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Walking on 59th Street – A Punch Drunk Love Letter

“In their fights they were taking bad beatings, blows to the head. I knew where they were headed. They were walking on 59th Street. I have seen many fighters walking on 59th Street. Punch drunk.”

Sailor Don McKinnon, The Fighting Sailor

The unspoken, ever-present spectre of 59th Street haunts the poster-laden halls of boxing gyms across the world. It’s a hallowed place where warriors who’ve sacrificed everything for the fight game walk.

Punch drunk. It’s a term of derision. It’s also a reality and there is no real sense in sugar coating it. Anyone who has spent an amount of time around boxing knows people who are punch drunk – the vacant haze, the disconnect between occurrence and reception, the staggered gait.

Boxing is dangerous. That is undeniable. The danger is restricted, limited, but real. Death in the ring is a rarity. The real danger of boxing is the aftermath, the invisible cumulative impact of damage gradually inflicted across a career, creeping and slow.

In 2021, Tris Dixon, former editor of Boxing News, published a book called Damage: The Untold Story of Brain Trauma and Boxing. By some, it was met with praise. In other corners, it was condemned. Elsewhere, the book was used to condemn boxing itself. For the most part, though, within the boxing world, Damage was simply ignored.

The boxing world should not ignore Damage. It also does not have to. The factors which enable severe brain trauma are not factors integral to boxing. They are consequences of the structures around boxing. The danger inherent in the act of boxing itself, the fight, is not the primary cause of damage.

Damage is a frightening read and an important one. It’s also not anti-boxing. What differentiates Dixon’s book from other examinations of brain trauma and boxing is the passion and compassion that he has for boxing. Dixon writes not out of distaste for the practice but out of concern for the well-being of boxers themselves.

The world of boxing can be resistant to acknowledge trauma among boxers because such reports are inevitably accompanied by calls to ban or outlaw it. This causes the issue to be buried and ignored. Calls for boxing bans come from a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to engage. The reality is that the world is full of things entirely more dangerous than boxing – those things simply don’t have the same brutal mythos around them.

Concerned parties need to engage compassionately with boxing to ensure that elements of it which are unsafe are fixed. Rather than discussing bans, the boxing world should examine the business of boxing, which extracts wealth and entertainment from the bodies of boxers and then discards them. It should question patterns of training and the specific restraints currently imposed around the fight.

Only by caring about boxers can boxers be cared for, and caring about boxers means recognizing what the sport means to them. Protecting boxers from injury means not banning the sport or expressing disgust but expressing compassion.

Recognizing the potential for damage should not be detrimental to boxing. Bringing in better concussion awareness and implementing safeguards should not be viewed as an assault on boxing’s integrity, and neither should ensuring that fighters retire with adequate support.

Boxing is adaptable. It has adapted many times before. It can retain its integrity and still protect its fighters.

There are changes which can be made immediately. To begin with, all professional boxers should have access to a union and protective body which represents their interests and ensures that they are taken care of during their careers and in retirement. They should not exist entirely in a state of exploitation.

Boxing is not the institutions which surround it. It is not a business. It has been appropriated – seized and structured – by business, by an industry that exploits fighters. The business of boxing has a stranglehold, leaching on labour, passion, and blood.

The mythos of boxing has boxing contorted. It’s depicted as a senseless clash of titans, bloodied and battered warriors coming to blows. It’s ugly – ruthless.

In the foreword to At The Fights, an anthology of American boxing writing, Colum McCann states that “What’s most beautiful about boxing are the lives behind it.” This sentiment reveals a chasm. Looking past the act of boxing is a way to find beauty in what otherwise appears to be pointless brutality. It is displacement and disengagement.

In writing, boxing is a metaphor. It is something used to reveal ‘deeper’ truths. Of course, boxing does make an excellent metaphor – within the ring, rigid constraints produce a violent struggle – but, all too often, treating boxing as a metaphor allows people to look through boxing to find significance. The ‘object’ of study is treated as a lens. Boxing itself does not need to be seen.

