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The Boxing Bookshelf: Springs Toledo and The Gods of War

Updated: Jun 7, 2018

In much of the writing about boxing, there exists a tension between the sport in its ideal form, which represents boxing as a kind of timeless struggle of flesh and spirit that hearkens back to ancient Roman gladiators and the tribal hostilities of prehistoric man, and pugilism as it exists in the modern world, in which the sport becomes a commodified performance of masculinity carried out within the context of industrializing and post-industrial nations. This is perhaps something of what Joyce Carol Oates means when she describes boxing as a manifestation of humanity's "ongoing historical madness," namely an insistence on seeing in the prize ring something ancient and eternal even as we transform the ring itself into a fully commercialized space in which millions of passive spectators vicariously enact fantasies of heroic masculinity, while being subjected to advertising for beer, gambling, and energy drinks, all splashed on the same blood-soaked canvas that carries the spectacle of violence.

In many ways, boxing as it has developed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is a kind of dialogue between these two tendencies. We demand the blood and danger that the sport carried with it in ancient times and in the bare-knuckle throwdowns of the nineteenth century, but we also make our concessions to bourgeois morality by implementing rules designed to protect fighters from the natural consequences of the ring. Every time a referee stops a fight, or a corner throws in the towel, we show how far we allow those ancient impulses to govern our modern world: we want to fantasize about gladiators fighting to the death, but we also want the fantasy to end before it threatens to become reality.

It is in writing about boxing that we can move closer to that imagined truth of eternal violence and glory, stretching across the millenia to the very roots of human society. In his 2014 volume of essays, The Gods of War, Springs Toledo uses fantastic prose to reveal the inner turmoils of some of boxing's greatest heroes, while also deploying an imaginative lens that allows the writer to transcend the historical conditions that gave birth to the modern prize ring. Thus, the first essay jumps quickly between modern Jewish fighters and Jewish resistance to the ancient Roman empire. In another piece, Alexis Arguello, the great lightweight champion of the 1980s, is conjured as an ancient Roman gladiator, whose "economy could be placed on a single coin--on one side was life/victory, on the other death/defeat." The zero-sum outcomes of the ring have always been one of the great allures of the sport's fantasists, and many fighters as well. It is also one of the ways in which the sport markets itself to the public, even though all so often the fight ends not with symbolic victory or death, but with the arbitrary numbers of the three judges--bureaucrats, really--who must transform the violent irrationality of the ring into tallies that can be digested by the public and the sport's industry, both of which live decidedly not in some contemporary incarnation of the Roman coliseum, but rather in a technocratic modern society governed by a byzantine framework of laws and regulations.

As a historical materialist myself, I want to resist the kinds of allegories that Toledo finds in the ring, but I am consistently drawn in by the quality of his writing, and the expanse of his historical knowledge. By far the best part of this book is the last section, in which Toledo offers up his choice for the 10 "gods of war"--a classical spin on the 10 greatest boxers of the modern era. Though generally showing a preference for older and lighter fighters, the list is well-defended, and most impressively, avoids the answers you would expect a boxing historian to give. Thus, the great heavyweights of the last 75 years--particularly Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali--fail to make the cut. And Toledo's choice for the greatest boxer ever, or as he calls it "the first god of war," is truly idiosyncratic, but in a highly informed way that underscores how deep and intricate the history of boxing truly is, and how full the ranks of the legendary fighters who have graced the ring over the last century.

4.5 stars out of 5 for this brilliantly written and provocative book.

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