Brutality as beautiful

Submitted by AWL on 19 January, 2021 - 6:53 Author: Jim Denham
Boxing match

The Morning Star aspires to being a left-wing alternative to mainstream tabloids. Thus the paper includes sports pages, arts reviews, a crossword, a gardening column, and even a cookery spot (“The Commie Chef”).

The paper’s boxing coverage is by one John Wight, a failed Hollywood screenwriter and well-known figure on the Scottish left. The title of his book This Boxing Game: A Journey in Beautiful Brutality gives a strong clue as to how he regards the “sport”.

A recent Wight column in the Morning Star (“Boxing as violence”) purports to examine what he calls the “contradiction that many writers and public intellectuals have pondered with varying degrees of success through the years”: that boxing “sits at odds with pre-eminent Enlightenment values rooted in a revulsion of violence — or at least violence other than that sanctioned by the state...”

Sadly, Wight’s “examination” comes down to romanticism and cod-psychology. He quotes the writer Joyce Carol Oates’ claim that “spectators at boxing matches relive the murderous infancy of the race.” Oates, says Wight is describing something that is “part and parcel of our species being... a necessary exercise in channelling this unheralded aspect of our nature and providing it with an outlet...”

True, Wight acknowledges: “Violence in boxing is not, as it is in other contact sports, a by-product. It is the very aim and objective from the opening bell to the last.” But it is “controlled, prescripted and takes place according to a codified body of rules”, so in fact “the sport offers a welcome if temporary respite from our lived experience in society at large, underpinned by free market mania, wherein foul play is a necessary correlative of capitalist accumulation.”

As evidence of boxing’s “revolutionary character”, Wight hails “Cuba’s amateur heavyweight star Teofilo Stevenson... glorifying the ideals of the Cuban Revolution.” Stevenson turned down an offer to go pro and fight Muhammad Ali. Mention of Ali, of course, gives Wight the opportunity to claim that “the rise of black champions such as... Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and latterly Ali... allowed the victims of racial injustice and oppression the thrill of seeing themselves represented as more than equal to those keeping them down.” Well, that’s one way of looking at it: Ali’s final years and tragic death from Parkinson’s could be seen as telling a different story.

But no matter, Wight’s enthusiasm will brook no denial, as he branches out into film criticism: Stallone’s Rocky series is the “most notable” screen depiction of boxing but in Fight Club “the search for meaning and the desire to transcend the increasingly narrow parameters of existence under late-stage capitalism is wonderfully depicted.”

Wight ignores Scorsese’s Raging Bull — maybe because it doesn’t paint quite such a romanticised picture.

Wight’s “examination” has by now become a eulogy and he closes by quoting the “magisterial” book Boxing: A Cultural History by Kasia Boddy: “Throughout its long and eventful history as a sport, boxing has remained unfailingly eloquent. At the beginning of the 21st century our appetite for its stories remains undiminished”. Wight concludes: “No serious person could disagree.”

A Trotskyist response to boxing

Sadly, Wight fails to quote from the most important socialist to deal with boxing: James P. Cannon, who in 1951 wrote two essays (Murder in the Garden and A Dead Man’s Decision) inspired by the death of Georgie Flores, killed in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Canon angrily denounced the “precautions” proposed after Flores’ death:

“It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from a dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most of the states of this country up to the turn of the century. Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters into the pit and incite them to spur each other until one keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into a pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilisation... has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators.”

James P. Cannon wouldn’t get quoted in the Morning Star: he was a Trotskyist.

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