home. Up to that point it makes perfect sense, but then it abruptly cuts to the clearing with the boxer. This evokes in me a picture of an old-time bare-knuckle pugilist in a green forest setting, and I have trouble reconciling this with the earlier part of the song.
I think it’s about the immigrants coming to America and having to fight for everything. Specifically, I want to say it’s about the Irish, but that could be a mixed up memory with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman boxing or something.
There is a verse in the song that isn’t on the album (but is in the Concert for Central Park version) that I think sums up a bit of the deeper ‘meaning’:
And the years are rolling by me.
They are rocking evenly.
I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll be.
That’s not unusual.
It isn’t strange,
After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.
After changes, we are more or less the same.
Seems to tie in well with:
I am leaving I am leaving, but the fighter still remained.
In the early days of prizefighting, the sport was actually illegal in most places, forcing fights to be in temporary locations with the word passed around to fans by word of mouth. A fight might well have been held in a forest clearing.
The song is about dreams of easy success in the big city being crushed by reality, and the singer’s new determination to press on with more realistic expectations but retaining his hopes. The boxer who “still remains”, after deciding not to quit even while getting his ass kicked, is a metaphor for himself.
Wow - I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, but I listen to it as the story of someone trying to make on their own.
The first couple of verses are about someone trying to make it in the big city, and how lonely it is and how they find cold comfort wherever they can, such as the “whores on 7th Avenue.”
Then, the lyrics shift: to me, the last verse is a parable/metaphor:
What I read here is that you are on your own - and every day you have to face the same battles - such as being alone and trying to make it in the big city - and when you face each day, you carry the scars of all the lessons you have learned and rejection you’ve faced. And sometimes, you have faced so much rejection in a specific situation that you give up on that situation and flee. And you feel like an ashamed coward. But you know what? There is still a fighter inside you, and that spirit will carry you to another day.
Doesn’t that make sense for the song and the lyrics?
I like the use of the song in the opening of the movie Intolerable Cruelty. The scene is Geoffrey Rush, a well-to-do producer, driving his Jag home to his place in Beverly Hills, and singing along with this song on the radio. You can tell that he thinks he can relate to the “poor boy” in the song! Later in the movie, of course, he does more relating than he wants to, but that opening scene was funny.