John Sullivan
John Sullivan; drawing by David Levine

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).1 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 enough could break the taboo on their presence.

The struggle of early fight promoters with the law has a comic air, like the tales of moonshiners outracing revenuers. Tremendous ingenuity went into the logistics of quick getaways, with the winner of a bout pulling on clothes as he raced to a specially rented train already steamed up on the track. Even after boxing became legal in some states, boxing films were outlawed in them all (largely to prevent the showing of black fighter Jack Johnson’s prowess). When customs officers seized prints of the Johnson-Willard fight, which had been held in Cuba, a crazy ingenuity gained possession of the image without physically moving any film over a border:

A movie camera was set up on the American side eight inches from the New York-Canada border, with the lens directed to the north. At approximately the same distance on the Canadian side rested a box with an electric light; through this was run an original positive film taken from the negative film made in Havana. Unexposed film was moved along a reel and through the camera on the American side; the two reels were connected in a way that allowed both to turn simultaneously, and thus a negative reproduction was made in America of the positive film in Canada. Pantomimic Corporation then rephotographed from the secondary negative and prepared to distribute positives of the contraband film.

That story is one of the many interesting ones told in Jeffrey Sammons’s Beyond the Ring. But for a full treatment of boxing’s early days—and for the most overtly Geertzian account—we must begin with Elliott Gorn’s The Manly Art. For Gorn, the bare-knuckle era of the nineteenth century was the only pure age of boxing—an expression of “the free and easy cultural style” of the working class, which was later taken over and manipulated by middle-class evangelical reformers. The fancy was a set of Robin Hoods resisting the onslaught of industrialized capitalism. The goldenest age within this happy time was the early part of the century, the romantic era when high-culture misgivings about the disappearance of ancient ways took the concrete form of toffs attending prizefights. For Gorn, Lord Byron at ringside was engaged in essentially the same enterprise as when he went to liberate Greece. At a time when the industrial revolution was consuming workers in large schemes of production, men “took control over their lives” by resorting to the ring. For a while, they had some heretical upper-class support for this rebellion against the “moral arrogance of the middle class,” with its Bibles and its timetables preaching abstinence and productivity. Taverns were the lairs in which people could hide out from Mrs. Grundy: “Saloons were at the heart of the working-class life. Cliques of men created informal but stable brotherhoods in particular bars,” which served as home base for the fancy.


Gorn deliberately emphasizes gender in brotherhood. Men went to the bars to hide from their wives as well as their bosses, since Bible and timetable found their allies in the feminine part of the working class. Male rites and bonding were at the heart of bare-knuckle boxing, according to Gorn, who quotes lavishly from “homoerotic” descriptions of boxers’ bodies in the sporting press of the time.

The heroes in older books on boxing, those written by mere fans, were people who tried to legitimize the sport, to make it respectable and regulated. These are the villains in Gorn’s book, the cat’s-paws of the reforming busybodies, those who wanted to get control over the working-man’s recreation as well as his work time. John L. Sullivan, who made the sport widely admired if not entirely respectable, is treated partly as a dupe of the commercial world, and partly as a betrayer of his own class. Sullivan was the one man of his time who could introduce the Marquis of Queensberry rules into general use without seeming to “sissify” the sport. Those rules called for gloves, which seemed more gentlemanly (amateurs used gloves in their sparring matches at athletic clubs), though professional use of gloves is actually more deadly than bare fists.2 For Gorn, the most subversive of the new rules allowed fights to be held on a stage rather than the traditional “turf.” That, along with indoor lighting, enlarged the audience that could see a fight. (Many early bouts had been fought in the dark to evade the law.) Indoor fights let promoters set conditions on attendance, ranging from admission charges to the suppression of drinking and violence outside the ring. The collaborative crowd became the regulated audience.

Michael T. Isenberg, in his study of John L. Sullivan as a social phenomenon of the Gilded Age, shows that Sullivan preferred Marquis of Queensberry rules because they fit his style of fighting better than the old bare-knuckle (London Prize Ring) rules. Sullivan had a reckless energy of total assault; but as an alcoholic from his youth, he fought usually out of condition, and sometimes drunk. Though he was able to endure incredible amounts of punishment, his ability to deliver it flickered on and off after his crushing first charge. Under London Prize Ring rules, a round ended with every knockdown, throw, or fall to one knee, and the downed man had thirty seconds to make it back to scratch. So there is a falsely heroic air about old accounts of fights that lasted eighty or ninety rounds and went on for two or three hours: much of that time was consumed in the thirty-second rests a fighter could buy for himself at any moment simply by taking a fall. That was particularly frustrating for Sullivan, who could not rain thunderous punches on a person who went down at the first tap when Sullivan caught up with him. Just fighting “the Great John L.” down to exhaustion, and avoiding being knocked out by him, was a victory for some of his opponents, who lived to mock his fabled strength.

