The Manly Art
Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society
Clifford Geertz has a lot to answer for. Ever since he published his essay on Balinese cockfighting fifteen years ago, sportswriters, who used to be (mainly) fans, have increasingly been social historians (or fans disguised as social historians). They use sports to tell us about everything in society except sports—about the relations of the classes or the sexes, about the community’s legal machinery, about its political values. Geertz found that cockfighting in Bali was both a protest against the legal order (first imperialist, then puritanically nationalist) and a replication of it, partly inverting and partly enforcing ordinary divisions in the society. This makes cockfighting “a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks,” with the fixed betting orders put under strain by the betters’ identification with the cocks, who revert to harsher standards, whereby survival is the only privilege and death the only deprivation.
Well, you can say that sort of thing about tennis, too—and sociologists are now ritually saying it. The Olympic games are more intensely scrutinized for international political significance, at the moment, than the United Nations. But Geertzism is nowhere more at home than in the boxing ring. Boxing, through most of its modern history, has been illegal, like cockfighting—in fact, early prizefights were often paired with cockfights or rat fights. The early organization of prizefighting into an unofficial hierarchy of champions, the enforcement of progressively more intricate rules, the uncouth exclusivity of “the fancy” (regular fight followers, a club made up of all the people who passed the Groucho test against “better” clubs)—we can find in all of these an inversion-replication of “ordinary” civilized life.
Boxing in the nineteenth century had all the thrill of fashionable outlawry, even before one bare fist dug into a scarfwrapped abdomen. Only those in the know (an admittedly larger number as the century wore on) could even find the fight, and then it might be moved in mid-course if the cops caught on, or were observed to have caught on, or were prodded on the scene into reluctant action. Fights were held in “no man’s lands”—on islands between states, or just over borders. The fancy was a floating world, reassembled from match to match, obeying its own half-articulated code, much like Clopin’s ragged kingdom of thieves and beggars in Victor Hugo. There was a special frisson for the aristocrat or intellectual who won acceptance in this underworld, like Gringoire brought to the “Court of Miracles.” Byron at ringside felt like a mini-Conrad, his own Corsair. Geertz felt he was truly accepted by the Balinese only after police tried to arrest him for being at an illegal cockfight. Though he was not arrested, he shared the camaraderie of those “caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid.” Tex Rickard would later make that same frisson available to women when he created a “Jenny Wren” section in the arenas where he held his fights, so ladies bold …