Boxing’s glory days are over—but writers still come back for more
Anthony Joshua's triumph shows the sport can still provide the ultimate drama
The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at the Ringside
Edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra (University of Chicago Press, £14.50)
Forget the general election and all that’s followed—for some the most dramatic night of the year was 29th April. That was when an apparently unbreakable Ukrainian finally yielded to a personable young man from Watford. In other words, Britain’s Anthony Joshua fought off Ukraine’s Wladimir Klitschko to unite three heavyweight boxing titles. Joshua is 27 years old and before the fight had a carefully curated 18-0 record—every win by knockout; Klitschko, at 41, and with 68 professional fights behind him, was (rather charitably) said to be entering the “twilight of his career.”
Joshua’s victory, if not unexpected, was welcomed across the boxing world. “Congratulations,” tweeted fellow boxer Oscar de la Hoya, “you will be the saviour of the heavyweight division.” More than 90,000 people watched the bout at Wembley Stadium, the biggest British boxing crowd for 80 years, while up to 1.5m households paid £19.95 each for access to the fight on pay-per-view television—a new record, claimed Joshua’s manager. The largest, the biggest, the most. That is what heavy-weight boxing is supposed to be all about.
It’s also, as medical organisations tirelessly argue, about the inevitable brain injuries that result from being hit with the equivalent of a 6kg bowling ball travelling at 32km/hour. Obscuring the economic and physical realities of the sport, however, is our relentless fascination with violence and drama, styles and celebrities.
Before 2015, Klitschko had held at least one version of the heavyweight title for nearly 10 years, the longest reign since Joe Louis. But Klitschko hasn’t managed to become the kind of global celebrity a heavy-weight champion is supposed to be. Boxing fans didn’t warm to his PhD in sports science, his charity work, or his habit of avoiding trash talk at press conferences in order to discuss Ukraine’s economic problems—meanwhile his brother Vitali, who was also a successful professional boxer, has been mayor of Kiev since 2014.
Klitschko’s opponents have not been so circumspect, decrying his evolution from “Dr Steelhammer” to a “hulking” and “robotic” defensive clincher and playing up, in contrast, their own entertaining aggression. In 2011, David Haye declared that the Ukrainian’s “boring style of fighting” and “boring personality” had “killed fans’ interest in the heavyweight division,” and showed up to their press conference in a T-shirt embellished with a decapitated Klitschko. Dr Steelhammer, in turn, declared Haye an “embarrassment” and efficiently jabbed and grabbed his way to a unanimous points victory.
“Unlike Sylvester Stallone’s character in Rocky, Anthony Joshua knows he’s cultivating a persona”
If Haye seemed determined to reprise the antics of the Mike Tyson era, Joshua encapsulates today’s social media-savvy generation. British boxing couldn’t have produced a better ambassador if it had hired Saatchi & Saatchi. AJ (as he is known) has mastered old-school authenticity: “I think being a boxer you have to be a man of the people… When you think of boxing, you think of the Rocky films, you know what I mean?” His neighbourhood credentials are solid (a devoted son who lives with his Nigerian mother in her north London ex-council flat and goes running by the canal) but unlike Sylvester Stallone’s innocent naif, Joshua knows that he’s cultivating a persona, spinning a tale.
Youthful promise (and energy) versus the guile of experience is one of the oldest boxing stories and, if Klitschko agrees to a rematch, the sequel will be reworked as a revenge tale. But there’s also a bit of Sunset Boulevard in there. Remember Gloria Swanson’s line: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”? Joshua may be 6’6”, but boxing is not the size it once was.
How it shrank is one of the threads that runs through The Bittersweet Science, edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra, both professors of American Studies and among the sharpest of today’s boxing experts. Between them they have assembled a collection of essays that, they say, doesn’t aim to get to the “bottom” of boxing but rather to “surround it,” looking behind the scenes at what one contributor, Rafael Garcia, calls the “madly dysfunctional family that is boxing.”
And so we are educated in how to fix a fight, the best moment to throw in the towel and what happens to boxers “post-prime.” The point of view of the “ringsider”—which constitutes 99.9 per cent of boxing writing—is not absent here but most of the essayists go out of their way to distance themselves from its familiar modes: sports-page ballyhoo, Hollywood’s redemptive arc, the mythopoetics of Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates, and the jocular aestheticism of AJ Liebling. The book’s title, a play on Liebling’s famous The Sweet Science, announces its revisionist intentions.
