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Monday, June 10, 2019

June 10, 2019: Boxing and America: A Clear but Troubling Association

[On June 13th, 1935, underdog boxer James “Cinderella Man” Braddock won a stunning upset decision over heavyweight champion Max Baer. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that story and other ways in which this complex sport reflects American histories. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the undisputed champs in the realm of boxing films!]
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 (three of whom will be focal points for later posts in this series, not coincidentally). 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 (a handful of which will also non-coincidentally be the focus of the special weekend post). Or maybe I’d talk about all the resonances of the Hurricane—the boxer, the song, the movie (and perhaps Denzel’s best performance to date), the history. In any case, as this week’s series will hopefully illustrate, boxing and America seem profoundly and permanently intertwined.
Before I get into the rest of that series, however, I have to admit that I’ve got a couple problems with that association. 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 my 2014 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; I went even further in this post on MMA fighting. As with MMA, 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 again 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.
Next boxing day tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other boxing stories or histories you’d highlight?

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