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Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 19, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Boxing

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On why AmericanStudiers can’t forget the sweet science, and why I wish we could.
If I were going to make the case for boxing’s crucial significance in American history and identity, I would start here: the story of African American life in the 20th century can be pretty succinctly told through the sequence of Jack Johnson to Joe Louis to Sugar Ray Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson. Or maybe I would note how many great films use boxing as a metaphor for American history and identity, from The Champ (1931) to On the Waterfront (1954), Raging Bull (1980) to Cinderella Man (2005), Rocky (1976) to Rocky Balboa (2006), and dozens more besides. Or maybe I’d talk about all the resonances of the Hurricane—the boxer, the song, the movie, the history. In any case, boxing and America seem profoundly and permanently intertwined.
I got a couple problems with that, though. For one thing, and it’s an obvious thing I guess but a hard one to get around, boxing is so thoroughly and unavoidably violent and destructive. I wrote a post in last year’s Super Bowl series on the necessary hypocrisy that comes with watching football these days, given what we have learned and continue to learn about the sport’s impacts on the bodies and (especially) brains of those playing it. Well, in the case of boxing such violent impact is not only part of the sport, it’s the most central and consistent part—and indeed, the point of the sport is for each participant to try to be more violent than his or her opponent, to damage that opponent sufficiently that he or she cannot continue. To be honest, the nickname “the sweet science” seems to me to exist in part to mask the fundamental reality that boxing is neither sweet nor scientific, but instead (or at least especially) a savage test of who can sustain the most violence and pain.
It’s hard for me to argue that such a sport should occupy a prominent role in 21st century American society and culture. Of course, it’s also undeniable that boxing has already lost much of its prior prominence, a change that has been due not to its violence (since the even more violent Ultimate Fighting is extremely popular at the moment) as much as to the impression that the sport is profoundly corrupt. And that’s my other problem with the role of boxing in narratives of American history and identity—we may have recently become more aware of the role that corrupt promoters and organizations, judges and paydays, and the like play in the world of boxing, but as far as I can tell those realities have been part of the sport for as long as it has existed. Of course America has always had its fair share of corruption and greed as well, but do we want a nationally symbolic sport that emphasizes those qualities? It’d be the equivalent of the Black Sox scandal being the norm in baseball, rather than a glaring exception. I can’t deny boxing’s role in our past and identity, but I can’t pretend I don’t find that more than a little disturbing.
Last non-favorite tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?

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