Queensberry rules forced any downed man to get up within ten seconds and continue the round, coming back again and again to the fire blast of Sullivan’s fists. Furthermore, since Sullivan fought in berserk seizures of destructiveness, he was not careful enough about where he landed his blows, and his hands were damaged under London rules. He remained a rather bloated bare-knuckle champion as long as he did by challenging foes to a preliminary Queensberry fight before the official (but illegal) championship fight; then he finished them off so thoroughly with the gloves that all interest was lost in a subsequent bare-knuckle event.


Queensberry rules confined and intensified what had been open-ended and slipshod. No more wrestling holds or throws. No more staggering around in the mud for hours. No more injuring an opponent with one’s shoes rather than one’s fists. Since the “turf” afforded poor footing, often at the beginning of a bout and always by the end, fighters improvised cleated shoes, with which they gouged the opponent’s feet, ankles, and calves. Sullivan seemed to be wading through blood in his international fight, held in France, with the British challenger Charlie Mitchell; but it was mainly his own blood, shed from his lower extremities.

Though Isenberg is writing a complete biography of Sullivan (a difficult task, given all the intervening legends), he too is primarily interested in social history, placing Sullivan in the world of vaudeville, celebrity, and excess that marked the Gilded Age’s climax. Where Gorn thinks of Sullivan as a tool of the genteel moralists, who tamed the raw vigor of the unauthorized ring, Isenberg finds in him a product of an age that openly glorified greed and ego, the reign of robber barons and the raw nobility of the Yellow Press. Theodore Roosevelt idolized Sullivan, much as Byron had doted on John Jackson. In Veblen’s chosen decade, Sullivan was as conspicuous a consumer as one can imagine of booze, women, money, fame, and physical punishment.

Isenberg, like Gorn, studies boxing’s connection with the working class. But where Gorn glorifies a tavern society that forged bonds of brotherhood, permitting a spontaneity banned elsewhere in society, Isenberg finds a world of men beating their wives, children, and friends. Sullivan, sober, had a kind of Babe Ruth childishness and generosity. Drunk, he pummeled anyone near him, including his wife. Like the “Raging Bull” in Scorsese’s movie, Sullivan punched the world with his face, amazing the world and destroying his face. Emblematic of the many evenings he ended up comatose, sometimes in jail, sometimes in the hospital, most often in a strange hotel room, was the night he wandered out onto a train’s caboose to urinate from it, pitched face forward into the gravel, and was resuscitated only when people missed him on the train, had it backed up, and found him inert on the tracks. The showbiz side of Sullivan did not prevail until he could no longer fight professionally, at which point he took to the vaudeville circuit as a temperance lecturer, heroically if belatedly practicing what he preached.

Boxing of the post-Sullivan era is covered by Jeffrey Sammons. Though he concentrates on the years 1930–1980, he picks up the story by going back to Sullivan, “The Father of American Prize-fighting” in his account, and—more significantly for his book—continuing through the first decades of this century, which was the era of Jack Johnson. If boxing was an underworld reflection of (and on) the larger society, black boxing was a reflection of that reflection. The idealized brotherhood of Gorn’s white working class was nowhere more authentic than in its opposition to interracial prizefighting. Sullivan’s famous boast that he could knock out any man alive was based on the tacit thesis that Peter Jackson, the great black fighter from Australia, was not a man.

Sammons is a black scholar young enough to have adored Muhammad Ali in his childhood. It is not surprising that he treats more centrally the racism that all authors of the books under review admit has been a permanent feature in the fancy. The dubious social standing of boxing was given a supreme test when a black man finally became the heavy-weight champion in 1908. As we have seen, that development led to the banning of fight films, even in states where boxing had become legal, to prevent people from seeing the revolting spectacle of a black man beating a white. But, on the other hand, it led to a worldwide hunt for a “great white hope” to reclaim the crown, giving society a more widespread and intense concern with boxing. Jack London called for James Jeffries, the undefeated former champion, to come out of retirement to “remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.” Johnson mowed down Jeffries and several hulking white hopes (including Victor McLaglen, later part of John Ford’s repertory group), before a circus strong man, Jess Willard, was found and hoisted up, like a tower of flesh, to fall on Johnson.

