The Center of the Ring: On Writing About Boxing

Image by Joel Muniz.

In writing, boxing is often used as a metaphor. It’s something that demonstrates heart, passion, intensity, and anger. It’s contradiction or revelation. It’s character and life.

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 writers to look through it to find significance. The object of study is treated as a lens. Boxing itself does not need to be seen.

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 – disengagement.

Of course, there are beautiful lives behind boxing. There are also ugly ones. But, the fact 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.

Writing too often focuses on the lives of boxers, trainers, sanctioning bodies, belts, records, or pre-fight banter. This would not be an issue if the fight itself was not left unaddressed. When a fight occurs, the result is discussed, scores are debated, and knockdowns and stoppages are critiqued. But meaningful exploration, and interpretation, of what is actually going on in the ring is generally missing.

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. It is also journalistic – a compilation of essays that were published in The New York Times. At the time, the fights and fighters she addresses were contemporary.

In her book, Oates establishes two important points early on: first, she does not think of boxing as a sport; and, second, 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. It is not reducible to metaphor.

On Boxing is not without fault. Ishmael Reed draws attention to the racialized voyeurism of black men, black bodies, in Oates’s workher apparent fixation with and disdain for the black men at the core of her study. 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 regular 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.” It provides snapshots of elements around boxing and their relationship to it. Overall, something integral is missing from his analysis.

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. Again, this also places peripheral aspects at the core.

Though class and socioeconomics are integral to the conditions in which boxing exists, 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 finding 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,” (20). But, a particular space emerges when the fight takes place. In that space, boxing unfolds. Fragments of boxing exist elsewhere – habits, practices, logics – but it is only in the fight that they concentrate and become boxing.

Boxing is a struggle for control – of the self and the opponent. It is a struggle for control of the fight. It is pure and full of heart. In the ring, the boxer is unified, body and soul. Boxing is a violent struggle for domination. Yet, it is distinctly different from a struggle for domination outside of the ring because it is consensual.

Boxing is circumstance abstracted from reality. Within the constraints of the fight, conditions have been agreed upon. Boxing is a practice. The boxer establishes control by rendering the opponent powerless. This is not war. In war, there is no logical limitation to the application of force, Clausewitz says. In boxing, there is. The logical limitations have been established clearly. In fact, the limitations – the restraints – make boxing possible.

Like the sonnet, it is boxing’s form that gives it substance. 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, all of these constraints exist within the boxer.

Within the constraints, the boxer attempts to maintain control of themselves and impose control upon their opponent. Form creates a space for a practice to emerge which can exist nowhere else. Boxing is mastery of form.

Boxing is subtle. It is the slight shift in weight, the fractional difference in the placement of the feet, the mere millimeters between a graceful slip and a knockout, the roll of a shoulder, fractional – imperceptible – analysis and reaction. Turning thought into action without division – mind and body are unified. At its peak, boxing is the embodiment of will. It demonstrates the pinnacle of human ability.

Luke Beirne was born in Ireland and lives in Canada. His debut novel debut novel, Foxhunt, was released by Baraka Books in April 2022. His second novel, Blacklion, which will be published later this year.