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On Boxing Paperback – August 29, 2006
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Yes, the same Joyce Carol Oates who packs one of the most lethal punches in American literature also happens to be an astute observer of the sweet science. Oates filters her knockout collection of essays through multifaceted prisms of art, history, sexuality, and politics to directly confront and explore boxing's physical and commercial brutality, but also the sense of human struggle and survival that's at boxing's purest core. "In the boxing ring," she writes, "man is in extremis, performing an atavistic rite ... for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America's tragic theater." And from her ringside perspective, Oates, a true heavyweight of letters, analyzes the performances just brilliantly. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Library Journal
A fight fan since her youth, novelist Oates follows in the tradition of boxing-loving writers like Hemingway and Mailer. In a slim volume expanded from a New York Times Magazine article, she candidly assays "The Sweet Science" for its spectacle, aesthetic elements, and its history from ancient Greece and Rome to today's ring dominated by callous promoters, casinos, and TV. Oates concedes boxing's brutality and often seamy side but finds positive merits as tragic theater. Good fare for fans and haters alike, especially those who have read Thomas Hauser's The Black Lights ( LJ 10/15/85) and Sam Toperoff's Sugar Ray Leonard and Other Noble Warriors ( LJ 11/1/86). Morey Berger, Monmouth Cty. Lib., Freehold, N.J.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
This said, the more you know about the history of boxing, going back to the bare-knuckle days or ancient Greece (and I am currently reading Keirnan’s The Duel in European History, Mee’s The History of Bare Knuckle Prize Fighting, and Gorn’s excellent The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America), the more you will enjoy this book.
I have to mention that some of the writing on the history of race and boxing is powerful and extremely important, from before Jack Johnson through Ali and Tyson. She covers racism, lynchings, and all of those things that came before, during, and after that intertwine with the history of boxing.
An example of Oates’s prose:
“Where in his feckless youth Ali was a dazzling figure combining, say, the brashness of Hotspur and the insouciance of Lear’s Fool, he became in these dark, brooding, increasingly willed fights the closest analogue boxing contains to Lear himself; or, rather, since there is no great fight without two great boxers, the title matches Ali-Frazier I (which Frazier won by a decision) and Ali-Frazier III (which Ali won, just barely, when Frazier virtually collapsed after the fourteenth round) are boxing’s analogues to King Lear—ordeals of unfathomable human courage and resilience raised to the level of classic tragedy.” (197)
She's far too grandiose in her claims, too arrogant in her attempts to encapsulate what boxing is and isn't. It just comes off as uninformed and pompous. The book seems to be meant for the people she encounters at dinner parties. People who know nothing about boxing, who aren't really interesting in knowing, and who will only nod politely as you cleverly try to draw parallels between unrelated topics. Sadly since they are indeed unrelated, no matter how much she tries to sew them up into an insightful bit of boxing anthropology, she fails. There are long passages of word salad and armchair psychology that don't describe anything meaningful or true in regards to boxing, at least not in my opinion (and I'm sure it would be the opinion of most boxers, everywhere).
So read it if you feel compelled. Perhaps make it a game to see how many times she repeats the same language over and over, or uses the same phraseology. She particularly loves the word quotidian. But avoid this book if you're looking for some actual insights into boxing. You'll do much better with A.J. Liebling.
Oates also discusses the rise of Mike Tyson, and his desire to punch Jesse Ferguson's nose into his brain. She also underscores how terrible judging can mar an otherwise compelling boxing match (Holmes-Spinks II as an example).
The author feels that Muhammad Ali in his prime was one of if not the greatest fighter of all time. She pulls not punches, though, in describing Ali's early racist, segregationist comments.
There is also a chapter about the great Jack Johnson and how he taunted opponents in the ring, dated (and married) white women, and lived the way he wanted to live, and was revered and reviled by many.
The book is a bit dated, and there are occasional misspellings of fighters' names (Pernell Whitaker, not Pernell Whittaker), but the insight into the game is timeless and priceless.