Boxing: A Cultural History
Peter Temple, Reviewer
June 23, 2008
Boxing enabled upper-class Englishmen to engage closely with brawny
young men from the lower classes.
Boxing: ACultural History.
Why do people love watching men hit each other?
Boxing is officially 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 manly 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, has managed 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 the
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 America - 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
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, the
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
"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 ... honor and honesty, purity and temperance."
As Boddy suggests in an academic way, a big 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 history, 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
United States (and played well in Australian tent-boxing deep into the
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 United States would be the home of
prizefighting. And if boxing in England was redolent with social and
sexual ambiguity, boxing in America's distinctive smell 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. Then in 1936, it was Louis' turn to take on the
German and the whole world was agog. Schmeling won and was flown home in
the airship Hindenburg: 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.
Peter Temple's most recent book, The Broken Shore, won the British Crime
Writers' Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger award.
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