A Review: The Culture Show – The Art of Boxing

LeftCentral Review

Image © National Library of Ireland on The Commons

“Where did that thread of steel come from?…it came from the way you learnt to bite down on your gum shield and stick out your weary jab.  In your darkest hour, you will discover that you are better than you ever knew and it would be because you boxed”.  Tony Parsons

An economic downturn unfortunately tends to coincide with an interest in professional boxing.  And in this the era of food banks and retrenchment, the cliché of the `hungry fighter` is a haggard though apt one.  And the distinction between the amateur and the professional code is a crucial one – although this issue was not explored by Tony Parsons in his review of the noble art.  The economic and ideological features of boxing evident when one looks at Cuba, the world`s leading amateur boxing nation and a country where professional boxing is banned. 

The class element goes right to the solar plexus of boxing, to the origins of the sport when it was first organised and regulated, a process instigated in the 1900`s by the likes of Lord Lonsdale and his friends.  These aristocrats of course didn’t do any fighting, they left that to their servants, who they employed in semi-feudal conditions.  Some aristocrats were however combatants of a sort, famously Lord Byron a noted supporter of pugilism, in the early 1800s during the bare knuckle days. He shared his love of the sport with contemporary poets of the day: John Keats, John Clare, John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Moore.  Byron trained as a boxer; his sparring conducted while wearing gloves. The poet appears to be the precursor to the middle class participant of today who train in boxing gyms to keep trim.  Interesting to note that gloves were introduced to prolong the duration of a bout, protecting the hands more of a priority than shielding the brain of a fighter. A gloved hand is more durable and also happens to be more deadly, especially when heavily wrapped and placed in a light weight boxing glove.  Professional boxing is not for those with a faint heart and is a very, very dangerous pursuit.

Tony Parsons is filmed sparring (while his forthcoming novel The Murder Bag, is read aloud).  The prose somewhat better than his boxing poise which was willfully poor to view, indeed the pen appears to be mightier than the sparring mitt. I have never read Tony Parsons but I am a fan of Norman Mailers writing and although I have never seen him in action; believe he was a capable boxer.  Mailer was apparently trained by José Torres; according to the legend a quid pro quo permitted Mailer to give Torres writing lessons and in exchange he was tutored in boxing by Torres.  If Mailer boxed as well as Torres wrote then he must have been a competent pugilist. Norman Mailer was a huge fan of Ali; this alone would have encouraged him to learn the science of the sport, any budding boxer influenced by Ali draws closer to the martial art element of boxing but there are very, very few Ali`s in the boxing game of professional pain.

According to Parsons the 1960s era of flower power transformed boxing into a “cultural leper”.  This does seem an odd observation, given this was the period that saw the emergence of Muhammad Ali, whose arrival revitalised and eclipsed the sport. Prior to Ali`s involvement, boxing had been discredited due to the sports perceived link with corruption and organised crime. But the Greatest changed all of this, becoming a world icon in the process.  Parsons does sign post Ali but totally underestimates his cultural and sporting significance.  When Muhammad Ali returned to boxing after he was barred by the authorities over his refusal to fight in Vietnam, the fighter again revitalized boxing as his epic fights against Frazier and Foreman testify.  Indeed, it was the sad decline of Ali, forced to retire on his seat in round 10 against Larry Holmes in 1980 which saw boxing fall into disrepute and cultural irrelevance.  Although the Rocky films combined with the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan helped professional boxing to thrive on both sides of the pond. The sanitised depiction of the Rocky movies should be contrasted with Raging Bull a film that outlined the reality of the pain game – critically acclaimed though never as commercially popular as the Rocky films.

Parsons show attempted to revive the cultural significance of boxing by locating it within a context dominated by writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway, GB Shaw, TS Eliot, Miro, Braque and Picasso.  All of these individuals earned their living from their creative talents; they would have starved if they had relied on boxing to make ends meet.  Jack London, a writer cited by Parsons who boxed professionally, illustrates my point.  Writing about boxing is easier and generally more lucrative than boxing for a living. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show was when Parsons highlighted the writing of Joyce Carol Oates.  This section also dealt with the emergence of female participation in boxing, a recent phenomenon though one we are told with deep roots in the sport.

The cultural significance of boxing is clearly a profound one and the value obtained by any individual participating in boxing is beautifully outlined by Parsons in the closing section.  But the whole issue and premise of the show troubled me. Any increase in the popularity of professional boxing should surely give us all cause for concern.  Boxing can raise an individual’s self esteem and of course their physical fitness but a minuscule number of professional boxers make a decent living from the sport and those that do risk enormous damage to their health.  Professional boxing is best avoided and a civilized society should ban it.  The example of Cuba proves that a ban doesn’t equate to an end of boxing, but brings the profiteering and exploitation of often desperate people to an end.  I admit there are still health risks attached to the amateur game but when you take profit out of the equation the health risks are massively reduced. George Bernard Shaw regularly corresponded with the wily Gene Tunney  but the latter didn’t remain in the sport any longer than he had to. He left the ring to spend more time in places like Trinity College, Dublin (see picture) and retired with his health intact and lived to a good age. Glamorising boxing makes me feel very uneasy, we should perhaps attempt to persuade people to spend less time punching heavy bags and more time reading the likes of Shaw, Hemingway, Mailer, Byron, Oates, London, Eliot and of course Parsons.

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