Writing in the New Yorker in the 1950s and 1960s, Liebling grandly presented his boxing essays as a counterpunch to television, a medium devoted (he said) to “the sale of beer and razor blades” and whose devotees were easily duped. “The masses are asses,” an old fighter called Al Thomas tells Liebling. “There are no connoisseurs. The way most of these guys fight, you’d think they were two fellows having a fight in a barroom.” In contrast to television and its “big and silly” audience, we get the aficionado with his “naked eye” and his far-from silly readers.
Mounting his rearguard defence of “sport for art’s sake,” Liebling found a moral and stylistic touchstone in the 19th-century Anglo-Irish journalist, Pierce Egan. Liebling declared Egan “the greatest writer about the ring who ever lived” and saw his New Yorker pieces as an “Extension of the GREAT HISTORIAN’S magnum opus.” Like Egan, Liebling was as much in love with the exotic subculture of boxing as with the sport. “Low-life,” he later recalled, was New Yorker editor Harold Ross’s word for “what I did best.” He adopted a particular “high-low style” that you either love or hate—witty, digressive, flattering his readers with frequent allusions to literature and art.
Floyd Patterson, after his defeat of Archie Moore in 1956, is described as being in the position “of a Delacroix who has run out of canvas.” Another fight report brings in Moby-Dick, Faust, the myth of Sisyphus, Margot Fonteyn and Arthur Rubinstein and bel canto opera. Liebling once described his own style as “laboriously offhand,” but as Rotella notes in an earlier book, Good with Their Hands, “he pretended to be more ironic” about boxing and “the gospel of masculinity circa 1926” than he really was.
That kind of virtuosity, and cheerful slumming, is not on offer in this new collection. Trying not to look from “very far away and very high up,” as Sarah Deming says Joyce Carol Oates does, the best of these essays offers a series of bittersweet character studies by those who are close by and low down. These are so vivid and street smart that they show up the more predictable reflections of those amateurs who find “truth,” “knowledge,” “wisdom,” a “worldview,” “that sweaty hell that I like better than heaven,” or some other kind of existential enlightenment in the gym, and who inevitably end their essays with a version of Raging Bull’s “I coulda been a contenda.” As Donald Trump once said, “boxing, more than any other sport, brings out the highly-competitive person.”
“Faster-paced and more offensive, boxing sold itself as a spectator sport by increasing the likelihood of serious injuries”
It’s not, therefore, worth lingering over “Good Enough to Get Hurt,” the confession of Donovan Craig, a young stockbroker who learns that the ring is “an honest place” where one can “feel good after a long day of self-imposed moral emasculations.” And there’s nothing new to be found in Sam Sheridan’s piece, “What Boxing is For,” which reshuffles platitudes about the sport’s window into “the nature of reality” with memos about discovering “who you are.” Robert Anasi is a step up as a writer, but it’s still hard to care very much about his anger issues or that he feels “castrated (figuratively, let me make clear)” when his girlfriend dumps him. It’s all very white, middle-class and therapeutic—in other words, even more boring than a Klitschko clinch.
Turn instead to Sarah Deming’s celebration of Claressa Shields, the 17-year-old American Olympic gold medal winner and “the middleweight champion of hard luck towns”; or, even better, to Rafael Garcia’s challenge to those who, like himself, are “willing participants—and paying customers” in the “blood spectacle” of Antonio Margarito’s vicious battle against Miguel Cotto in 2008.
How to avoid that kind of spectacle is the dilemma that Gordon Marino faces as he tries to decide whether or not to throw in the towel on behalf of Vicente Alfaro. On the one hand, he wants to shield his fighter’s ego, wants to make Alfaro look good on television for his father watching back in Mexico. But then, “sentences, like news bulletins, were lighting up behind my brows: ‘He doesn’t have health insurance. He has a family’”—and “I stood up and tossed the white cloth into the night and over the ropes.” This is almost as close as we get to a happy ending—except perhaps the tribute paid by both editors to Bernard Hopkins, who left the sport in 2016 “fit as a fiddle and rich as hell.”
