The Bittersweet Science

“The more you know about boxing, the more you discover that you never truly know what’s going on,” write editors Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra in their introduction to The Bittersweet Science, an oustanding collection of boxing essays. Their objective is to provide an erudite sketch of a murky sport, and the book mostly succeeds in this ambition, offering topics that range from participatory journalism to unsentimental treatises on boxing as a business. Its strongest sections are those which lend a clear-eyed focus to the sport’s intransigence, a reality colder and more practical than the proletariat glamour Hollywood has ascribed it.

An obsession with abstract significance is partly what lures these writers to boxing. The sport is too-easily suited to metaphor, allowing the introspective scribe to meditate over the struggle for existence, locating beauty within its brutality, contemplating the source and excusability of human bloodlust, ad infinitum. It is impossible to write of boxing as a cultural product without referencing its literary tradition, because it has long been a subject for influential authors such as Ernest Hemingway (mentioned several times in The Bittersweet Science), Norman Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov.

A benchmark in boxing literature

As a topic for intellectual fodder, the sport was further lionized by Joyce Carol Oates and A.J. Liebling, the latter perhaps the sport’s most venerated author, whose 1949 The Sweet Science remains a benchmark for boxing literature. In their introduction, Rotella and Ezra pay respectful homage to Liebling’s work but express their wish to move beyond it, given his thin treatment of the sport’s business side.

This is an admirable goal. Boxing’s inner workings yield more interesting writing than gassy metaphysical digressions on what its violence represents. It is a business in which imaginative people fashion whichever version of reality will resonate with fans, requiring a cunning equally fascinating to what happens in the ring. Up close, cinematic illusions dissolve before boxing’s unalterable quest for profit; the sport’s profound ‘truth’ is not the human being’s lust for violence, but the depth of larceny we’ll employ to service our aims.

“If boxing is anything more than a sport, it is a business: rational in its pursuit of profit, passionless in dealing with its own consequences, and amoral in pursuing its goals,” our own Rafael Garcia concludes in his meditation on Antonio Margarito, who is alleged by some to have illegally fortified his fists with plaster prior to battering Miguel Cotto. Equally divested of its romance is Charles Farrell’s excellent “Why I Fixed Fights,” which makes a persuasive case for why a manager is morally justified in predetermining outcomes as it simultaneously advances business interests while shielding fighters from needless harm.

On the surface, this raises an obvious question: if the fighter decides to earn their living boxing, do they not consent to its damages? By fixing fights, are fans not robbed of the experience they paid for? Questions like this, while perhaps superficially logical, are to Farrell simplistic and ignorant to the economic, social and educational barriers fighters are working against. “In the real world,” he writes, “boxers and their managers prearranging the outcome of fights, working collusively against a hostile system, makes sense. Fixing fights, even at the expense of the public, isn’t just good business. It’s a survival strategy for the disenfranchised class in boxing: the fighters themselves.”

Margarito pounds Cotto in their first fight.

If the book perhaps falls short in its analysis of the business side of pugilism, it does so by neglecting to evaluate Floyd Mayweather, whose career subverted the racial and economic mores by which boxing long concentrated its wealth in a feudal few. The most financially successful prizefighter ever became so by taking control of the machinery that used his peers as disposable pistons, while employing a materialistic cynicism reflecting this era’s obsession with wealth and celebrity. That Mayweather accomplished this despite having perhaps the least pleasing style of any superstar in history and by duping the boxing-illiterate public into buying overpriced pay-per-view broadcasts, is a marketing phenomenon worthy of extensive analysis. Indeed, promotion, one of the most interesting aspects of boxing, is given scant treatment in the collection.

Floyd Mayweather defeats Conor McGregor.

There are moments in The Bittersweet Science where ethereal observations work powerfully. “The gym also hones your capacity for violence (violence being a kind of truth), but at the same time cleanses you of viciousness, a psychological trait of the weak that is, unlike violence, always a bad thing,” Donovan Craig writes. The writer’s language here is apt: viciousness implies a gratuitous hatred, one born of a blackened soul. Craig’s affirmation of purifying strength comes from someone who’s actually fought (a rarity with boxing writers) and understands its catharsis.

