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On Boxing, Writing, and Masculinity

Last week saw the passing of Philip Roth, and with it one of the major figures of American letters in the second half of the twentieth century. I did not read much Roth--as a historian, my relationship with fiction has always been tenuous, as I'm often frustrated by the frivolity and indulgence of fiction's various gambits--but I did see him as a somewhat representative example of a very unique class of writer that emerged in the US after the end of the second World War: the white male author who seems to be ostentatiously invested in a particular projection of virile masculinity. Maybe it was the sense of suburban ennui that engulfed American popular culture in the 1950s and thereafter, but it often felt to me that writers like Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Gore Vidal, and many others were determined to somehow prove their masculinity within the fragile confines of the page, both in the way that they represented women, and the way in which they represented male protagonists, and perhaps through those fictional constructs, themselves.

Thus, it should not be surprising that male writers are often attracted to boxing as a suitable muse for their gendered narcissism. Of course, and with the vital exception of Joyce Carol Oates, whose book of essays On Boxing I regard as one of the very best volumes on the sport ever published, virtually all of the writers who have covered boxing are men, men who often seem to want to identify themselves with the champions they write about. It is this assumption of familiarity, that perhaps the male writer has the necessary strength, courage, and virility to criticize the boxers he covers, that guides much writing and commentary on boxing. Whether it is Springs Toledo, who is probably my favorite boxing writer, connecting his own fistic experience to Harry Greb in the preface to his 2014 volume The Gods of War, or even Larry Merchant, standing next to a victorious Floyd Mayweather, microphone in hand, insisting that if he were several decades younger he would "kick [Floyd's] ass," one often gets the sense from the men who write or speak about boxing that they fancy themselves as peers to the men who stand naked and bloodied in the center of the ring. Perhaps, for some writers, that is even a suitable metaphor for what it means to grapple with putting words on the page.

That is not the position from which I approach boxing. When I watch Gennady Golovkin pound another middleweight contender into dust, I have no point of comparison in my own life and experience. At the age of 40, I can say that I have never thrown a punch in anger in my life, nor have I ever taken a punch to the jaw that would in any way compare with even the most inept professional strawweights to ever enter the ring. Boxing to me is not compelling because of its plausibility, but because it is a representation of an almost impossible to fathom courage mixed with a brazenly naive disregard for the limits of the human body and brain. Indeed, if I were to ever box, it is very likely I would be killed. Having been diagnosed, at the age of 13, with a rare condition that produces hemorrhaging of the brain and makes any kind of concussive blow--especially sustained and repeated as they are in any boxing match--extremely dangerous, the sport itself would be suicidal for me to participate in. That is not to say I've never put on gloves and hit a heavy bag, because I have, but such is the extent of my direct and personal knowledge of the sport. Everything else that I see in the sport of boxing is filtered through eyes that are utterly dazzled by the lights in the ring. Thus, I start from the assumption that any man or woman who climbs into the ring to give and receive menacing punches thrown to the head, face, chest, and body possesses both physical and mental attributes that are completely foreign to me. That is why I love the sport, and why I also find it so hard to ever criticize the courage of any person who gives their body over to its many brutalities.

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