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The Mystery of the Ring

Boxing: A Cultural HistoryBoxing: A Cultural History by Kasia Boddy

Reviewed by Joyce Carol Oates
New York Review of Books

Every talent must unfold itself in fighting.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, "Homer's Contest"

In the brilliant and unsettling fragment "Homer's Contest," found among Nietzsche's unpublished writings after his death in 1900, the philosopher returns to obsessive themes originally explored in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872): namely, that contrary to the reigning morality of his time -- a Protestant-Christian morality, at least officially -- it is not "natural" not to fight; it is not "natural" not to fight to the death, in the service of allowing "hatred [to] flow forth fully"; indeed, a "noble culture" is one that, like the ancient Greek culture, arises from "the altar of the expiation of murder."

Far from being barbaric, the stylized Greek, or Homeric, contest gives, in Nietzsche's view, a crucial ritualistic form to mankind's most murderous instincts, in this way containing the horror of anarchic violence: not brutality per se but the brutality of chaos is the true horror of humankind. In the Homeric world -- the world of stylized art -- we encounter "artistic deception" of a kind that renders such horror bearable. But

what do we behold when, no longer led and protected by the hand of Homer, we stride back into the pre-Homeric world? Only night and terror and an imagination accustomed to the horrible. What kind of earthly existence do these revolting, terrible theogonic myths reflect? A life ruled only by the children of Night: strife, lust, deceit, old age, and death.

Out of the struggle with mankind's most brutish instincts there evolves a ritualistic appropriation of uncontrolled violence, whether the competition -- the "contest" -- is athletic, aesthetic, or pedagogic; as the youths of Athens were educated through contests with one another, so their teachers and trainers were also engaged in contests with their peers. Where nineteenth-century sentiment disapproves of the "personal fight" in an artist, the Greek, in Nietzsche's interpretation, knows the artist "only as engaged in a personal fight." Orators, philosophers, sophists, dramatists as well as athletes and warriors must claim, as in these (imagined) words of Plato: "Look, I too can do what my great rivals can do; indeed, I can do it better than they.... Only the contest made me a poet, a sophist, an orator." To remove the "contest" from Greek life is to "immediately look into that pre-Homeric abyss of a terrifying savagery of hatred and the lust to annihilate."

Though Kasia Boddy's ambitious Boxing: A Cultural History frequently blurs the lines between boxing and fighting, her interest in the mythic underpinnings of this oldest and most controversial of "sports" is not extensive. Her introduction begins with a disappointingly literal (and dubious) statement:

The symbolism of boxing does not allow for ambiguity; it is, as amateur middleweight Albert Camus put it, "utterly Manichean." The rites of boxing "simplify everything. Good and evil, the winner and the loser."

And, at her conclusion, there is a quote attributed to Sonny Liston: "It's always the same story—the good guy versus the bad guy." (Liston, who fought exclusively for money, whether in the effort of winning or in the expediency of losing, was invariably the "bad guy" in the Caucasian press, but acquired a darkly glamorous outlaw status elsewhere; one of his devotees, if not his avatar, is ex–heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.)

Yet Boddy's own close readings of the careers of John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali, among others, and such spectacular boxing matches as Joe Louis–Max Schmeling I and II, Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier I, II, III, and Muhammad Ali–George Foreman, challenge the simplicity of such statements. Even the most cursory examination of boxing as a phenomenon of social/ethnic/racial significance reveals that far from being bluntly "Manichean," boxing has always been steeped in ambiguity: "good" and "evil"/"bad" are hardly absolutes, but entirely matters of perspective.

There can be no single "meaning" of any boxing match and it is impossible to completely decode the significance of the greatest and most iconic matches that have come to acquire with time the aura of legend. Of athletic contests, boxing has always been the sport that isn't "played": one plays games, but boxing isn't a game so much as a mimicry of a tragic human action layered in irony, mystery, and the unspeakable or obscene; the most mesmerizing fights are those that repel as they attract, as if the spectator were being forced to participate in the violation of a sacred taboo. The roots of boxing would seem to be near identical to those roots of ancient Greek tragedy that so fascinated Nietzsche as the noblest dramatization of man's divided and murderous soul.