Claressa Shields

Similarly, Sarah Deming, the only female contributor and also a former fighter, writes knowledgeably about the maturation of US Olympic gold medallist Claressa Shields. “Maybe her woman strength was finally coming in. Claressa now knew that she did not have to defeat her anger; she could distil it and let it flow out through her hands. Later, when she played back the tapes of her fights, she would feel the life inside of the work, the basic emotional rhythm.”

In another passage from the same essay, Deming criticizes Oates for her treatment of female national anthem singers, ring card girls and fighters in On Boxing:

“Oates uses fighters for her own peculiar project: in her case, one of establishing a position for herself alongside such serious, masculine names as Mailer and Hemingway. As a woman, she must have been particularly anxious to distance herself from the female flesh on display in the ring. All women, even intellectual heavyweights, are subject to being reduced to mere bodies. Oates watches the action from very far away and very high up.”

Sarah Deming, left, boxes in a New York Golden Gloves tournament.

Here, Deming writes against one of boxing’s chief mythologizers. She identifies in her criticism not only the sexism of a society that reduces women to “mere bodies,” but indirectly, the fear of weakness that drives the hyper-literate, male or female, to identify with boxing and use its metaphorical properties to make declarations about reality.

The collection’s other notable passages come from first person reportage. Robert Anasi describes fighting as an amateur for the first time, and his descriptive powers place the reader inside the ring as he preps to meet his opponent once the bell rings. Gordon Marino laments the quandary faced by every trainer: when to stop a fight before it’s too late, an act that some fighters take as a personal betrayal. In these moments of frenzied violence, when the beaten man can no longer defend himself and his brain is prone to incalculable damage, the vicious indifference of boxing is laid bare. The harm accrued will not become visible for years, even decades, after it was sustained, and protecting against such lifelong neurological impairment is precisely why Farrell thinks fight fixing is a moral imperative.

Bernard Hopkins

For a book about contemporary boxing, there is refreshingly little about Mike Tyson. His influence on the public’s engagement with the sport throughout the 1980s and 90s is unrivaled, but rather than offer yet another reflection on race, class, and sex in America with Tyson as its prism, Carlo Rotella provides a fine piece on Bernard Hopkins—a complex, frustrating man whose combative intelligence and monkish discipline allowed him to fight until he was almost 52. In the collection’s final essay, Brin-Jonathan Butler writes about Roy Jones’ decision to keep boxing well beyond his physical prime, locating his obstinacy within a confluence of spiritual and personal reasons that are indivisible from his troubled relationship with an abusive father. It’s an insightful, disturbing look at a man of singular talent fighting late into the twilight of a career upon which the sun has long set.

Butler writes about Jones’ refusal to retire.

The collection’s variety of material will interest all those eager for some fresh fight writing. As with any assembly of essays, some are more focused than others, with sharper prose and superior insight, but taken on its whole the collection is an absorbing read providing a fine overview of boxing’s many parts. Its best sections are those which apply unsentimental eyes to how the sport works, both as a business and participatory endeavour, as they bring the reader closer to its essence than do recycled musings on mystical truths.

Boxing would not occupy the cultural place it does without a strong literary tradition, which has been enlightening, grandiose and strikingly consistent for a subject so often on culture’s margins. Lucid writing about the sport’s mechanics will ensure that a modern contribution like The Bittersweet Science not only sustains this legacy, but elevates it.           — Eliott McCormick 

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2 thoughts on “The Bittersweet Science

  • June 29, 2017 at 5:15 am

    Great work, Eliott. You’ve motivated me to buy the book, it sounds like a worthy addition to the canon of boxing literature.

    • July 2, 2017 at 4:09 pm

      Thanks Ronnie, I hope you enjoy it.


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