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Reading: Beauty and the Brute

What does an intelligent, sensitive woman like Joyce Carol Oates see in the brutal sport of boxing?

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In a second-floor gym on the northwest side, Marshall Christopher called encouragement to an aspiring professional boxer in the ring. The fighter, a lean (but not mean) blond woman in a light-blue leotard and a white headband, threw herself more resolutely into the jabs she drummed into a pad held by a trainer.

Christopher used to teach men's boxing at local health clubs, but so many women asked to join his classes that he started teaching women. "They're very respectful," he says, "they listen, they've got no macho image—these girls have all the guts in the world." Some of them are petite and feminine, others broad shouldered and decidedly butch; a handful of them, spurred on by their prowess and by the chance to make some money, have chosen to join the infant professional women's boxing circuit. One of the women fighters that Christopher now promotes has an 18-0 professional fight record—with 12 knockouts—making her women's world welterweight champion.

Sometimes, "He's a fighter" is meant as a compliment—spoken of a politician, for instance, or a person on his deathbed. Otherwise the term "fighter" is used to describe vicious cats and dogs and the occasional sociopathic male— like a fellow I met recently, for example, who as a prelude to a bar fight began smashing bricks together to show what he was going to do to his adversary, and whipped himself into such a frenzy that he tried to break one against the side of his head. He came to his senses just as he lost them.

Though the words "boxer" and "fighter" are often used interchangeably, boxing and fighting can be seen as the opposite ends of a continuum. Whereas the fighter is passionate, the boxer is controlled. Whereas a street fight lasts seconds, a boxing match is drawn out and savored. If boxers in the ring were to throw off the gloves and go at each other, the fight would be over in 15 seconds instead of 15 rounds. But even professional boxers/fighters fall somewhere toward the center of the continuum. According to the press coverage of the recent bout between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, Leonard was driven by intellect and Hagler by rage, but it's never that simple. While describing his childhood in Newark, New Jersey, Hagler told a New York Times reporter, "I hit you with a stick, brick, and bottle—anything I could get my hands on. And kicked you when you were down. It was known as survival."

Who's to say where Christopher's women boxers fall on the continuum? What's interesting is that they've placed themselves there at all. Especially in view of the perspective of boxing expressed by Joyce Carol Oates in her recent book on the subject, a slim, elegantly designed volume entitled simply On Boxing. It's an eloquent explanation of why a woman intellectual of great sensitivity ardently follows this "brutal" sport.

She's not certain. "[I cannot] think of boxing in writerly terms," she writes, "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."

The book's best moments are those spare pages where Oates covers the history of boxing from the Greek and Roman gladiators to the illegal fights of the 19th and early 20th centuries (when bouts were publicized by word of mouth, then fought in speakeasies, on offshore barges, or even on isolated river sandbars), to the compulsive training of Rocky Marciano in the 1950s. There is a small fortune of detail: we learn that a heavyweight's punch exerts a force equal to 10,000 pounds; that until the 1950s, fights were bloodier because referees were less quick to intervene; that countless cliches—"throw your hat in the ring," "first blood," "knockout," "killer instinct"—originated within the ropes; that gloves were introduced to protect the knuckles, not an opponent's face. I could have used a lot more of this. But Oates spends much of her time explaining the sport's unfathomable paradox— that there can be art and beauty in brutality—to the intellectual reader.

Throughout history, pugilism has formed a curious bridge between the patricians who sponsored it and the desperadoes who fought. Oates writes: "'The Noble Art,' as prizefighting was called, began as a lowlife species of entertainment but was in time enthusiastically supported by sporting members of the aristocracy and the upper classes." Some fighters crossed over. Boxing greats Gene Tunney and Tommy Loughran became successful businessmen after retiring from the ring. The top contenders have themselves become big business: Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes earned upwards of $70 million apiece in the ring. In 1985, Oates reports, Holmes made $6.5 million, Hagler and Thomas Hearns each made $5 million, whereas "the fourth-highest paid athlete, a celebrated football player, reported an income of only—only!—$3 million." Hagler and Leonard now earn $7 to $11 million per fight!

But boxing has no middle class: Though many of its warriors box to get off the streets (or to kick butt when they're on them) and in some instances, the legend goes, look toward professional fighting as a way out of the underclass, only a privileged few make those big bucks. Michael Spinks, Oates notes, worked at a job cleaning toilets after winning an Olympic gold medal and before turning pro. That many top-ranked boxers are black, and that with some regularity others emerge touted as "Great White Hopes," Oates somehow links to masculinity: "The anxieties of an earlier era—that black men would prove more 'manly' than white men if allowed to fight them in fair, public fights—would seem to have come true."