Although Rotella and Ezra insist that their book is not “rote decline narrative,” they are under no illusions that boxing is itself “post-prime,” a “niche sport dreaming of a past heyday.” Occasionally, as at Wembley in April, it flirts with the idea that it might also have a future.
“In bare-knuckle days, fights sometimes ran to 80 or 90 rounds. A round had no fixed duration and ended when the fighter fell”
Boxing’s demise can be attributed to everything from deindustrialisation to better secondary education to an over-crowded market in which all sports struggle to compete with the global appeal of football. And the sport hasn’t done itself any favours. Faced with the alphabet soup of divisions and titles, only the dedicated fan bothers to keep track.
But if there’s little agreement about what and who matters, there is a growing consensus about the medical consequences of boxing. Since the invention of computed tomography (CT) scanning in the 1970s, it has become impossible to dispute the extent of brain damage sustained in the professional (and to a far lesser extent) amateur ring. Every now and then, a boxer endures a massive traumatic brain injury. In 1991, for example, a devastating uppercut from Chris Eubank threw Michael Watson against the ropes. With no ambulance or paramedics present, it took eight minutes for Watson to receive oxygen; he spent 40 days in a coma and had six operations to remove a blood clot on his brain. The family of Russian fighter Magomed Abdusalamov, who suffered brain damage at Madison Square Garden in 2013, are currently suing five athletic commission doctors, the referee and the inspector for recklessness, gross negligence and medical malpractice.
But the steady accumulation of lesser blows is also dangerous, resulting in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Also known as pugilistic dementia or punch-drunk syndrome, CTE is virtually endemic in the brains of boxers, and which almost certainly contributed to the late Muhammad Ali’s Parkinson’s disease.
Other sports that risk brain injury, such as American football, mixed martial arts, and even football, can conceivably reinvent themselves to minimise such trauma, but it is hard to imagine professional boxing with only body shots and points decisions. A knockdown followed by a heroic rise or two, followed by a knockout blow, is what people want to see. Wembley in April was textbook stuff: Klitschko floored in the fifth, Joshua in the sixth, barely making the count, then, struggling through to the eleventh round where he knocked down Klitschko twice and the referee stopped the fight.
In the bare-knuckle days, fights sometimes ran to 80 or 90 rounds. A round, however, had no fixed duration, and ended when a fighter fell to the ground, where he could have 30 seconds to recuperate. Without gloves, a big blow was as likely to break a fighter’s hands as knock down his opponent and exhaustion was the usual reason for a man to fall or lose. After the implementation of the Queensberry rules in the late 19th century, a knocked-down fighter only had 10 seconds to get up or concede defeat. George Bernard Shaw observed how often a fighter would “stagger to his feet” only to be “battered into insensibility before he can recover his powers of self-defence.”
It was not until 1927 that a rule was introduced forbidding a boxer to hover over his downed opponent. Despite their “civilising” intention, the Queensberry rules made boxing more dangerous. Gloved hands could hit harder. The increased use of the knockout blow, combined with limiting the number of rounds fought, also meant that boxing matches lasted at most about an hour. Faster-paced, more offensive and always with the potential for high drama, boxing sold itself as a spectator sport by increasing the likelihood of serious injury for its participants.
These bare facts lie behind what for me is the highlight of The Bittersweet Science, Charles Farrell’s piece “Why I Fixed Fights.” Short answer: “it was the smart thing to do.” Long answer: “the goal is to earn a fighter as much money as possible without incurring unnecessary wear and tear.” Farrell writes of fighters winking at him while being counted out, or complaining that he’d stopped the fight too soon (“I was having fun!”). He gave up working with boxers because he saw that for professional fighters, “damage” isn’t what it is for the Harvard Yard amateurs—“part of creation, of creativity, of growing up”; it’s the “nearly inevitable” endpoint of “the larceny and the bullshit and the wheeling and the dealing.”
“I’m not after a sugar rush,” says Anthony Joshua, “I don’t do it because I like it. I will go through the dirt and grind for the long-term gain.” Good luck to him.
Additional photo credits: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images. Stanley Weston/Getty Images
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