Boxing: A Cultural History

Boxing: A Cultural History
Kasia Boddy   Reaktion Books   478pp   £25.00   ISBN 978 1 86189 369 7

Kasia Boddy’s vivid and highly entertaining book traces the manner in which pugilism has been represented in Western culture from Homer’s Iliad of the eighth century BC to the present.

Boxing, she notes, ‘has remained unfailingly eloquent’ since the time of the Greek bard. Strictly speaking, of course, this eloquence has generally been a matter of ventriloquism, as poets, novelists and film-makers fashioned their own accounts of the sport and its figurative resonance.

Boddy demonstrates how boxing ‘was the literal or metaphoric subject of a great variety of representational forms’, considering cultural artefacts stretching from a twelfth century bc Mycenaean potto to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004). Her approach is exactly the opposite to that of Simon Barnes in The Meaning of Sport (2006): ‘Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is a death duel.’

However, even here, Barnes uses a metaphor – the ‘death duel’ – to make his negative assertion and certainly the general literary consensus lies with Boddy. Indeed, the author wryly quotes another distinguished writer on boxing, Garry Wills: ‘People don’t want fighters just to be fighters.’ The Prize Ring must always mean much more than mere brawling. This symbolic richness is not surprising, perhaps, for of all sports boxing most lends itself to narrative. P.G. Wodehouse was right to observe that ‘all fights are good reading.’

There is a complementarity between the structural conventions used in story-telling and the progress of a boxing match. Its rounds are metaphorical chapters that contain some of the essential aspects of human life: hope, courage, pain, endurance, submission, banality, tedium, victory and defeat, even death.

Boxing is both touched by moral force and tainted by disgrace. Boddy looks at both sides. From the Ancient Greek poet Pindar celebrating the manly heroism of the first Olympians to ‘the delighted horror of the media’, which was evident when Tyson turned cannibal in the 1990s, boxing has always been both hymned and condemned.

Boddy’s first chapter teases out the way in which the ancients set the tone of the understanding of boxing in terms which have been associated ever since with ‘boxosophy’ (John Bee’s 1821 term for ‘the philosophy of boxing’): as the mirror image and best preparation for war, as a sport that fosters and inculcates masculinity, as a sign of national superiority, as an encouragement to fitness and fashioner of the body beautiful, even as a vehicle for ‘homo-erotic admiration and seduction’.

Boddy also has a nice line in comparison between the ancient and the modern, as when she describes Homer’s Epeus as ‘prefiguring the boasts of Muhammad Ali’: ‘I say I am the greatest … I will smash right through the man’s skin and shatter his bones. And his friends had better gather here ready for his funeral, to carry him away when my fists have broken him.’
Having dealt with the first three millennia of boxing, Boddy spends most of her book attending to twentieth-century professional boxing. She is particularly strong on the racial politics of boxing in the United States over the last hundred years in her accounts of Jack Johnson’s scandalizing white America by ‘taking’ a white wife; of tens of thousands of Harlem blacks giving each other Nazi-style salutes with cries of ‘Heil Louis’ after Joe Louis beat ‘Hitler’s pet’ Max Schmeling; of Muhammad Ali’s relationship with the Nation of Islam; of pugilistic verse by Amiri Baraka. Baraka, who like Ali changed his name to a Muslim one (from Everett LeRoi Jones) in the mid-1960s, co-opted some of boxing’s belligerence in his insistence that the shift in the tone of the civil rights movement was encapsulated in a change of motto from ‘We Shall Overcome’ to his own more forthright ‘Up against the Wall, Motherfucker!’
In places the sheer wealth of Boddy’s material does not leave time to do full justice to her research. But this is not to detract from the power of this lavishly illustrated study of a contentious yet compelling sport.
  • John Strachan is the author of Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Reriod (2007)
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