Pulling Punches

Boxing, A Cultural History by Kasia Boddy

Books Ethnicity History Literature Sport

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.

Of course, as Günter Grass (not quoted by Boddy) wrote in My Century: “Artists and intellectuals have always been fascinated by boxing. Brecht wasn’t the only one with a weakness for a fast fist. Before Max Schmeling went to America and made headlines, all kinds of famous figures – Fritz Korner the actor, Josef von Sternberg the film director, even [the anti-Nazi writer] Heinrich Mann – flocked to see him and be seen with him.”

Nevertheless, the best writers about boxing have mostly been journalists primarily: Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, even HL Mencken, and, in our time, David Remnick and Hugh McIlvanney.

“Cultural uses of boxing,” Boddy considers, “fall into three categories: dialectical, iconographic, and naturalist.” In the first, boxing is “a metaphor for opposition”; a fight “dramatizes an interaction between points of view, or ideas”. This is so obvious as to be scarcely worth saying. “Those who use boxing iconographically are more interested in considering the symbolism of boxing’s personnel and paraphernalia … Finally boxing lends itself to the naturalist desire to imagine formlessness, decline, damage and mortality. The naturalist boxer is not an icon, but a piece of matter … etc.” He might of course be both – and -often is.

Boxing is drama, ultimately tragic. Every fight ends in tears and broken hopes. In the long run, even the victors end up -vanquished. Enoch Powell’s oft-quoted observation about all political lives ending in failure -“because that is the nature of politics and -human -affairs” may even more truly be applied to boxers. My first boxing hero, Jackie Paterson, world flyweight champion, was killed by a broken bottle to the throat. His predecessor Benny Lynch, the classic “wee hard man” of Scottish mythology, was dead of alcoholism at 33. Other heroes of my youth, Freddie Mills and Randolph Turpin, committed suicide. Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, perhaps respectively the greatest of heavyweight champions and the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of modern times, died with their brains scrambled. We have all been witnesses of the horrid physical decline of Muhammad Ali, bravest and most beautiful of boxers. Countless others have died in squalor. The most destructive, like Mike Tyson, are also often self-destroyers.

Boxing is indefensible; nevertheless we, its aficionados, defend it. It’s a proving ground for manhood. Ken Buchanan, world lightweight champion, told once he was “a has-been”, replied: “Better a has-been than a -never-was”. And there is sometimes the saving grace of humour. Terry Downes, asked why his championship fight with Willie Pastrano had been stopped in the 14th round with Terry ahead on points but helpless on the ropes, explained: “The ref’s getting old. He can’t last 15 rounds.”

Boxing has been a way out of the ghetto, for Jews, Italians, Latinos and, of course, for Blacks. Boddy is good on the history of race and boxing in America. The first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, provoked resentment and the search for a White Hope. His fights led to race riots. Johnson was a great champion – the British boxing writer Terry Leigh-Lye ranked him behind only Louis, Ali and Jack Dempsey – but the animosity he aroused, partly on account of his consorting with white women, ensured that no black boxer was permitted to fight for the heavyweight crown for 20 years.

Joe Louis’s handlers saw to it that he avoided Johnson’s mistakes. He was required to be modest in victory, and was never allowed to be photographed with a white woman. Johnson was barred from his training camp. (He had his revenge by indicating how Schmeling could beat the young Louis – which he did.) Louis made black champions res-pectable. Like Ali subsequently, he was a hero to white and black America alike.

The sport has never been honest. Fights have always been fixed. Links with the criminal underworld are part of boxing’s cultural history. “Before legalization,” Boddy writes, “boxing had largely been controlled by local politicians; afterwards Prohibition bootleggers and gangsters took over … By the Depression the sport’s connection with organised crime was an open secret.” For 20 years, the Mafioso Frankie Carbo manipulated boxers’ careers and fixed the result of fights in Madison Square Garden. More recently, Don King has been a malign influence on the game.

Despite everything, the sport survives. It has had its fallow periods, and today’s is one of them, made absurd by the proliferation of weights and different bodies claiming the right to stage world-title fights. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t tell you who is the heavyweight champion, though I could name every one of them and most of their opponents up to Lennox Lewis’s retirement. Nevertheless, despite the cruelty and criminality, the barbarism and dishonesty, boxing goes on and new heroes emerge. It does so because it answers to our deep elemental need for drama, for triumph and tragedy.