"Manliness" is Oates's relentless (and rather tiresome) obsession: "No sport is more physical, more direct, than boxing," she writes. "No sport appears more powerfully homoerotic: the confrontation in the ring—the disrobing—the sweaty heated combat that is part dance, courtship, coupling—the frequent urgent pursuit by one boxer of the other, in the fight's natural and violent movement toward the 'knockout': surely boxing derives much of its appeal from this mimicry of a species of erotic love in which one man overcomes the other in an exhibition of superior strength and will. The heralded celibacy of the fighter-in-training is very much a part of boxing lore: instead of focusing his energies and fantasies upon a woman the boxer focuses them upon an opponent. Where Woman has been, Opponent must be."

Even if Freudian psychologists describe sex and aggression as cohabitants of the id, I don't think I'd recite that passage in a North Avenue gym.

But Oates's contrasts of male and female responses to boxing are intriguing. Men change allegiance according to who is whupping whom, she claims. They are "loudly contemptuous of weakness." But "a woman is struck by the admiration, amounting at times to awe, [women] will express for a man who has exhibited superior courage while losing his fight. And they will express tenderness for injured boxers."

Man's greatest passion, Oates, says, is war, not peace. And women have no place in that passion; they are excluded "from boxing's codified world." (Marshall Christopher's female welterweight champ was once ejected from a Saint Louis gym. Though she inspired awe in the gym's male boxers as she hit the heavy bag, the gym's manager came over and said, quite bluntly, "Hey, you're a woman, get out!") Oates will not allow boxing to be infiltrated by women either. "Boxing is a purely masculine activity," she says, "and it inhabits a purely masculine world. Which is not to suggest that most men are defined by it: clearly most men are not. And though there are female boxers—a fact that seems to surprise, alarm, amuse—women's role in the sport has always been extremely marginal. . . . The female boxer . . . cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous."

I'm not convinced that women boxers are just a novelty item, "boxing kangaroos," so to speak. Women have worked their way into golf and running and triathlons and other sports, but professional women's basketball, on the other hand, was a bust. But that women should learn to box is hardly "monstrous." Women have long practiced martial arts for competition and self-defense. Boxing is a terrific self-defense system, Christopher tells me, and so does Fred Degerberg, who owns the gym where Christopher's boxers train. "I was a karate guy," Degerberg says. "I got to working out with boxers and they beat the shit out of me. That's why I got interested in boxing."

I've yet to meet a martial artist who doesn't offer his discipline as the one superior to all others, but the circumstances of the fight and the individual's ability are as crucial as his style. And styles borrow heavily from one another, sometimes to the point of making them indistinguishable. Full-contact karate bouts, for example, have given way to "kick boxing," which is boxing, essentially, with a few karate-style kicks thrown in.

But one serious distinction is that in martial arts, the training is all, the fight is to be avoided. In boxing, the fight is the goal. And boxing has rules—the "fair fight" mentality we all grew up with. Martial arts teach that once fairness and reason fail, the rules are suspended.

Perhaps the prevalence of martial-arts study over boxing nowadays reflects the growing unfairness of the world in general.

Though Oates never broaches the topic of self-defense, she recognizes that there is a seriousness to boxing not found in other sports. "One plays football," she writes, "one doesn't play boxing."

Boxing to Oates is a thing in itself: "The old boxing adage—a truism surely untrue—that you cannot be knocked out if you see the blow coming and if you will yourself not to be knocked out, has its subtler, more daunting significance: nothing that happens to the boxer in the ring, including death—'his' death is not of his own will or failure of will. The suggestion is of a world-model in which we are humanly responsible not only for our own acts but for those performed against us."

That sort of overly academic distance is the book's major shortcoming. Oates makes endless allusions to boxing in literature. She takes Ernest Hemingway to task for not writing as passionately about boxing as he wrote about bullfighting. Though boxing is an obviously physical sport, Oates's approach is purely intellectual. So despite her endless recitations of names and events, despite her vast implied knowledge of boxing, she hasn't shown a thing or made her readers feel a thing. She speaks at length on how the TV screen cannot convey the great excitement of being at ringside. Neither does an academic essay. The most vivid piece of writing in the book is a passage she quotes from Norman Mailer in which he describes Benny Paret's death in the ring at the hands of Emile Griffith. It hits hard. Oates, on the other hand, is trying to dazzle with footwork.

Back in Degerberg's northwest-side boxing ring, I held the bag for Kristin Newman, one of Christopher's students and his partner in fight promotion. Newman is slender and attractive, with dark brown eyes that deepened with intensity as she jabbed with her left and then let go with a right cross. The impact was startling. "Show him your uppercut," Christopher shouted. She shifted slightly downward to get her shoulders into the punch, and as I pushed down on the bag with both hands, she swept in a punch that rattled up my arms.

I couldn't help but wonder how Oates would have written her essay if she had put on the gloves and gone a round or two.

On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates, Dolphin/Doubleday, $14.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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