Of course, there are beautiful lives behind boxing. There are also ugly ones. But, the point here is that boxing is not a shell for something fuller. Boxing is the whole. What’s most beautiful about boxing is not something other than boxing. What’s most beautiful about boxing is boxing. Until that’s recognized – until that can be seen – boxing will remain perverted and punch drunk.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing is a notable example of a book that addresses boxing directly. It may be the best book on the philosophy of boxing out there. In her book, Oates establishes two important points early on: first, that she does not think of boxing as a sport; and, second, that she does not think of boxing as a metaphor. In her words, “Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.” Boxing is a unique phenomenon, irreducible and irreplaceable.

On Boxing is not without fault. Ishmael Reed draws attention to the racialized voyeurism in Oates’s work. This racialized fixation is deeply entangled with the business of boxing – that in-grown cancer which consumes the sport, making boxing and boxer an object and product.

Another major fault of Oates’ book is one that she seems conscious of – Oates did not box. In Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, Lois Wacquant writes:

“…the rules of the pugilistic art boil down to bodily moves that can be fully apprehended only in action and place it at the very edge of that which can be intellectually grasped and communicated… one cannot construct a science of this ‘social art,’ that is, of a ‘pure practice without theory,’ as Emile Durkheim defines it, without undergoing a practical initiation into it, in real time and space.”

Wacquant is right. It takes years of engagement, training, and fighting to grasp boxing – to understand what’s going on in the ring. Wacquant trained in a boxing club in Chicago for three years with the recognition that he was never more than an apprentice. The approach allows him to write about boxing with understanding.

Though Oates’s analysis is deep and insightful, it is carried out entirely from ringside. On Boxing is a study of boxing as spectacle. The experiential aspect of the fight is disconnected. The phenomenology is an exploration of the phenomena as experienced by voyeur, not participant. It remains the study of boxing as an object.

That being said, Wacquant’s analysis in Body and Soul suffers from a similar issue. Leon Culbertson states that Wacquant’s attempts “to apply a synthetic approach to the study of boxing” in his study were not entirely successful. At best, Wacquant’s book provides “a sum of accounts of various aspects of boxing.”

Body and Soul is a sociological study and, as a result, focuses on the sociological relationships in the gym where Wacquant trained. Wacquant embedded himself in a Chicago gym and his study focuses on black men escaping life on the streets – another anthropological fetishism. He discusses socioeconomics and class at length. These factors are important when discussing transformation of structure but, again, this focus places peripheral aspects at the core.

Class and socioeconomics are integral to the conditions in which boxing exists but they are not boxing. The ecosystem of the club is, of course, vital to boxing, but boxing is not club politics. Boxing is not punching a bag or skipping rope. It’s not camaraderie or sanctuary.

Boxing is the contained, momentary struggle between fighters in the ring – that brief interaction. Everything else is secondary.

In Body and Soul, Wacquant studies pedagogy and the embodiment of technique – everything that goes into the moment in the ring. These aspects cannot ever, really, be disconnected – they enable the moment to exist. As Sartre writes, “boxing in its entirety is present at every instant of the fight as a sport and as a technique, with all the human qualities and all the material conditioning (training, physical condition, etc.) that it demands.” But, a particular space emerges when the fight takes place. In that space, and only in that space, can boxing unfold. Fragments of boxing exist elsewhere – habits, practices, logics – but it is only in the fight that they concentrate and become boxing.

Here it is, staggered and slurring.

Boxing is a mystical emergence, a state of being.

Boxing is social interaction. It is also entirely solitary – solitary because the boxer becomes one with the world. All falls into line and there is nothing else.

Boxing is pure and full of heart. In the ring, the boxer is unified, body and soul.

Boxing is chess game where all the pieces move at once. Tactics trump strategy when the punches fly.

