Thursday, April 14, 2011

Boxing and Liberation

Coinciding with the Golden Gloves boxing tournament, I've a column in today's Indianapolis Star, 'Boxing is liberating for men -- and now for women'.

Drawing on Mischa Merz's new book The Sweetest Thing, I'm outlining the emancipatory power of the sweet science.  Here's my original text:
This year the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions comes to Indianapolis. And as they have for the last sixteen years, women fighters will share the fight cards with men. Is this a good thing?

No doubt boxing can be a man’s world. As Joyce Carol Oates put it in her book On Boxing, ‘Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men.’ This might not be true, but it’s a common impression. And it would be naïve to ignore the darker side of professional boxing – the corruption portrayed in films like On the Waterfront, and Hemingway’s tale ‘Fifty Grand’.

But this is only part of the story. Boxing has been liberating for generations of young men – youths who've gained discipline and confidence from the sweet science. And perhaps more importantly today, this isn’t reserved for one gender: boxing has also emancipated women. It’s time to celebrate this quiet liberation.

This story is told in The Sweetest Thing, a new book by author and boxer Mischa Merz. A Golden Gloves and Ringside World champion, Merz records the electric atmosphere of the fight gyms, and gives portraits of women’s boxing’s stellar fighters.

One of the stand-out themes of Merx’s book is diversity: there’s no one kind of boxer. There are ice-cold technicians and brutal brawlers. There are hyper-feminine princess punchers, crop-topped butch boxers and plenty who fall into neither easy category. What they have in common is not some simplistic gender role, but passion, patience, courage and honesty. And no gender has a monopoly on these. “The increased acceptance of female athletes… has given women the freedom to be tough,” Merz writes. “And it is in the arena of women’s boxing where this narrative is playing out most eloquently.” Boxing is liberating because it shows how our virtues and vices are human, not male or female.

And it does so physically. Freedom, equality, virtue – these easily become abstractions. Boxing’s ideals are solid, because they change the body, and fighters’ relationship to it. Merz notes how, as a middle-aged author, she’s now fitter and stronger than when she was in her twenties. Her confidence is deep: she’s at home in her own skin. She’s literally defended her hide – it’s hers. For decades the women’s movement have argued for a woman’s rights over her own body. Boxing makes this a physical reality.

But boxing’s not all about individuals. There’s also camaraderie. As Merz notes, it takes trust to box well. You need faith in your trainer, sparring partners, even in your opponents. And everyone shares the baptism of pain. “The kiss-and-hug greetings,” Merz writes of Gleason’s, “melded with the stick-and-move protocol of the gym.” The irony is powerful: in an age of look-out-for-number-one competition, here’s a fighting sport encouraging closeness. The modern metropolis is often billed as a soulless urban jungle – Merz’s portrait of her encounters puts paid to this cliché.

My point is not that boxing can radically revolutionize the country, or that the sport’s full of bruised saints. As Merz makes clear, there’s plenty of human frailty, in and out of the ring.

But the sweet science is an impressive equalizer: it shows how much of our bold, vulnerable humanity is shared. And it pushes us to hone it well. “You cannot hide from yourself,” writes Merz, “in a boxing ring.” Boxing’s more than a video entertainment – it can liberate us, one punch at a time.

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