From Mesopotamia to Madison Square Garden, boxing has enthralled and outraged.
Author Kasia Boddy
Genre Society/Politics, Sport
Publisher Reaktion Books
WHY do people love watching men hit each other?
Boxing is widely out of favour now, frowned upon as a violent anachronism. But this doesn't deter countless millions who watch fighting in all its forms on cable television and the internet, where it ranks second only to pornography.
Porn's appeal is obvious. But is watching men fight just as primary a stimulus? Very likely. People have been engaging in and watching boxing, dressed up as a sport and a form of exercise, for all of recorded history, with images of pugilists dated to ancient Mesopotamia.
The literature on the sport that is not a game is voluminous but few writers have attempted large-scale social histories, probably because everywhere you look, you find traces of boxing. No other non-productive activity has reached so deeply and so widely into society.
Kasia Boddy is no faint-heart. She appears to have tracked down every last reference to boxing in prose, poetry, painting, sculpture, film and video and, betraying no enthusiasm for the sport, manages to mention them all in 478 pages.
Boxing's modern history begins in the mean, gin-sodden cities of early 18th-century England, with the growth in popularity of bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred fighting. The smart money was quick to see commercial potential in providing the spectacle of men beating, gouging, choking and kicking each other senseless. The aristocracy, with little to do except drink, ride, gamble and fornicate, were drawn in, too.
So pervasive was boxing's influence that by 1785, Thomas Jefferson could complain that rich young Virginians sent to England to be educated were learning "drinking, horse racing and boxing". For young men of Lord Byron's class, the louche world of what was called the Fancy - boxing academies, prizefighters' pubs and the London fights - was addictive. Not even his mother's funeral kept Byron from his daily sparring.
And long before any other, boxing was an international sport, holding its first world title fight - for world, read Britain and the US - in 1860. In the posh part of the crowd with the nobles, merchants and rich industrialists were novelists Thackeray and Dickens, two of the dozens of famous British writers, including Hazlitt, attracted to the bloody ring.
Once boxing began to generate big money, the simple setting of men on each other like dogs had to go: capitalism needs order and regularity. Prizefighting had to take on rational characteristics.
Timeless brawls gave way to timed rounds. The square of wood or rope replaced the organic circle. Gloves were introduced, rules were invented, eventually a point-scoring system devised. Training of boxers became the norm and boxing schools sprang up.
Now boxing's ugly side could be assigned to the professionals, broken-faced pugs suffering and inflicting pain and injury for money. Amateur boxing, on the other hand, could be held up as a sport fit for gentlemen and a cleansing tonic for the dangerous youth of England's urban slums.
"They work off their restlessness and get rid of the devil in the gymnasium with the boxing gloves … they become infected with some upper-class ideals … honour and honesty, purity and temperance."
As Boddy suggests in an academic way, part of boxing's attraction for some middle-class do-gooders was the opportunities it provided for close contact with young men wearing only skimpy shorts. Indeed, for many commentators, including Byron's biographer Benita Eisler, the Fancy had more to do with sodomy than athleticism. Boxing was the social lubricant that made it possible for upper-class Englishmen to engage closely with brawny young men from the lower classes.
From early on, many of Western society's preoccupations found their bloody intersection in the square ring. In late 18th-century England, for example, the rise to champion status of the elegant Daniel Mendoza brought into the open the anti-Semitism aimed at London's growing population of Jews from abroad. Mendoza is a pivotal figure in boxing, the man who invented the ducking, weaving, back-pedalling "science" of boxing, who first showed that middleweight brain could beat heavyweight brawn. His fights against Richard Humphries (billed as "the Jew" against "the Gentleman Fighter") were sell-outs, making them, says Boddy, the first boxers "whose careers were successfully marketed in terms of ethnic hostility".
Racial prejudice had similar economic potential. Pitting white against black became another staple of boxing promotion in England and the US (and played well in Australian tent-boxing deep into the 20th century).
Jack Johnson - who won his first title in Australia - was the black champion who first set white America's teeth on edge (by marrying white women, three of them). Boddy records that in Reno the band played a tune called All Coons Look Alike to Me when he entered the ring to fight white Jim Jeffries for the world title in 1910.
From John L. Sullivan on, the US would be the home of prizefighting. And if boxing in England was redolent with social and sexual ambiguity, the distinctive smell in American boxing was always of corruption. (Sullivan's conqueror, Gentleman Jim Corbett, said it was a rare fight he was not offered a bribe to throw.)
As Boddy shows at scholarly length, in American books and plays and paintings and films, boxing came to carry a heavy symbolic freight. The gloves and the ring stood for pride and courage, sacrifice and nobility, salvation and redemption. They also stood for corruption, greed, betrayal, pain and death. No other sport - indeed, perhaps no other human activity - has been so fraught with meaning.
As radio spread in the 1930s, black boxers such as Joe Louis became national figures, inspiring downtrodden black Americans from sea to shining sea. When Louis fought Italy's Primo Carnera, the politics of the old world had arrived: the boxers were represented as Haile Selassie of Ethiopia versus Mussolini.
In 1933, Max Baer wore a Star of David on his trunks when he fought the German Max Schmeling. In 1936, it was Louis's turn to take on the German and the whole world was agog. Schmeling won and was flown home in the Hindenburg airship: an Aryan technological triumph conveying a physically superior Aryan.
But it wasn't over. In 1938, Louis fought Schmeling again, at Yankee Stadium. Now war was in the wind and Joe wasn't black any more. Now he was an American boy fighting a Nazi. And he beat him.
Almost everyone who matters in Western cultural history in the past century enters Boddy's ring. While she occasionally seems blind to the obvious or belabours what the blind can see, such is the overall quality of the job here that she can be forgiven anything.
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