At nearly five hundred densely packed pages, Boddy's investigation into "the intricate conceptual and iconographic constructions" that surround boxing has the heft of a work twice its length—the equivalent, in book form, of the old-style championship boxing matches that ran as long as thirty rounds, often in the broiling sun. Despite the author's disclaimer of being "highly selective" in assembling her heterogeneous material, Boxing: A Cultural History would seem to include everything that has ever been written, depicted, or in any way recorded about boxing no matter how obscure, whimsical, or trivial; a treasure trove for boxing historians and aficionados that might evoke vertigo in less committed readers. By immersing herself so indiscriminately in her subject, Boddy seems to be suggesting that boxing is so fundamental and magnetic a presence in Western culture that its metaphors, however random and scattered, are of sufficient significance to be noted, though she acknowledges no especially personal experience with or interest in her subject other than its rich possibilities for herself.

Still, this is not an objection: in theory, we can imagine a work of insightful scholarship about the cultural history of music, for instance, by a critic who has never really listened to music, or a definitive ornithological work by someone who has never seen a live bird. I found most of Boxing: A Cultural History fascinating if exhausting: for where else within a single volume could one locate pages of plot summaries of Hollywood boxing films from the classic (James Cagney's Winner Take All, 1932) to the forgotten and forgettable (Never Come Morning, 1942); where else could one find such a gathering of boxing pictures, from reproductions of classic works of art by Theodore Gericault, Thomas Eakins, John Sloan, and George Bellows to numerous crude cartoons, and a witty little drawing of Jack Dempsey by Djuna Barnes?

It is instructive to be informed that "the 'first report of a prize fight' in literature" is included in the account of the funeral games for Patroklus in Homer's Iliad, and that the story of Dares in Virgil's Aeneid is "one of the first fight stories in which the restraining referee is the hero"; in the Odyssey, in the confrontation of Odysseus with the duplicitous suitors of his wife Penelope, we have

the first instance of spectators as villains in a boxing story: unwilling to fight themselves, but vicariously enjoying the risks someone else will run, and gambling on the outcome.

The "first boxing-match recorded in a newspaper, The Protestant Mercury, took place in 1681, in the presence of the Duke of Albemarle." It's a fact that fight fixing began at the ninety-eighth Olympics, according to Pausanias' Guide to Greece (170 AD), and that Ernest Hemingway's The Killers (1927) is one of the first stories to "explore the relationship between boxing and organized crime." It is unsurprising perhaps but not uninteresting to learn that many early British boxers were also butchers.

More instructive is the revelation that nineteenth-century British poets, in particular the hyper-macho Byron, were enthralled by the "Fancy" (an insider upscale term for boxing); poor doomed John Clare in his Northampton madhouse "was seen shadow-boxing in his cell, crying out 'I'm Jones the Sailor Boy,' and 'I'm Tom Spring.'" Like a magnet that draws all objects to it, Boddy's boxing-as-metaphor proliferates alarmingly, prevailing through poetry of widely varying merit from the time of Sophocles ("Whoever challenges Eros to a match/Like a boxer fist-to-fist, he is out of his wits") to the "proletarian" Horace Gregory in his poem "Dempsey, Dempsey" from the 1930s ("I can't get up, I'm dead, my legs/are dead, see, I'm no good,/they got me and I'm out,/down for the count./I've quit, quit again,/only God save Dempsey, make him get up again,/Dempsey, Dempsey") and our most celebrated precursor of rap music, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali ("It started twenty years past./The greatest of them all was born at last").

It is illuminating to learn the degree to which boxing, "or street-fighting with pretensions to boxing," as well as "linguistic pugnacity," are predominant themes in James Joyce's Ulysses: "While parodying its posturing and patois, Joyce relished the dramatic possibilities of boxing." Indeed, as Kasia Boddy's masterwork of bricolage sweeps on there comes to be something wonderfully Joycean -- oceanic, indefatigable, just slightly deranged -- in the very quantity of data she has amassed.

