- The Urban Geography of Boxing—Race, Class and Gender by Benita Heiskanen
In the world of academia it is a common occurrence to come across a book crafted, and carved out, from a doctoral dissertation. What makes The Urban Geography of Boxing an intriguing uncommon narrative is the notion of a Finnish female engaged, and embraced, both as a participant, and observer, in the landscape of boxing in Texas. The idea for the dissertation—and eventually the book—grew out of documentary field work carried out in the Ph.D. program in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 2000:
. . . I began to think how the boxer’s body was so central to his or her existence: physical process, day-to-day survival, identity formations, and being in the world. I also thought of the role of space in boxers’ delineation of their surroundings, such as the barrio, boxing gyms, and fight venues. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that everything about boxing—the ring, the gym, the corner, the dressing room, and ringside—was spatially organized. It was this spatio-bodily conundrum that first sparked my curiosity in writing about boxing(p. xii).
In her acknowledgment Heiskanen notes that the importance of dialogue is central and critical to her work. Indeed, one of the best features of The Urban Geography of Boxing are the detailed conversations with thirty boxers over a period of time (2000–2004). A later exchange with an anonymous Iraq veteran in February of 2010 is the type of painstaking data collection that attends only the best of scholarship.
The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, and an epilogue. Chapter 1, entitled “On the Barrio’s Ropes,” is a spotlight on the East Austin communities where the majority of the interviewees began their careers. Heiskanen, while acknowledging that such professional boxers are perceived as being marginalized “disposable” minority groups, stresses the point that the sport provides them with “extraordinary self-help ingenuity” (p.10). [End Page 344]
Chapter 2, “Wo/Manly Art at the Gym,” examines male and female boxers’ view of the positives and negatives of bodily labor. Chapter 3, “Business Is Business Backdoor” looks at judicial, economic and labor issues that impact boxing with Chapter 4, “The Limelight of the Ring,” being a richly layered discourse on the theatre and drama of a sport that is as much about hype and hoopla as pure athleticism:
Alongside the technical battle, the fight calls attention to multiple identity performances, complete with the messages displayed in trunks, robes, and ring paraphernalia, embellished by the music accompanying the entrance of each entourage(p. 11).
Chapter 5, “Through the Media’s Lens,” highlights the portrayal of boxers by the mass media and the repeated motif of the boxer as either an admired folk hero or—take the case of Mike Tyson—as a flawed and failed ex-champion. In many respects Chapter 5, “Politicking in Combat Zones,” is the most eye catching in The Urban Geography of Boxing. A section in that chapter detailing boxing as a “player” in Operation Iraqi Freedom reads as if it has elements of Ian Fleming’s fiction that run through it. The chapter tells an astonishing tale. I strongly urge Journal readers to savor the saga of “Termite” Watkins, a car salesman from Houston, Texas, who established an Iraqi boxing team in October of 2003. Heiskanen is at her best when she lets the reader decide just what role boxing serves in this war-sport nexus.
The final chapter of The Urban Geography of Boxing, “The Ivory Tower of the Real World,” sees Heiskanen discussing the notion of being trapped in a certain way, as can be the “invading” cultural anthropologist, by the uncomfortable terrain that investigators have to pass over. For example—“I . . . sometimes had to collaborate with characters that I certainly would not like to even be acquainted with, let alone associate with; and I also unwittingly ended up in circumstances that...