Boxing very clever

<strong>Boxing: a Cultural History</strong>

Kasia Boddy

<em>Reaktion Books, 480pp, £25</em>

One groans inwardly at the prospect of a near-500-page "cultural" history of boxing. What are we in for? More missing jabs from the over- intellectualists who have cursed boxing since the early days? More absurd deification of Muhammad Ali - albeit the greatest heavyweight, without question - as America's secular saint? Or, worse, are we in more credence for the select literati who, either by egomania or simple machismo, have deluded themselves in their fanciful writings on the subject that they are actually pugilists themselves (step forward, Hemingway and Mailer)?

Real championship boxing requires incredible skill, courage and ring intelligence. When these attributes are more or less evenly distributed between the two combatants, a fearful destruction (and possible brain damage) becomes more, not less, likely. As a boxer friend of mine once told me, reflecting on the boxing scribes he was exposed to: "They can talk all they like, but at the end of the day it's still a fight."

Thankfully, Kasia Boddy keeps this latter thought almost always in mind. In her critiques, boxers remain boxers, and writers and painters remain writers and painters. With the odd go-betweens, of course, like Gene Tunney, who defeated Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title in 1926, and was seen before the bout cradling a copy of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh. Boddy's book is a superb work of scholarship, spanning ancient Greece to Mike Tyson. Its reproduced lithographs and colour plates make the book, in its way, a handsome work of art in itself.

Here we have in one corner the Artists - Homer, Apollonius, Byron, the painter George Bellows, Jack London and, yes, Hem and Mailer. And in the other the actual noble artists - John Sullivan, Jack Johnson, Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray, Marciano, Ali et al. Between them Boddy serves as an uncorrupted referee. The figure of the boxer in the famous 4th-century Apollonius sculpture The Pugilist at Rest is described thus by the American writer Thom Jones: "He has a thick beard and a full head of curly hair. In addition to the telltale broken nose and cauliflower ears of a boxer, the pugilist has the slanting, drooping brows that bespeak broken nerves. There is a slight look of befuddlement on his face, but there is no trace of fear. Beside the deformities on his noble face, there is also the suggestion of weariness and philosophical resignation."

Boddy herself is from the school of philosophical resignation, at what she sees rather than what she might imagine, and places herself in line with William Hazlitt - another keen follower of the pugilistic "fancy" - who, in a direct attack on Sir Joshua Reynolds's promulgation of "aesthetic contemplation", wrote: "The eye alone must determine us." This "muscular" view of art informed boxing observers from Hogarth to Bellows.

The mass marketing of boxing from the early 20th century brought ever more literary scrutiny to the spotlit square. On its inauguration in 1922, the line-up for Ring magazine - the "bible" of boxing - is dizzying, featuring Damon Runyon, Paul Gallico and Ring Lardner. Lardner was later celebrated in memoriam by his friend F Scott Fitzgerald, who himself lost one of his greatest friendships through boxing - that of Hemingway in their Paris days. Sparring with a Canadian writer named Morley Callaghan, Hemingway asked Fitzgerald to act as timekeeper (Fitzgerald, of fragile and almost opaque constitution, was no pugilist). Unfortunately for Hemingway, who couldn't fight a lick, Callaghan was pretty good, humiliating and flooring "Papa" heavily. Hemingway put the blame on Fitzgerald, who hadn't rung the bell to end the round, he said. Indeed, this bitter thought is contained in Hemingway's last diary entry some 40 years later, just before he blew his brains out.

Boddy is sanguine about the craziness of the Ali years, when the liberal intelligentsia went gaga, even bucket-carriers became sages, and, as the critic Ronald Bergan said, it all felt "rather like an extended commercial advertising a renowned and well-loved product". The truth about Ali, for all his brilliance in the ring (and brilliance it was), is that for most of his career he was controlled by the black separatist Nation of Islam, which believed that white men had been landed on earth by spaceships and which tried to form an alliance with the Ku Klux Klan. When the Nation's "prophet", Elijah Muhammad (who made a fortune from Ali), died Ali drifted away from this extremism, probably because he had never given it much thought in the first place. His political importance was bestowed, not sought. All Ali wanted was to be as famous a black man and boxer as the dandy Jack Johnson, even jive-talking opponents in the ring as Johnson had.

Boddy referees this heavyweight 15-rounder with elegance, aplomb and rigour.