ON BOXING. By Joyce Carol Oates.
BOOKS OF THE TIMES - NYTimes.com:
By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Published: March 2, 1987
ON BOXING. By Joyce Carol Oates. With Photographs by John Ranard. 118 pages. Dolphin/Doubleday. $14.95.
IF it betrays a bias on my part to be surprised at the combination of Joyce Carol Oates and the subject of boxing, I can only plead what she herself writes in this penetrating book on the subject: ''Boxing is a purely masculine activity and it inhabits a purely masculine world. . . . Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.'' And: ''Men fighting men to determine worth (i.e., masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. And is there, perhaps, some connection?''
Yet to judge from the few autobiographical remarks she lets drop in her remarkable book, Ms. Oates has been a fan of boxing most of her life. Her father took her to a Golden Gloves tournament in Buffalo in the early 1950's, and it's evident she watched the Friday night matches that were televised in the early 1960's.
Certainly she's at home with the subject. Though she refers to ''On Boxing'' as ''mosaic-like,'' it resembles more a spiral, touching history, lore and anecdote as it circles in on the essential, and disquieting, issues that lie at the heart of boxing. She reminds us that in the bare-knuckle era that preceded the development of gloves, it was the fighters' hands that kept breaking, not their heads.
She makes the cogent point that what with the greater authority that the referee has assumed recently, ''the bloody 'great' fights of boxing's history'' - Jack Dempsey's triumph over Jess Willard in 1919, for instance, or Sugar Ray Robinson's sixth and final fight with Jake LaMotta in 1951 - would be ''inconceivable'' today.
She is eloquent in her judgments: ''Has there ever been a fighter quite like the young Dempsey? - the very embodiment, it seems, of hunger, rage, the will to do hurt; the spirit of the Western frontier come East to win his fortune.'' Or: ''Sonny Liston occupies a position sui generis for the very truculence of his boxing persona - the air of unsmiling menace he presented to the Negro no less than the white world.'' Or: It was Muhammad Ali's style ''when confronted with a 'deadly' puncher like Sonny Liston to simply out-think and -maneuver him: never before, and never since, has a heavyweight performed in the ring with such style -an inimitable combination of intelligence, wit, grace, irreverence, cunning.''
But this is a good deal more than a book that establishes its author's credentials to ''talk boxing.'' Though no defense of prizefighting, it speaks eloquently and profoundly about the fascination of watching two human beings hit each other in the ring. ''How can you enjoy so brutal a sport, people sometimes ask me,'' she writes. ''And it's too complex to answer. In any case I don't 'enjoy' boxing in the usual sense of the word, and never have; boxing isn't invariably 'brutal'; and I don't think of it as a 'sport.' ''
''There is nothing fundamentally playful about it; nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure,'' she continues later in the book. ''At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and so 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. During a superior boxing match (Ali-Frazier I, for instance) we are deeply moved by the body's communion with itself by way of another's intransigent flesh. The body's dialogue with its shadow-self - or Death. Baseball, football, basketball - these quintessentially American pastimes are recognizably sports because they involve play: they are games. One plays football, one doesn't play boxing.''
Unsurprisingly enough, the one activity she compares with boxing is the craft of writing, at least so far as the fighter's training is involved, or the ''fanatic subordination of the self in terms of a wished-for destiny.'' She writes: ''One might compare the time-bound public spectacle of the boxing match (which could be as brief as an ignominious forty-five seconds - the record for a title fight!) with the publication of a writer's book. That which is 'public' is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling, and frequently despairing period of preparation.''
''Indeed,'' she continues, ''one of the reasons for the habitual attraction of serious writers to boxing . . . is the sport's systematic cultivation of pain in the interests of a project, a life-goal: the willed transposing of the sensation we know as pain (physical, psychological, emotional) into its polar opposite. If this is masochism - and I doubt that it is, or that it is simply - it is also intelligence, cunning, strategy. It is an act of consummate self-determination - the constant re-establishment of the parameters of one's being.''
Yet lest she be accused of romanticizing the fight game, it should quickly be added that she also compares it to pornography - the willful ''violation of a taboo'' - although ''boxing, unlike pornography, is not theatrical. . . . it is altogether real: the blood shed, the damage suffered, the pain (usually suppressed or sublimated) are unfeigned.''
There is nothing about ''On Boxing'' that attempts to redeem its subject. Its most eloquent passages are damning in one way or another. ''Yet,'' as Ms. Oates concludes, ''we don't give up on boxing, it isn't that easy. Perhaps it's like tasting blood. Or, more discreetly put, love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate.''
''Boxing has become America's tragic theater.''
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