“Why did I fix fights?” the boxing manager Charles Farrell asks, as he lands the first glove in his essay in The Bittersweet Science. “Because it was the smart thing to do.” This rhetoric is the crooked arrow shooting right to the heart of darkness that is boxing, as fifteen very different writers, from differing perspectives, measure the sport’s pulse in this up-and-down collection. “Sport” is a strange label for boxing to begin with, as you don’t “play” when it comes to this discipline; it’s called “The Hurt Business” for legitimate reasons. And anyone that follows or is involved in boxing knows that something somwehere is being fixed, in all likelihood; and even if we don’t know, the suspicion lurks in the back of our minds, usually encapsulated in the image of some cartoonish Machiavellian manager or cartel.
It is nigh on impossible to raise the subject of boxing writers without one person chiming in with the familiarity of a ringside bell – A. J. Liebling, whose final fight piece for the New Yorker appeared more than fifty years ago, is still considered the doyen of pugilistic prose. Liebling’s The Sweet Science (1949) remains the bible for anyone with an interest in boxing.
This new collection gives a literal and spiritual twist to Liebling’s title (coined by the English journalist Pierce Egan), and while it never reaches the levels of élan laid out by Liebling, the book has plenty of moments that sing: from Rafael Garcia offering a different slant debunking certain language and ideas attached to boxing – Ernest Hemingway’s ‘moral’ and Norman Mailer’s ‘religion’ – which have long fed into the romanticism of the sport; to Sarah Deming writing about the female boxer Claressa Shields’s path from poverty in Flint, Michigan, to successive Olympic gold medals in London and Rio, while at the same time taking a swipe at Joyce Carol Oates’s book of mediations, On Boxing (1987) (”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.”).
Carlo Rotella, on the American boxer Bernard Hopkins, meanwhile, writes the stand-out piece in the book on how the former inmate of Graterford Prison managed to beat the system of the fight game by coming out the other side with his health and wealth intact; ”your intelligence come up” is George Foreman’s likeable phrase for how veteran fighters can evolve. Elsewhere, Robert Anasi’s essay is a close second as he looks back on his debut bout with its heady mixture of fear and fulfilment.As the editors Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra say in the introduction, we may come to understand the workings behind the violent whirlwind of boxing, but we will never truly get to the bottom of it. There lies the fathomless, irreducible appeal of the fight business.
- Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement