From its modern origins in eighteenth-century London, the sport of boxing has generally engaged the working class, titillated the upper class, and horrified the bien pensant middle class. Movements have arisen at regular intervals to regulate it, to reform it, even to ban it. To its critics, it is as persistent and as worrisome a social phenomenon as prostitution; and indeed, being a very direct way for poor young men to make use of their bodies, it is a kind of masculine cognate for the female sex trade. The more sympathetic view is that boxing is ugly but necessary. Great boxers, like the great courtesans, have in their physical blatancy been recognized as providing a kind of hygienic service, a reminder of our fleshly origins, to modern societies otherwise clotted with hypocrisy and cant.
Boxing stands apart from other sports. As boxing trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas is fond of observing, one plays baseball, basketball, and even football, but one does not “play” boxing. The fight game appeals simultaneously to our hunger for authenticity and our tendency to mythologize. When it comes to boxing, the boys’-story tropes of conventional sportswriting will not serve; to capture what is at stake in the ring, we need reference to the more vital discourses of art.
It is the boxer in his symbolic role within Anglo-American culture that engages Kasia Boddy, lecturer in English at University College, London and author of Boxing: A Cultural History, an encyclopedic account of the shifting use that painters, poets, novelists, and filmmakers have made of fighters through the years. In both its syntax and its emphasis on situating fighters within shifting notions of race, class, and gender (“Drawing variously on aesthetic, entrepreneurial, religious and therapeutic discourses, the aims and ambitions of late sixties and early seventies black cultural nationalism were constantly being debated and reformulated”), Boxing: A Cultural History, is markedly the work of a contemporary academic. It is also, by contrast, the work of a cultural critic able to range easily across periods and genres, with a kind of lightness not usually associated with contemporary departments of English.
Boddy’s ability to command a broad range of reference is most evident in her essay on the period 1880-1920, a time in which the center of gravity in boxing shifted from London to New York, the audience grew dramatically, and the first concerted efforts were made to regulate the sport — in effect to make it more wholesome. While the literature of this period is full of boxing allusions, it was perhaps the new American painting that best captured the lewdness and violence of the sport. George Bellows, John French Sloan and others sought to bring a new immediacy and vitality to the depiction of the sprawling, unruly spectacle of urban life, and they turned to boxing to represent its striving, its conflict, and its seething violence. Thomas Eakins invoked the nobler side of the warrior aesthetic, exploring the vogue of amateur boxing among the gentlemanly class, whereas Bellows captured the brutality of the sport in its professional form and the degree to which these same gentlemen, top-hatted and with ladies in tow, were willing to countenance exploitation in the service of their own entertainment.
Boddy’s treatment of boxing post-World War II emphasizes its link to the emerging consciousness of black Americans, culminating in Muhammad Ali’s association with the Nation of Islam and the Black Power movement more broadly. The great black boxers of this period, from Joe Louis to Sugar Ray Robinson to Ali, carried immense symbolic freight:
The difference between a history of boxing and a history of the cultural representation of boxing becomes apparent if we consider the part played in each by Sugar Ray Robinson. While Sugar Ray is revered by many as the all-time best ‘pound-for-pound’ fighter, he never became a cultural symbol in the way that [Jack] Johnson, [Jack] Dempsey, Louis, or Ali did … [He] is a kind of interregnum figure in the history of culturally and politically significant boxers, between Louis (whom he idolized) and Ali (who idolized him).
This is Boddy at her most authoritative. Indeed, she is at her best when she “lets her hands go”, as fight people would say, using her analytical gifts freely to suggest patterns and connections among what might seem remote representations. If her book has a weakness, it is one inherent to its encyclopedic ambitions. While she references dozens of works within each period, amply illustrating the range of symbolic uses to which the fight game has been put, she does not risk making the kinds of choices – lingering over fuller or more exemplary treatments, setting others aside – that would allow her to place her materials in high relief. Making such choices always risks tendentiousness, but failing to choose risks a flattening of effect. Would that Boddy had been more willing to impose. She has, however, done the necessary spade work for more adventuresome interpretive works to follow.