Film Studies scholar Leger Grindon’s latest book Knockout is a masterful work about the history of boxing films since the 1930s. While other scholars like Aaron Baker and Dan Streible have done an excellent job of contextualizing boxing films, Knockout is the first book declaring boxing as a film genre. Like other genres, the boxing genre “portrays persistent social problems as dramatic conflicts” (4). Grindon effectively describes boxing films and situates them in their proper historical context while demonstrating how Americans have viewed the evolving challenges of race, class, and gender.
According to Grindon, the boxing film genre has three important cycles which reflect changes in American history. The first cycle, 1930–1942, explores working-class masculinity and ethnic assimilation. Cycle two, 1946–1956, critiques the post-WWII market economy and deals with racial integration. The last cycle, 1975–1980, responds to Muhammad Ali as a culture icon and the crisis of masculinity created by the Vietnam War, a stagnate economy, and women and African Americans’ struggles for equality. Grindon, however, does not believe a new cycle has arrived, and asserts that documentaries like When We Were Kings (1996) borrow from previous cycles.
Knockout successfully demonstrates how the genre responds to America’s social problems. The dramatic conflicts the protagonist must face include the struggle between body and soul, the market-driven fight between individual competition and group cooperation, the problem minorities confront assimilating into mainstream society, a crisis of masculinity, and the inability to truly fight and defeat oppression. In chapters 3–7, each chapter deals with a specific conflict, and Grindon brilliantly provides a film from all three genre cycles to emphasize change over time. The varying racial/ethnic background of the protagonist mirrors how Americans felt and dealt with problems of race and ethnicity at each specific moment. This model also allows Grindon to effectively integrate material instead of segregating chapters by race. For example, chapter 4 examines Italian-Americans (Kid Galahad, 1937), Mexican Americans (Right Cross, 1950), and African Americans (Mandingo, 1975), allowing the reader to think comparatively.
At its core Knockout is a book about American manhood since the Great Depression. Grindon correctly observes that the boxer shapes American manhood, and adds that “no art has shaped our perception of the boxer as much as motion pictures” (3). Every chapter emphasizes American manliness, including a more focused treatment in chapter 5. With the exception of a few movies like Million Dollar Baby and Girlfight, the protagonist in most boxing films is a man, and the plot emphasizes the crisis of masculinity. These challenges include a man’s inability to provide for his family (The Champ, 1931), the unfair post-WWII economy (The Set Up, 1947), the post-civil rights challenge that white men must confront (Rocky, 1976), and worries about the career women (The Champ, 1979). [End Page 185]
In the end, Knockout is an excellent book describing the boxing film genre. Grindon fluidly links the obvious (Raging Bull) with the not-so-obvious (Pulp Fiction) and has the reader rethinking boxing movies they have previously watched.