Tex Rickard, who had exploited the great white hope in setting up the Johnson-Jeffries match, waged a brilliant campaign of publicity, bribery, and blackmail, to turn the vindication of the white race into a larger legitimation of boxing. He helped create the myth of Jack Dempsey (who defended his title only six times in seven years, and fought only one superior opponent, Gene Tunney, losing to him both times). Part of Rickard’s attempt to “elevate” boxing was the use of his “Jenny Wrens,” women whose presence was a kind of blessing on the sport. Katharine Fullerton Gerould even reported the first Dempsey-Tunney fight for Harper’s, treating it as a Greek tragedy. In state drives to legalize boxing, the presence of women at bouts would be used, over and over, to prove that boxing was not brutalizing.

Meanwhile, the racist aspect of the sport continued on an international scale. When “Battling Siki” of Senegal became the light heavyweight champion of the world, American newspapers rebuked the French for the political risk of putting a colonial in the same ring with Georges Carpentier of the colonizing country. (Ironically, Siki had been a war hero fighting for the French during the Great War.) Dempsey refused to fight Harry Wills, as Sullivan had avoided Peter Jackson. Another group discriminated against in America was admitted to the ring before blacks were. “By 1928 there were more prominent Jewish boxers than there were boxers from any other single ethnic or racial group.” Even Max Baer, the “sometimes Jew,” fought with a Star of David on his trunks. But Sammons shows that the press treated Jewish boxers with condescension. I could add to his examples a sports column written in the Des Moines Dispatch (February 5, 1937), in which “Dutch” Reagan rebukes “Bob Pastor, a young Jewish lad,” for running away from Joe Louis in the ring, rather than standing and taking his beating like a man. This made Pastor a disgrace to his mother, who had “spent her life battling slums and social injustice.” According to Reagan, Bob Pastor was a quitter—the charge that had echoed since 1935 around Max Baer, who also refused to be beaten any further by Louis. Jewish fighters were either quitters like Baer or clowns like “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom.

Gates dwindled, along with the perception of the sport’s seriousness, during the period of Jewish ascendancy (the late Twenties and early Thirties). But then promoter Mike Jacobs put together Mrs. Hearst’s Milk Fund as a sanitizing charitable cause for bouts (accompanied by good Hearst paper coverage), with a milk-brown fighter given humility drills, to revive the sport. What Jacobs realized was that patriotism could be used to temper racism. He matched Joe Louis against Primo Carnera on the eve of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. A clever cartoonist drew Louis as the little African country and Carnera as the elongated “boot” of Italy. Black youths in Harlem shouted after the fight, “Let’s get Mussolini next.” Then Louis repeated his victory over fascism in the form of Carnera by beating the Nazis in Max Schmeling. (The fact that a Jew, Max Baer, had already defeated Schmeling in 1933 was not taken seriously by the press.)

Despite continuing resistance in the South, Louis integrated boxing a decade before Jackie Robinson could do the same thing for baseball. And in both cases, the rules were the same—a demonstrative gratitude for the opportunity. But before blacks could dominate the sport, Italians got their turn. Sammons is careful to point out that the criminal influence on boxing had been there long before the era of Marciano and Graziano and LaMotta, and that it was a multi-ethnic mob that preyed on gambling profits. But Graziano and LaMotta make clear in their own books that part of their working-class culture was the pervasive Mob.

Sammons’s book reaches its climax in the rise and decline of Muhammad Ali. Here all his themes combine—race, politics, art, money, theater, and physical destruction. When my family was watching Ali fight Ken Norton on television in 1973, my twelve-year-old son went upstairs before the end, saying he could not bear to see Ali lose. (He was fighting, we did not then know, with a broken jaw.) The last part of Sammons’s book is the scholarly equivalent of that reaction. In Ali, lethal agility was perfected to destroy similarly perfected bodies. It took all his skills to let him prevail long enough for those very skills to be dramatically obliterated. The result is that tragic caricature of himself that walks about as a standing rebuttal of all boxing’s claims. Sammons concludes his book with a massing of evidence from economic studies, physical tests, demographic tables, and the history he has told himself, to prove that boxers are particularly exploited members of the generally exploited classes within our society. The few who succeed delude the many who try into short efforts that unfit them for other walks of life. Even those who succeed usually end up damaged, in debt, or impoverished. In a survey of bouts done during the 1970s, there was an average of 21 ring deaths per year (3.8 deaths per 1,000 participants, compared to college football’s 0.3 deaths per 1,000). And the deaths are just part of the toll for people who suffer brain damage and all the other debilities that testify to the deadly improvement of the human physique when it is turned into an implement for its own demolition.

