There are books you look forward to reading, enjoy at least in parts, then settle down to reviewing - and find that hard going. This is one such, partly because it is all over the place, a real ragbag of a book. A learned ragbag certainly, stuffed with the results of wide research, and with lots of interesting observations; nevertheless a mess.
It's quite clear what it's not, and that's a history of boxing. Vast, interesting areas of the sport's history are ignored. After the early chapters on the old, pre-Queensberry Rules prize-fighting, British boxing disappears almost completely. French boxing is touched on, but only just. The rest of Europe is almost entirely missing. There is nothing on Mexico and Latin America, though boxing there may be held to be of -cultural significance. Divisions other than the heavyweight receive -little attention. The boxing fan will be at a loss, and disappointed.
Kasia Boddy is interested first of all in literary responses to boxing. For the 19th century, this means a trawl through the novels of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, George du Maurier and Conan Doyle; for the early 20th, Jack London, James Joyce and Robert Musil. Even Proust is recruited because Baron Charlus is dismayed to find that a young man he admires "runs after boxers". Hemingway is legitimately called in as evidence, but so, with less reason, are Fitzgerald and Faulkner.
In modern times, Mailer receives much attention: "Boxing is imagined as a kind of writing, ‘a dialogue between bodies'. The white style is simple, clumsy and masculine, ‘close to rock'; and with ‘guts'. The black style is ‘complex', ‘tricky' and feminine". In fact, as she admits, "the ‘dialogues between bodies' that Mailer describes take place between two black boxers". So "his dialectic requires him to suggest that ... one black boxer has a ‘white style'". So Joe Frazier and George Foreman are made honorary whites, while Muhammad Ali, "with ‘the exquisite reflexes of Nureyev' is feminized". This is inflated and also tendentious stuff.