Of all athletic "contests" it is likely that none predates boxing, or pugilism. Highly stylized images of "boxing boys" on eastern Mediterranean pottery date back to the late Bronze Age (1600–1200 BC) and allusions to such combat extend through the "classical golden age" -- in the earliest of Greek works, the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century BC), Homer describes athletic games that allegedly occurred at the time of the Trojan War (circa 1200 BC), like the funeral games for Anchises staged in Virgil's Aeneid (19 BC), in which the tale of Dares is recounted:

Dares had youth on his side and speed of foot. Entellus had the reach and the weight, but his knees were going....Like hailstones from a dark cloud rattling down on roofs, Entellus battered Dares with a shower of blows from both hands and sent him spinning.

In her wonderfully concise opening chapter, "The Classical Golden Age," Boddy notes that boxing was crucial to the great Panhellenic festivals of ancient Greece -- the Olympian, the Pythian, the Nemean, and the Isthmian. ("The most prestigious Games, the Olympic, began in 776 BC, and boxing was introduced in 688 BC.") From the start, there seemed to be the fear that boxing might degrade its audience as well as its participants: women were confined to the back rows of such events, or banned altogether; in one of Lucilius' sneering epigrams the veteran pugilist is portrayed not with respect but cruel contempt:

Having such a mug, Olympicus, go not to a fountain nor look in any transparent water, for you, like Narcissus, seeing your face clearly, will die, hating yourself to the death.

The predominant image of Boddy's first chapter is the famous fourth-century statue of a battered boxer, The Pugilist at Rest, a sculpture of surpassing if brutal beauty that, many centuries later, would be evoked in Thom Jones's most powerful work of fiction, bearing the same title (1993):

The statue depicts a muscular athlete approaching his middle age....[He] is sitting on a rock with his forearms balanced on his thighs....There is a slight look of befuddlement on his face, but there is no trace of fear....Beside the deformities on his noble face, there is also the suggestion of weariness and philosophical resignation.

It is in the classical era, Boddy argues, with its mixture of savagery and "philosophy," that the "inextricable mixture in pugilism of high decorum and low cunning, of beauty and damage, of rhetoric and bodily fluids" that will recur through subsequent centuries is first sounded.

By the time of the English Golden Age of boxing -- from approximately 1780 to Queen Victoria's accession in 1837 -- boxing's Greek origins had long been forgotten. Prizefighting -- "the Fancy" -- flourished as "a truly British art," "an antidote to 'foreign Effeminacy'" in alliance with gambling, another fancy of the times. British aristocrats, including the Prince of Wales, patronized the sport and writers as various as Pierce Egan (Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, 1818; Life in London, 1821), Washington Irving (Tales of a Traveller, 1824), Thomas de Quincy (articles in Blackwood's), Byron (Don Juan, notably canto 11), John Hamilton Reynolds (The Fancy, 1820), and William Hazlitt ("Jack Tars," 1826; "The Fight," 1822) were inspired to write about it, often with dazzling results. Both William Hogarth and Théodore Géricault depicted boxing scenes of exceptional interest. "The spectre of effeminacy was constantly evoked," Boddy says, in the "rhetoric of nationalist masculinity." Yet "effeminacy" would triumph by the time of Victoria's reign when the Fancy sharply plummeted in popularity as a consequence of scandals and the withdrawal of aristocratic patronage.

In the new, Victorian era, middle-class Protestant values held sway, Boddy suggests, repelled by the "unruly sport favored by an alliance of the working and upper classes (the 'bawling, hustling, and smashing' Populace and the 'great broad-shouldered' Barbarians, as Matthew Arnold put it')." From this time onward, though boxing/ fighting -- "fistic phraseology" -- would figure prominently in several of Charles Dickens's novels, and in occasional works by A. Conan Doyle (reputedly an excellent amateur boxer himself) and other British writers, the disreputable sport's center of gravity would shift triumphantly to America, where it remains to the present time.

