That boxing is a sport that sits at odds with pre-eminent Enlightenment cultural values rooted in a revulsion of violence — or at least violence other than that sanctioned by the state in service to the state — is a contradiction that many writers and public intellectuals have pondered with varying degrees of success through the years.
None has been more convincing in unravelling this contradiction than Joyce Carol Oates. In her classic work, On Boxing, she makes the point that while “Spectators at public games derive much of their pleasure from reliving the communal emotions of childhood, spectators at boxing matches relive the murderous infancy of the race.”
“The murderous infancy of the race,” Oates is essentially reminding us here, is innate within us, in other words, part and parcel of our species being.
Seen in this light, boxing moves from the category of sport into a necessary exercise in channeling this unheralded aspect of our nature and providing it with an outlet, albeit a vicarious one for the spectators in attendance at fights and those watching at home.
Violence in boxing is not, as it is in other contact sports, a by-product. It is the very aim and objective from the opening bell to the last. That this violence is controlled, prescripted, and takes place according to a codified body of rules and regulations, reflects the need for a level playing field in order to ensure that skill, strength and endurance, rather than foul play, dictates the outcome.
Here the sport offers a welcome if temporary respite from our lived experience in society at large, underpinned by free market mania, wherein foul play is a necessary correlative of capital accumulation. In this realm the values of predator and prey — promoted as virtuous competition and free enterprise — obtain, subjecting us to a psychological and spiritual battering over time.
When it comes to the “murderous infancy of the race”, anthropologists have been engaged in a prolonged academic debate over the question of whether we are less violent as a species today than our primitive ancestors. However for such as Jared Diamond there’s no debate to be had. In his ill-considered theory of biological determinism, the human species has become progressively less prone to violence.
This is a classic case of a conclusion being placed at the start of an investigation rather than extrapolated from one.
Diamond’s thesis revolves around nothing more convincing than cases of interpersonal violence, positing the baseless claim that in pre and ancient history human beings were prone to attacking strangers upon encountering them in a way that we don’t do now.
This he attributes to the deveopment of modern nation state governed by the rule of law.
Yet in truth the Hobbesian worldview articulated by Diamond is far more applicable to our time than to primitive human societies. For over 500 years European states in the process of primitive capital accumulation and industrial development slaughtered ‘savages’ whenever they encountered them, especially those with the temerity to resist their enslavement and colonisation.
Further still, were Hiroshima and Nagasaki consonant with human progress and civilisation or human regress and barbarism?
The answer is implicit in the question.
Boxing, to return to the subject of this column, does not I contend reflect primitive human behaviour as it was in actuality. Rather it more represents in figurative form the violence of life in its totality today.
Capitalism is an economic and value system of unremitting violence. It places its victims in a perennial state of extremis. Compounding their plight is the ideological conditioning accompanying it, screaming at them that this the best of all possible worlds, thus inferring that responsibility for their dire condition lies with them and not the system.
Returning to Joyce Carol Oates: “Boxing’s very image is repulsive to many people because it cannot be assimilated into what we wish to know about civilized man. In a technological society possessed of incalculably refined methods of mass destruction, boxing’s display of direct and unmitigated and seemingly natural aggression is too explicit to be tolerated.”
Boxing also carries a strong political message, which according to the political and ideological lens it’s viewed through, can take on either a regressive or progressive, even revolutionary, character. When viewed through the lens of a Nietzschean ‘will to power’ spectacle, for example, it assumes a reactionary character.
Theodore Roosevelt’s cogitations on the subject, lifted from his 1913 autobiography, are a case in point: “There is no place in the world for nations who have become enervated by the soft and easy life, or who have lost their fibre of vigorous hardness and masculinity. Powerful, vigorous men of strong animal development must have some way in which their animal spirits can find vent.”
This is boxing as training ground in the cause of white man’s burden, eliding in the process the inconvienent fact that the world heavyweight champion in the very year it was being proclaimed was one Jack Johnson (above left), a man whose unforgivable blackness exposed the untruth at the rotten heart of Roosevelt’s belief in a racial hierachy.
Eugenics, it should be recalled, was considered a progressive concept in the late 19th and early 20th century, with boxing — this eminently individual of gladiatorial sports — its most vulgar manifestation. In American socialist and famed author, Jack London, eugenics and boxing had one of their most eager advocates, his novels peppered with Anglo-Saxon supermen pitted against the forces of nature and man alike in fierce tests of endurance and strength.
When it comes to boxing’s revolutionary character, this was best typified by Cuba’s amateur heavyweight star Teofilo Stevenson. He fought for more than personal honours or glory. With him it was about glorifying the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans,” he famously declared in turning down the offer to turn pro and fight Muhammad Ali in the mid 1970s.
Speaking of Ali, in the US it was the rise of black champions such as the aforementioned Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and latterly Ali which led to boxing transcending sport. It allowed the victims of racial injustice and oppression the thrill of seeing themselves represented as more than equal to those keeping them down. When Ali declared “I ain’t go no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he instantly turned every boxing ring in which he appeared into a political arena, fighting not only as the world heavyweight champion but also as champion of the world’s oppressed.
In the realm of culture, boxing has enjoyed prominent and consistent representation. The most notable in this regard is Sky Stallone’s Rocky move series. The underlying theme Stallone drives home in each instalment is the heroic nature of man’s struggle — against seemingly insurmountable external forces and inner doubts and demons — for validation and in a bid to escape the ghetto.
Never questioned, of course, is the reason why a ghetto exists at all in a world of such material abundance. The need to uphold the myth of the American dream, which Stallone symbolises and personifies, depends on it.
A more telling and deeper insight into the human condition is provided by David Fincher’s 1999 movie Fight Club. Adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, in it fighting is presented as a nihilistic pushback against the emasculating and stultifying character of modern civilisation. The search for meaning and desire to transcend the increasingly narrow parameters of existence under late stage capitalism is wonderfully depicted.
When in the movie Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, declares that “The things you own end up owning you,” he gives Marx a run for his money.
The last word on the subject goes to Kasia Boddy. In her magisterial work, Boxing: A Cultural History, she concludes: “Throughout its long and eventful history as a sport, boxing has remained unfailingly eloquent. At the beginning of the 21st century, our appetite for its stories remains undiminished.”
No serious person could disagree.
NB: This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 16 January 2021.
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