A cultural history
Jun 19th 2008
From The Economist print edition
PUGILISTS and aesthetes are not necessarily in opposing corners. In a history of the sport that dates back to Homer, Virgil and other ancient fight fans, Kasia Boddy, a lecturer in English at University College London, examines the strange attraction boxing holds for highbrow folk. She provides much merriment along the way as she explores the ways professional fighters excite the imagination of writers, artists and intellectuals.
Some of the sport’s most pretentious followers are French intellectuals. François Mauriac described Georges Carpentier, a world light-heavyweight titleholder, as “one of those graceful Apollos slightly grazed by the pick in the process of their exhumation” and as “the type of honest man dear to Pascal”. Jean Cocteau managed a professional boxer and rhapsodised about his “active poetry” and its “mysterious syntax”. Jean Genet wrote poems to a “thief-boxer” and a “muscled rose”.
Their American equivalents are more macho. Several climbed into the ring to try their hand at the sport, though only to engage in sparring matches. Rudolph Valentino was an exception in threatening a real fight. The 1920s matinee idol was so angered by being called a “powder puff” in a Chicago newspaper that he challenged the reporter to meet him in the ring. Norman Mailer viewed boxing as a metaphor for his ambitions to be writing champion of the world. T.S. Eliot took boxing lessons from an ex-pugilist in a toughish gym in Boston’s South End. Wyndham Lewis was surprised on entering Ezra Pound’s Paris studio to find the American poet swinging gloved fists at a splendidly built young man who turned out to be Ernest Hemingway. Thomas Eakins’s celebrated studies include a photograph of bare-fisted youths fighting in a wood that is said by Ms Boddy to evoke both pastoral classicism and Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”.
A few boxers fraternised with the intelligentsia. Gene Tunney numbered George Bernard Shaw, Sherwood Anderson and Thornton Wilder among his friends and slipped into his conversation such words as “ineffectual” and “cosmeticise”. Muhammad Ali, more typically, accepts the admiration of his cultured fans with bemused affection. He even posed for George Lois for an Esquire magazine cover as Botticelli’s “St Sebastian” until the subject’s provenance suddenly struck him. “Hey George”, he blurted out, “this cat’s a Christian!” The photographic session had to be suspended until Mr Ali had consulted his Muslim spiritual leader on the propriety of the pose.
More seriously, Ms Boddy explores ethnic tensions in the sport, especially those between whites and blacks in America. Racism was once raw. When Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, entered the ring in Reno in 1910 to defeat the latest “White Hope”, the band played “All Coons Look Alike to Me”. Less than three decades later things had changed markedly. Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber”, enjoyed the fervent support of Americans of all colours when he defended the same title against Germany’s Max Schmeling in a fight billed as a contest between democracy and Nazism.
Their successor, Mr Ali, a radical turned patriot, became a thoroughly establishment figure. He campaigned in 1980 for the presidential election of Ronald Reagan and in 1990 flew to Iraq to try to secure the release of American hostages held by Saddam Hussein. President George Bush has been especially appreciative of the former champion’s efforts to persuade Muslim Americans to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in 2005 awarded him the Presidential Medal. This cat is now a pillar of society.
Boxing: A Cultural History
By Kasia Boddy
Reaktion Books; 480 pages; $35 and £25.