From the swaggering bare-knuckle era of John L. Sullivan, whose highly publicized reign as heavyweight champion lasted a remarkable decade—1882–1892—American boxing was both a marginal sport and big business: it scarcely mattered that, at the start, prize-fighting was outlawed—there were fights almost nightly in the New York City area, as in numerous communities in the United States. (See George Bellows's powerful paintings Club Night (1907), Both Members of This Club (1909), and Stag at Sharkey's (1909; reproduced on page 22 of this review), Goyaesque visions of private boxing clubs like scenes out of hell.)

In 1920, boxing was finally legalized, and properly licensed, in the New York area, but its association with gambling, corrupt politicians, and criminals flourished. Part of the glamour of prizefighting has always been its seeming defiance of middle-class Protestant mores and the loathed civilizing influence of women; watching other men fight has always been, for men, as for some women, an ecstatic experience not unlike a Dionysian orgy of large crowds, whose members are raised to a fever pitch of bonding. Boddy notes how a "steady stream of middle-class men, in pursuit of the strenuous life," sparred and worked out in boxing clubs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and how such artists as Thomas Eakins were drawn to boxing as a screen or scrim of sorts for the artist's fascination with the young male body:

Eakins was uninterested in painting boxers exchanging blows....[He] wanted to show that the artist could find heroism and beauty in male semi-nudity without having recourse to Rome....While his chiseled white body evokes classical sculpture, [the young boxer's] tanned face, neck and hands remind us that he is a working-class American boy.

By contrast, George Bellows's struggling boxers of the early 1900s lack all homoerotic allure; they are desperate creatures intent upon winning -- whatever paltry purse or meager round of applause. In Bellows's most famous painting, Dempsey and Firpo (1924), however, painted when boxing was not only legalized but something of an upper-middle-class spectacle attended by elegantly dressed men and women, the pasty-pale "Dempsey" bears little resemblance to photographs of the actual, dark-tanned, and more muscular Jack Dempsey, and the clumsy Argentinian giant Luìs Firpo -- the much-hyped "Wild Bull of the Pampas" -- has a sculpted and serene look utterly alien to the actual Firpo, who, by this time in the historic fight, had been knocked down by Dempsey a remarkable seven times. (These were the days when referees did not too quickly intervene in male havoc!)

In fact, Bellows had not even seen the championship fight firsthand but painted it from other sources, giving the scene a highly stylized and synthetic air that makes of its ostensible violence a mere aesthetic frisson. Bellows seems to be suggesting that as the violent brawl becomes ever more commodified -- and merchandised -- it has come to resemble any other sort of American entertainment, and its practitioners more resemble mannequins than actual boxers.

In Boddy's words, "the 1920s are often recalled as a golden age of sport, but it was an age of mass consumption rather than mass participation....Worse still was listening to the radio ('sport at two removes')." And there was the imminent yet more voracious age of television which would transform boxing forever by drawing audiences away from local arenas, centralizing (first in New York's Madison Square Garden, then in Las Vegas) what had been essentially a neighborhood sport, and in this way providing for gamblers, and for organized crime, an irresistible source of income. (How ideal television was for boxing: two near-naked athletes generally in prime physical condition, dramatic opportunities for close-ups, three-minute rounds separated by one-minute intermissions suitable for advertisements; what ideal circumstances for betting, and for bribing!)

Boddy is especially good in her close analysis of mid-century American boxiana, domesticated and exploited in a way very unlike the boxiana of Pierce Egan's Fancy: as soon as boxing matches become a Friday-night staple on network television, the savage, sordid underpinnings of the sport faded in public consciousness, and spectators were left to admire a sequence of highly promoted though often genuinely talented and idiosyncratic boxing champions.

