The archetype of a boxing writer is some hardboiled guy brimming with cynicism and chomping on a cigar. But that description only goes so far. Guys named Homer, Virgil, Egan, Byron, Hemingway and Mailer wrote about boxing, and some of them never touched tobacco.
Into this guild of two-fisted guardians protecting the last bastion of male exclusivity from the poisonous onslaught of women’s lib comes a willowy creature full of talent who digs the fights.
Joyce Carol Oates has three names and deserves every one of them. Not only is she one of America’s great novelists. She is also a savvy critic of the fight game.
Like many of us, Joyce Carol Oates came upon boxing by accident. Her father loved the game and left dog-eared copies of Ring magazine lying around their home in upstate New York. Those old mags with their baroque graphics and black and white photos were as compelling then as they are today and they caught the attention of an inquisitive dark-eyed little girl.
“Years ago in the early 1950s when my father first took me to a Golden Gloves boxing tournament in Buffalo, New York,” writes Oates, “I asked him why the boys wanted to fight one another, why they were willing to get hurt. As if it were an explanation my father said, ‘Boxers don’t feel pain quite the way we do.’”
“Pain,” she adds, “in the proper context, is something other than pain.”
Exposure to the fights at an impressionable age shades one’s perspective forever: “No one whose interest began as mine did in childhood – as an offshoot of my father’s interest – is likely to think of boxing as a symbol of something beyond itself.”
Even as an introspective child, Oates was an astute and wary observer of the rites of man, and she was repelled and attracted to the strange beauty and beautiful violence that made everyone’s heart beat faster.
Much has happened since then. Ms. Oates has been much published and much praised for the quality of her oeuvre, but she never lost her fascination for and abhorrence of the manly art.
On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates is as fine a book on the subject as any ever written. If she had written under a pseudonym, something butch rather than fem, her treatise on the world’s cruelest sport would be praised to the high heavens, instead of being attacked as the work of some dame.
Oates writes: “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost art of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost.”
Although women boxers now grace our ranks with alacrity and grace, the fight game is still, for better or worse, a boys club.
“‘The Sweet Science of Bruising’ celebrates the physicality of men,” Oates writes wistfully, “even as it dramatizes the limitations, sometimes tragic, more often poignant, of the physical.”
Oates recognizes, as many of us do, the connections between life and boxing: “Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.”
Boxing might indeed be only like itself, but it found a home – albeit rancorous and uncongenial – in the broader category of sport.
“I have no difficulty justifying boxing as a sport,” writes Oates, “because I have never thought of it as a sport. There is nothing fundamentally playful about it; nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and powerful an image of life – life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage – that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.”
Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing rubs many men the wrong way. It’s not only the way Oates writes that troubles them. It’s what she writes: “If boxing is a sport it is the most tragic of all sports because more than any other human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays.”
Boxing is a hurting business, no one emerges unscathed, but Oates sees beauty in the ugliness. She also understands boxing better than boxing understands itself.
“Each boxing match is a story,” she writes, “a unique and highly condensed drama without words. Because a boxing match is a story without words, this doesn't mean that it has no text or language, that it is somehow ‘brute,’ ‘primitive,’ ‘inarticulate,’ only that the text is improvised in action . . . Ringside announcers give to the wordless spectacle a narrative unity, yet boxing as performance is more clearly akin to dance or music than narrative.”
Boxing may be akin to dance and music, but it wins the brutality sweepstakes – even allowing for classical ballet and the mosh pit – without much of a fight.
“The punishment – to the body, the brain, the spirit – a man must endure to become even a moderately good boxer is inconceivable to most of us whose idea of personal risk is largely ego-related or emotional.”
Oates concedes that boxing, at least conceptually, is appalling, but less appalling than round after round of oppression, famine and war.
“The boxing match is the very image, the more terrifying for being so stylized, of mankind's collective aggression; its ongoing historical madness.”
Joyce Carol Oates has written eloquently about former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Her Mike Tyson (1986) revisits Iron Mike on the cusp of his crowning glory: “Mike Tyson, a boy warrior, has become legendary, in a sense, before there is a legend to define him.” Oates writes “the Roman boast ‘munera sine missione’ in the gladiatorial games – no mercy shown – would be perfectly logical to him.”
Blood, Neon, and Failure in the Desert (1987) recalls Tyson's unification of the heavyweight title in 1986: Describing Mike's victory Oates writes, “Winning too can be a kind of failure.” Then she adds prophetically, “Machismo punctures easily.”
Tyson/Biggs: Postscript (1987) describes the beating Mike put on Tyrell Biggs: “Boxing’s spectacle is degrading, no doubt – in the most primary sense of the word: a de-grading of the self; a breaking down, as if one’s sensitive nerve-endings were being worn away . . . The single-mindedness of (Tyson’s) ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe.”
Rape and the Boxing Ring (1992) connects the dots between boxing, celebrity, race, sex and the criminal justice system: “Who is to blame for this most recent of sports disgraces in America? The culture that flings young athletes like Tyson up out of obscurity, makes millionaires of them and watches them self-destruct?”
Oates’ Fury and Fine Lines (1997) examines Tyson’s assault on Holyfield in Vegas: “In his desperate apology for his desperate act, Tyson said he didn’t know why he bit Holyfield’s ear, he just ‘snapped.’ We can take him at his word. If there’s an explanation, he doesn’t know it.” Describing the champ’s downward spiral, Oates writes that “Boxing is the appropriate sport for Nietzsche's terrifying aphorism: ‘What someone is begins to be revealed when his talent abates, when he stops showing us what he can do.’”
Tyson’s talent has abated, he has shown us what he can do, but he is no more boxing than a redwood is a forest. Boxing is layered, dense, complex, comprehensive and serious.
“The boxing match as ‘serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude’ – to refer to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy – is an event that necessarily subsumes both boxers, as any ceremony subsumes its participants.”
Joyce Carol Oates, despite her gender, perhaps because of it, rips the veil of misconceptions disguising the sport of sports.
“Which returns us to the paradox of boxing, its obsessive appeal for many who find in it not only a spectacle involving spectacular feats of physical skill but an emotional experience impossible to convey in words; an art form,” Oates writes, “with no natural analogue in the arts. Of course it is primitive, too, as birth, death, and erotic love might be said to be primitive, and forces our reluctant acknowledgement that the most profound experiences of our lives are physical events – though we believe ourselves to be, and surely are, essentially spiritual beings.”