A reissue of bestselling, award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates' classic collection of essays on boxing.
Read an Excerpt
It's a terrible sport, but it's a sport . . .
the fight for survival is the fight.
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 twowhat'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, clinchingnow 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 otherneither 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 aloftnot 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 childhoodas an offshoot of my father's interestis 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 boxingfor 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:
HEAVYWEIGHTno weight limit
CRUISERWEIGHTnot over 195 pounds
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTnot over 175 pounds
MIDDLEWEIGHTnot over 160 pounds
JUNIOR MIDDLEWEIGHTnot over 154 pounds
WELTERWEIGHTnot over 147 pounds
JUNIOR WELTERWEIGHTnot over 140 pounds
LIGHTWEIGHTnot over 135 pounds
JUNIOR LIGHTWEIGHTnot over 130 pounds
FEATHERWEIGHTnot over 126 pounds
JUNIOR FEATHERWEIGHTnot over 122 pounds
BANTAMWEIGHTnot over 118 pounds
FLYWEIGHTnot 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 unfairnessthe 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.
Meet the Author
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
- Princeton, New Jersey
- Date of Birth:
- June 16, 1938
- Place of Birth:
- Lockport, New York
- B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Joyce Carol Oates writes about the "sweet science" with the same wonderful style as her works of fiction. The main section of the book that talks about the sport in general is very interesting as she compares boxing to other diverse objects like art and pornography. Her essays on Mike Tyson (before his bizzare behavoir became his trademark) and Jack Johnson are superb in the details of how the two black men viewed themselves in "white" America. There are also essays on Ali and Joe Louis vs. Max Schnellinberger . They are alos written in the style that makes Oates a literary master. A great book for the boxing fan...and for boxing critics as well.
Ok bye she smiles