Boxing has always been dominated by the heavyweight division, as the heavyweight division is dominated by the champion and his highest-ranked contenders; so long as the heavyweight champion is a considerable macho figure, especially if he happens to be handsome, charismatic, and controversial, boxing can be a highly lucrative sport -- at least for managers and promoters, if not always for boxers. Boddy succinctly discusses the leading heavyweight champions: John L. Sullivan, "the Boston Strong boy," the very embodiment of Irish-American machismo, who didn't become simply a celebrity during his ten-year reign, but "a screen onto which a wide variety of feelings and attitudes could be projected"; his more suave successor "Gentleman Jim" Corbett (heavyweight reign 1892–1897), who ended his career after retirement by staging boxing exhibitions and appearing in a number of plays -- "Why a fighter can't be careful about his appearance I don't understand"; the enormously controversial Jack Johnson, the first black American heavyweight (1908-1915), whose astonishing dancer-like boxing skills revolutionized the sport and whose yet more astonishing defiance of wholesale white racism would set the tone for Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali five decades to come; and the "Manassa Mauler" Jack Dempsey (1919–1926), whose brilliant manager Jack Kearns parlayed his boxer's considerable but limited skills to unprecedented box-office bonanzas like the heavily promoted "Battle of the Century" with the French lightweight champion Georges Carpentier in 1921, whom Dempsey beat handily in four rounds -- the first million-dollar gate in ring history.

As a champion, Dempsey fought relatively few contenders. He was shameless about eluding the reputedly best boxer of his era, "The Black Menace" Harry Wills, in 1925; if Dempsey had been a contemporary of Jack Johnson, he would never have stepped into the ring with the more skilled black boxer, and the great Jack Johnson's name would be but a footnote in American boxing history. In an era of white racism, Dempsey was one of the tribe. Yet, as Boddy points out, like Joe Louis in a very different way, Jack Dempsey became a prominent figure throughout the Twenties and beyond "both to those who identified with his losses and failures, and those who felt that they too could one day be champion of the world, if only they worked hard enough."

Obliged to be a history of culture and not simply of boxing, Boddy's prodigious book begins to stagger, at about midway, under the weight of its Sargasso Sea of materials. Though the chronological history of boxing is in itself enormously appealing, Boddy's methodology requires her to frequently interrupt it with so much cultural detritus that the story becomes quickly snarled, even to one who is familiar with it; references to Jack Dempsey abound, but we drift far from the person himself, and we're likely to feel mildly cheated by the relatively scant space spent on boxing, set beside countless pages of cultural inquiry into, for instance, boxing posters advertising Hollywood fight films, lengthy exegeses of such texts as Budd Schulberg's novel The Harder They Fall (1947), and the maelstrom of black Muslim propaganda and caucasian American reaction surrounding Muhammad Ali in the tumultuous 1960s.

Certainly it is interesting, to a degree, to see to what extent contemporary American culture has been saturated with boxing/fighting references, but the instinct to fight is after all a primary human instinct, and might well have manifested itself in any number of other ways apart from boxing. Skilled though Boddy is in literary analysis and paraphrase, so many examples of boxing/fighting in culture quickly come to seem numbing, as in this (shortened) excerpt from Jack London's Martin Eden in which seemingly sophisticated men revert to the Zolaesque "animal machine": "Then they fell upon each other, like young bulls, in all the glory of youth, with naked fists, and with hatred, with desire to hurt, to maim, to destroy."

It's hardly surprising that Jack London's male protagonists revert to savagery -- in this and every other work of fiction by the author of the American classic The Call of the Wild (1903); such is the inevitable trajectory of their fate. London lacked an imagination beyond the grimly determinist "naturalism" of his time; his plots could run in but one direction, like hurtling locomotives. His obsessive themes touch only tangentially upon the tradition, discipline, and culture of boxing, which is a very different matter from mere savagery, as observers of boxing are frequently required to explain.

In her rather too freewheeling association of boxing with mere fighting, which prevails throughout the book, Boddy needs to distinguish more responsibly between the "savage" and the "instinctual" -- that is, the "untrained" and "unstudied" nature of brute fighting -- and what boxing is: a not-natural, not-unreflective, not-brainless but assiduously trained and reflective tradition somewhere between a "sport" and an "art" that places far more emphasis than most viewers could guess upon the stratagems of self-defense including indefatigably practiced footwork.

