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How to capture in words the bittersweet sport of boxing?

Commentators are prone to poetic extremes — but it’s the blood that’s being spilled that holds us

29 April 2017

9:00 AM

29 April 2017

9:00 AM

The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner and at the Ringside Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra (eds.)

University of Chicago Press, pp.266, £14.50

Thirty years ago, Russell Davies wrote a weekly sporting column in the New Statesman. It proved unsustainable and was soon discontinued, but not before Davies had described a boxer ‘genuflecting through the ropes’ — an image I have coveted ever since. Boxing is ‘a standing challenge to [a writer’s] powers of description’, according to Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra in their preface to The Bittersweet Science.

They are right. All physical action is a challenge to writers: YouTube can repair deficiencies, and is invoked several times in this anthology; but it is no substitute for writing, because writing adds focus to reality. I once saw the handsome, British-Hungarian, bottle-blond heavyweight Joe Bugner working out in a gym above a pub in the Pentonville Road. His looks were legendary, celebrated in many photo-shoots. But in reality they were also faintly out of focus, blurred by boxing. Writing searches, selects and freezes the frame. It lets you take a proper look at Bugner’s looks; lets you see what you can’t quite see.

There aren’t many good boxing writers. Even proven authors can fall short. Marianne Moore, a poet capable of describing a lion’s ‘ferocious chrysanthemum’ or a jerboa’s ‘Chippendale claw’, has very little to say about the Floyd Patterson–George Chuvalo heavyweight match in Madison Square Gardens on 5 February 1965, a bout she was taken to by George Plimpton, with Bob Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books,

The pre-fight preliminaries produce her most vivid touches. These are punters looking for ticket touts:

Battered felt hats [Moore is wearing her best tricorne] and heavy faces, arms waving $100 bills and men shouting, pay you double, pay you double in sight of the brass buttons of policemen. I had to be led by the hand, through the squeeze of humanity; ticket-taker vigilant looking at your face and ticket, strong thumb on the ticket.


The Fight, Norman Mailer’s account of the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 Zaïre match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, has its moments, but they, too, are mainly before the fight. Ali in his dressing room, ‘wearing no more than a jockstrap, was soon prancing around the room, shadowboxing with the air’. Foreman’s stare when the referee is instructing the fighters is ‘a big look, heavy as death, oppressive as the closing of the door of one’s tomb’. Even here, you can see the temptation to overwrite, to which Mailer quickly succumbs:

Then the barrage began. With Ali braced on the ropes, as far back on the ropes as a deep-sea fisherman is braced back in his chair when setting the hook on a big strike, so Ali got ready and Foreman came on to blast him out. A shelling reminiscent of artillery battles in World War I began… heavy maniacal slamming punches, heavy as the boom of oaken doors, bombs to the body, bolts to the head, punching until he could not breathe…

David Remnick is a much better boxing writer because he trusts the facts to tell. They carry their own authenticity. They don’t need writing up. ‘Kid Dynamite Blows Up’ (The New Yorker, 14 July 1997), his account of the Mike Tyson–Evander Holyfield bout, is exemplary: clear-eyed, dispassionate and alert to detail. I learned that Tyson ate bits of both Holyfield’s ears, first ‘a half-inch chunk’ from the right one. I also learned that Holyfield had his own ear-eating previous. As for the missing lobes:

a hotel employee named Mitch Libonati found the chunk of ear that belonged to Evander Holyfield. He found it on the ring mat, wrapped it in a rubber glove, and delivered it to the champion’s locker room.

This latest anthology has its moments, but they are few. Some vivid touches are supplied by boxing vernacular: the ‘nosebleeds’ are seats close to the ring; there are the ‘suits’, and then there are those ‘with skin in the game’. Sam Sheridan shows us ‘bags wound tight with duct tape’ and ‘terraced holes’ in plywood flooring where generations of fighters have been skipping. Donovan Craig remembers fighting Roy Jones Jr in 2006:

I was surprised by how hard he hit. His punches were so crisp and sharp they felt like electric jolts, zzt, zzt, zzt, even when they landed on my arms.

Elsewhere, a badly hurt boxer walks unsteadily, like a baby with a full diaper. There is a decent profile of the trainer Darius Ford.

But this is a university press publication. Several contributors are professors — hence the dispiriting range of reference, ponderous clinches there to advertise scholarship, like commercials between rounds: Mailer, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Citizen Kane, Francis Bacon, Ian McGilchrist, Aristotle’s ‘formal cause’, Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs, Schrödinger’s cat and ‘the insouciance of a Socratic paradox’. And there is some tortuous theory: ‘Jones-Hopkins is the uncommon post-prime-versus-post-prime rematch that more accurately reflects the reality over a prime-versus-prime first bout.’ Here, the perverse idea is that boxing ability is best assessed not by boxers at their best, but when they are over the hill. So, comparably, T.S. Eliot’s ‘A Note on War Poetry’ would be a better benchmark than The Waste Land. There are many academic perversities here: ‘Duran quit once, but he was no quitter’; ‘Mayweather, whose undefeated record has hoodwinked people into vastly overestimating his value’; ‘he took a dive just to demonstrate the sliminess of the proceedings’.

It isn’t all bad. There is a brilliant piece by Charles Farrell, ‘Why I Fixed Fights’, an account of furnishing fighters with ersatz provenance which is wryly witty: ‘Bruce Johnson always arrived from out of town prepared to lose. His livelihood depended on his career going nowhere.’ Brin-
Jonathan Butler contributes an absorbing profile of Roy Jones Jr, still fighting at 47. And Carlo Rotella, one of the editors, has this tonic observation about the light heavyweight champion, Bernard Hopkins:

A skilled fouler, Hopkins will also hold-and-hit, punch low, step on an opponent’s instep, and follow through with his own smooth-shaved skull after a punch to initiate a clash of heads.

David Remnick understands the fundamental brutality of the sport:

Boxers go into the ring alone, nearly naked, and they succeed or fail on the basis of the most elementary criteria: their ability to give and receive pain, their will to endure their own fear.

Boxing is primitive and atavistic, and it moves us, when it moves us, by its display of human courage. Like bull-fighting, it is surrounded by bullshit, by bogus claims for artistry, but it is the blood being spilled that holds us.

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