Boxing is a violent struggle for domination. It is distinctly different from a struggle for domination outside of the ring because it is purely consensual. Within the constraints of the fight, conditions have been agreed upon.

Boxing is a struggle for control – of the self and the opponent.

Boxing is a practice. The boxer establishes control by rendering the opponent powerless. This is not war. In war, there are no logical limitations to the application of force. In boxing, there are. The logical limitations have been established clearly. In fact, the limitations – the restraints – make boxing possible.

Boxing is mastery of form.

Like the sonnet, it is boxing’s form that gives it substance. Form creates a space for a practice to emerge which can exist nowhere else. The form enforces arbitrary restrictions upon the boxers. There are obvious constraints – time, ropes, ring. There are also conventions, techniques, styles, and rulesets. In the end, the constraints exist within the boxer. Boxing is embodied and manifested.

Boxing is Mike McCallum and James Toney on December 13, 1991.

Boxing is subtle. It is the slight shift in weight, the fractional difference in the placement of feet, the millimeters between a slip and a knockout, the roll of a shoulder, the imperceptible analysis and reaction, the transfer of thought into action without division.

At its peak, boxing is the embodiment of will, the pinnacle of human ability. Unconsciousness seized and tamed. Instinct overcome.

Boxing is in decay.

This is not a statement on quality. Boxing is in decay because exploitation of the business of boxing constantly intensifies and the presentation of boxing constantly becomes more distanced from boxing itself.

Promoters care about the spectacle, not the fight. The spectacle, boxing as object, is commodifiable – it can be sold. This is the alienation of the act. This is not new.

In 1956, A.J. Liebling wrote that:

“The clients of the television companies, by putting on a free boxing show almost every night of the week, have knocked out of business the hundreds of small-city and neighborhood boxing clubs where youngsters had a chance to learn their trade and journeymen to mature their skills. Consequently the number of good new prospects diminishes with every year, and the peddlers’ public is already being asked to believe that a boy with perhaps ten or fifteen fights behind him is a topnotch performer.”

The damage that television inflicted has been further heightened by highlight reels on YouTube and 10-second gifs of knockouts. While the mediums enable wider access to boxing for viewers, they further alienate viewers from the act. They serve as ways to neatly package and commodify, as methods of further turning practice into spectacle.

Profits need to grow and grow and, therefore, exploitation of labour will consistently intensify.

More than ever, fighters embrace the business and their position as a product or brand. Some fighters make millions. A few, such as Mayweather and De La Hoya, have successfully latched onto the business side entirely. For most fighters, however, professional boxing is not lucrative. Profits go to promoters. The fight itself is a labour of love. This is ongoing and longstanding – prizefighting has been tied up in exploitation from its earliest days.

The exploitation of boxers leads to their commodification, their objectification. Boxers are not spectacle – they are practitioners of a holistic art. Boxing is for the boxer, not the consumer. The consumer is a parasite.

Addressing trauma in boxing should be a moment where the boxing world recognizes the harm of the model it exists within, not a moment when the practice of boxing is depicted as something harmful in and of itself. It is the conflation of boxing with its industry, with the structures around it, that makes this appear impossible.

It’s time to take a hard look at the stagger in boxing’s step, at the signs of displacement and disconnect. To alter the course, the world needs to embrace boxing for what it is, to recognize what makes boxing beautiful – to recognize that boxing and the business of boxing are two different things.

Boxing is not exploitation. It’s not real-world domination. It’s not a vessel for profit and spectacle. It is circumstance abstracted from reality.

Limitations and adaptations will not destroy boxing. It is the restraints themselves which construct the very space in which boxing can emerge.

Boxing is boxing and boxing is beautiful – the problem is the world in which it exists, a world that alienates and commodifies, a world that takes a practice of true transcendence and reduces it to circus act and freak show, that takes the sharpest of mind and body and sucks them of soul, leaving them depleted and broken, walking in a staggered gait along the harrowing stretches of 59th Street. Punch drunk.