On Boxing, Expanded Edition

On Boxing, Expanded Edition

by Joyce Carol Oates

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"No other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing. To write about boxing is to write about oneself--however elliptically, and unintentionally. And to write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization--what it is, or should be, to be 'human' . . .

The sport seems in crisis, its best

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"No other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing. To write about boxing is to write about oneself--however elliptically, and unintentionally. And to write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization--what it is, or should be, to be 'human' . . .

The sport seems in crisis, its best practitioners no less than its most dubious contaminate by association with fixed fights, manipulated judges, questionable referees. Demands for its abolition are made, indignation is aroused, well-argued editorials are printed, deals continue to be made, boxers continue to be , managed.' occasionally there is a boxing match that, in its demonstration of skill, courage, intelligence, hope, seems to redeem the sport--or almost. Perhaps boxing has always been in crisis a sport of crisis.

Without doubt, it is our most dramatically 'masculine' sport, and our most dramatically 'self-destructive' sport. In this, for some for us, its abiding interest lies."

--Joyce Carol Oates,
from the Foreword

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A fight fan since her youth, novelist Oates follows in the tradition of boxing-loving writers like Hemingway and Mailer. In a slim volume expanded from a New York Times Magazine article, she candidly assays ``The Sweet Science'' for its spectacle, aesthetic elements, and its history from ancient Greece and Rome to today's ring dominated by callous promoters, casinos, and TV. Oates concedes boxing's brutality and often seamy side but finds positive merits as tragic theater. Good fare for fans and haters alike, especially those who have read Thomas Hauser's The Black Lights ( LJ 10/15/85) and Sam Toperoff's Sugar Ray Leonard and Other Noble Warriors ( LJ 11/1/86). Morey Berger, Monmouth Cty. Lib., Freehold, N.J.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Product dimensions:
5.45(w) x 8.15(h) x 0.49(d)

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Chapter One

It's a terrible sport, but it's a sport . . .
the fight for survival is the fight.
—Rocky Graziano,

former middleweight champion of the world

They are young welterweight boxers so evenly matched they might be twins, though one has a redhead's pallor and the other is a dusky-skinned Hispanic. Circling each other in the ring, beneath the glaring lights, trying jabs, tentative left hooks, right crosses that dissolve in mid-air or turn into harmless slaps. How to get inside! How to press an advantage, score a point or two, land a single punch! It seems they have forgotten all they've been trained to do and the Madison Square Garden fight crowd is getting noisy, derisive, impatient. Time is running out. "Those two—what'd they do, wake up this morning and decide they were boxers?" a man behind me says in disgust. (He's dark, nattily dressed, neat-trimmed moustache and tinted glasses. A sophisticated fight fan. Knows all the answers. Two hours later he will be screaming, "Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!" over and over in a paroxysm of grief as, on the giant closed-circuit television screen lowered over the ring, middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler batters his brash challenger Thomas Hearns into insensibility.)

The young welterweights are surely conscious of the chorus of jeers, boos, and catcalls in this great cavernous space reaching up into the cheap twenty-dollar seats in the balconies amid the constant milling of people in the aisles, the commingled smells of hotdogs, beer, cigarette and cigar smoke, hair oil. But they are locked desperately together intheir futile match-circling, "dancing," jabbing, slapping, clinching—now a flurry of light blows, clumsy footwork, yet another sweaty stumbling despairing clinch into the ropes that provokes a fresh wave of derision as the referee helps them apart. Why are they here in the Garden of all places, each fighting, it seems, his first professional fight? Neither wants to hurt the other—neither is angry at the other. When the bell sounds at the end of the fourth and final round the crowd boos a little louder. The Hispanic boy, silky yellow shorts, damp frizzy floating hair, strides about his corner of the ring with his gloved hand aloft—not in defiance of the boos which increase in response to his gesture, or even in acknowledgment of them. It's just something he's doing, something he has seen older boxers do, he's saying I'm here, I made it, I did it.

When the decision is announced as a draw the crowd's derision increases in volume. "Get out of the ring!" "Assholes!" "Go home!" Contemptuous male laughter follows the boys up the aisle in their robes, towels about their heads, sweating, breathless. Why had they thought they were boxers?

How can you enjoy so brutal a sport, people sometimes ask me.

Or pointedly don't ask.

And it's too complex to answer. In any case I don't "enjoy" boxing in the usual sense of the word, and never have; boxing isn't invariably "brutal"; and I don't think of it as a "sport."

Nor can I think of boxing in writerly terms as a metaphor for something else. No one whose interest began as mine did in childhood—as an offshoot of my father's interest—is likely to think of boxing as a symbol of something beyond itself, as if its uniqueness were merely an abbreviation, or iconographic; though I can entertain the proposition that life is a metaphor for boxing—for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round, jabs, missed punches, clinches, nothing determined, again the bell and again and you and your opponent so evenly matched it's impossible not to see that your opponent is you: and why this struggle on an elevated platform enclosed by ropes as in a pen beneath hot crude pitiless lights in the presence of an impatient crowd?—that sort of hellish-writerly metaphor. Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.

For if you have seen five hundred boxing matches you have seen five hundred boxing matches and their common denominator, which certainly exists, is not of primary interest to you. "If the Host is only a symbol," as the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once remarked, "I'd say the hell with it."

I am a fighter who walks, talks, and thinks fighting, but I try not to look like it.
— Marvelous Marvin Hagler,

middleweight champion of the world

Like a dancer, a boxer "is" his body, and is totally identified with it. And the body is identified with a certain weight:

HEAVYWEIGHT—no weight limit
CRUISERWEIGHT—not over 195 pounds
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT—not over 175 pounds
MIDDLEWEIGHT—not over 160 pounds
JUNIOR MIDDLEWEIGHT—not over 154 pounds
WELTERWEIGHT—not over 147 pounds
JUNIOR WELTERWEIGHT—not over 140 pounds
LIGHTWEIGHT—not over 135 pounds
JUNIOR LIGHTWEIGHT—not over 130 pounds
FEATHERWEIGHT—not over 126 pounds
JUNIOR FEATHERWEIGHT—not over 122 pounds
BANTAMWEIGHT—not over 118 pounds
FLYWEIGHT—not over 112 pounds

Though the old truism "A good big man will always beat a good little man" has been disproved any number of times (most recently by Michael Spinks in his victory over Larry Holmes) it is usually the case that a boxer invites disaster by fighting out of his weight division: he can "move up" but very likely he can't "bring his punch with him." Where at one time the distinctions between weight were fairly crude (paralleling life's unfairness—the mismatches of most battles outside the ring) boxing promoters and commissions have created a truly Byzantine hierarchy of weights to regulate present-day fights. In theory, the finely calibrated divisions were created to prevent mismatches; in practice, they have the felicitous effect of creating many more "champions" and many more lucrative "title" shots.

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