Sammons should be required reading for anyone who takes up Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing. Oates continues the tradition of her fellow Jenny Wren, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, finding classical Greek antecedents for “America’s tragic theater,” “not an altar of sacrifice solely but one of consecration and redemption.” Like Elliott Gorn, she sees class bias in any opposition to boxing, which is “particularly vulnerable to attack by white middle-class reformers (the AMA in particular) who show very little interest in lobbying against equally dangerous Establishment sports like football, auto racing, thoroughbred horse racing.” She agrees with him that boxing is “a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity.” She rightly notes that boxers are as proud of being able to take a punch as of delivering one. Jake LaMotta, in his autobiography, has his best friend hit him over and over as hard as he can (in the movie, this task is given his brother)—the bond with this friend is the true love story followed in the arc of the book, as wives come and go.

The brotherhood of pain makes Oates feel a teensy bit more brave herself as she contemplates it: “To move through pain to triumph—or the semblance of triumph—is the writer’s, as it is the boxer’s, hope.” It is amazing how much boxing reminds people of what they do, only more so. Norman Mailer tried to capture the tremendousness of it all by comparing a boxing match to his having to debate Bill Buckley for twenty-four hours without a break.3 Geertz boasts that, at the pit where cocks fought to the death, he and his wife, facing the police, “had not simply ‘pulled out our papers…and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status’ ” (anthropology as a blood sport).

Oates admits the dangers of the sport, only to belittle them:

Surely it is championship chess, and not boxing, that is our most dangerous game—at least so far as psychological risk is concerned. Megalomania and psychosis frequently await the grand master when his extraordinary mental powers can no longer be discharged onto the chessboard.

And if killer chess is mowing down bright people, the streets will get lower-class ring fodder: “So frequently do young boxers claim they are in greater danger on the street than in the ring that one has to assume they are not exaggerating for the sake of credulous white reporters.” This statement reveals a blindness to the differences between moral situations strikingly like that displayed in the argument that more people died of traffic accidents during the Vietnam War than from battle wounds.

At least Oates is honest about what appeals to her in boxing. It is the blood. Like “Vicki” in Scorsese’s movie, she is ready to kiss the cuts above the fighter’s eyes. She glories in

the electrifying effect upon a typical fight crowd when fighting suddenly emerges out of boxing—when, for instance, a boxer’s face begins to bleed and the fight seems to enter a new and more dangerous phase. The flash of red is the visible sign of the fight’s authenticity in the eyes of many spectators and boxers are justified in being proud, as many of them are, of their facial scars.

For many fans, Muhammad Ali was not a “real” fighter so long as he could boast of being pretty, of not having been bloodied. For Mailer, Ali could not truly win until he had been brutally beaten by Joe Frazier. Only that would “show America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man.”4 The blood lust was sharpened in the days of bare-knuckle fighting, when bets were laid on “first blood” as well as on the final outcome.

Oates’s description of the electrifying effect of blood is uncannily like the words St. Augustine used of his friend Alypius, a fan of the gladiators who thought he had overcome his addiction till friends dragged him back to a match. “At sight of the blood, he took a sip [ebibit] of animality. Not turning away, but fixing his eyes on it, he drank deeper [hauriebat] of the frenzies without realizing it and, taking complicit joy in the contest, was inebriated [inebriebatur] by his delight in blood” (Confessions 6.8). For Augustine, the real harm was done in the crowd rather than the arena. Alypius “was wounded deeper in the soul than was the gladiator in his body.” I had read that passage dozens of times, but it did not come home to me till, five years ago, I stood talking with Muhammad Ali, embarrassed by his inarticulateness, and deeply ashamed. It was not only his own superb body that had done this horrible thing to his own superb mind. I had done it too, as part of that crowd urging him on, applauding the blood. I have not watched a boxing match since then.

This Issue

February 18, 1988