To watch a boxer seriously training (as I once watched the twenty-year-old heavyweight contender Mike Tyson at his Catskill camp preparatory to his defeat of Trevor Berbick in November 1986) is to realize first-hand how contrary to nature boxing actually is; how one might argue that when practiced on the highest levels, the discipline of boxing bears more relationship to a shrewdly cerebral contest like chess than to anything like street-fighting, and that boxing's essential establishment of a mysterious and often profound bond between boxers -- all the more brotherly for its being baptized in blood -- is a crucial component in boxing culture which is largely invisible to the public eye.

Boddy's methodology as a cultural critic reduces what was once living to its symbolic representations. It is the external -- public—nature of boxing that engages her, the deciphering of large public texts in which individuals figure as mere hieroglyphics:

Today much of the visual representation of boxing capitalizes on, or interrogates, the symbolic resonance of specific individuals, objects and events. Certain fights have a particularly powerful resonance or aura -- a "uniqueness" that can only be understood by saying "I was there," or "I knew someone who was there, or, at the very least, I remember where I was when it happened."

But how does this distinguish boxing from any other public event? Woodstock or Altamont, the Red Sox winning the World Series, a "historic" event seen "live" on television? Where the critic's predominant focus is a theory of manipulation, the subject itself may be irrelevant:

The story of boxing (and indeed of most sports) from the early nineteenth century onward has been one of gradual transformation into mass-market entertainment. Each new technological development (film, radio and television) has brought a larger audience to individual contests.

This is true of boxing but perhaps truer of football, basketball, pop music, and national politics. And it might be argued that with the demise of Friday-night boxing matches in the 1960s, there are far fewer fights, and fewer boxers involved in the sport; millions of viewers may watch pay-per-view to see a much-hyped championship fight broadcast from Las Vegas, but audiences for boxing overall may well be in decline, with the rise of competing sports (like kickboxing) and other hybrid "martial arts" competitions popular on cable TV. Perhaps video games now supply some of the excitement of hand-to-hand combat.

What is most valuable about Boxing: A Cultural History isn't its ideas so much as its wonderfully heterogeneous gathering of specifics. To read Boddy's book is to confront dozens -- hundreds? -- of inspired mini-essays. One has to do with the transformation of dashing young Cassius Clay/ Muhammad Ali as a Muslim Saint Sebastian in 1968—the "White Liberal Hope" -- through the deification of Ali in such films as When We Were Kings (1996) and his transformation into a sort of "New Age spiritual guru." Succumbing to the neurological disorder Parkinson's Syndrome "merely add[ed] poignancy to his story" as Boddy observes: in 2005, Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. (He who'd once been, in the prime of his life, a member of the Nation of Islam and an impassioned black racist!) Another illuminating digression, in a chapter already crammed to bursting, is the wittily titled "Two Nice Jewish Boys in the Age of Ali" -- the "nice Jewish boys" being Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer, some of whose work reflects an inspired fascination with the revolutionary young black heavyweight.

Nearing the end of her very long book, like a valiant boxer staggering with exhaustion in the twelfth, final round of a championship fight, Boddy simply stops and tells us: "My aim [has been] less to offer a comprehensive survey than to propose further lines of enquiry:...dialectical, iconographic, and naturalist." To the very end she is searching still for the mysterious essence of boxing, which, as Nietzsche would have perceived, is a far deeper and more "sacred" human activity than its mass-market appropriation can suggest:

To accept that the "essence" or "basic fact" of boxing is "the fact of meat and body hitting meat and bone" is to reject, or at least downplay, the intricate conceptual and iconographic constructions that surround it.

Boddy quotes Carlo Rotella: "It takes constant effort to keep the slippery, naked, near-formless fact of hitting swaddled in layers of sense and form."

This is a problem, if it is a problem, exclusively for the critic-observer; the boxer may know a deeper truth, as Mike Tyson has observed: "Outside of boxing, everything is so boring."

Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Professor of Humanities at Princeton. Her collection of short novellas Wild Nights! Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway has just been published and her novel My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike will be published this summer. (May 2008)

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Boxing: A Cultural History New Hardcover $31.50



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