- Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science by Gerald R. Gems
In Boxing Gerald Gems has put together a very good book on pugilism and a first-class sports history narrative. While the scholarship and analysis of his work is impeccable, the book’s biggest impact is in the craft and grace of the prose. This is a history ably presented because of the excellent writing that sustains it. The four-page introduction to Boxing is a miniature work of art and nicely sets the stage for an inquiring scrutiny of the sport’s evolution, modernization, and global impact. Here are three snippets from that introduction that capture the Gems’s genius for describing a complex cultural phenomenon with sentences that are simple, direct, and grasp the elemental appeal of the “sweet science.”
Despite the inherent brutality and countless human tragedies occurring in the ring, some see a work of art in the choreographed performance of ducking, feinting, footwork, and the rhythmic staccato of punches. Sugar Ray Robinson brought a particular elegance to the sport both inside and outside the ring. Muhammad Ali exhibited a flair and exuberance that extended well beyond the battlefield. Sugar Ray Leonard borrowed from both . . . (p. xi).
Writers, both male and female, have been particularly attracted to the human drama that unfolds in the boxing ring. . . . Each round presents a scene in a drama that might increase or relieve tension, a Darwinian struggle, a physical and psychological contest, a public display of human limitations that involves strategies and counter-strategies of pure combat without weapons other than one’s body. It is a type of nonliterary expression, a craft, and in its best forms an art (p. xxi).
While many see boxing as a primal activity, a residual sport at odds with the civilizing process, I [Gems] hope this work will provide reason for its cultural relevance (p. xiv).
Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science comprises seven chapters that examine “Ancient Boxing,” “The Evolution of Boxing,” “The Relationship between Boxing and Social Class,” “The Social Construction of Race,” “The Concept of Ethnicity,” “Religion,” and “Gender.” Chapter eight is the conclusion.
All too often boxing studies omit, or underplay, the impact of the photographed athlete. One of the huge attractions of Boxing is to see the physicality of the combatant(s) exposed to full view. Boxing scores a knockout with action pictures on the cover (Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Canelo Alvarez, Gus Wilson and Jack Dempsey, Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard) and a host of photographs throughout the book. Valuable archival photographic material from the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas at Austin is on display.
While Gems, as historical commentator, succeeds mightily in his analyses of social class, race, ethnicity, and religious influences it is his chapter on gender issues that is his piece de resistance. His thesis is that women’s boxing, despite the compartmentalizing of gender and identity, has entered the mainstream. In this chapter he draws from all manner of sources including the legendary and celebrated actress, Mae West. In 1930 she had [End Page 125] lovers, bodyguards, and chauffeurs who were boxers. A decade earlier she hired the boxer/actor Victor McLaglen to train her for a secret bout that she planned with fellow actress Eleanor Boardman.
Gems draws from, and taps into, a deep well of materials. Boxing has no less than eighty-one pages of notes and bibliography.
This reviewer has some quibbles. While Boxing is subtitled as a concise history the first chapter “Ancient Boxing” sits awkwardly, and interrupts the sweep and flow of the rest of the book. Could it have been left out? Appendices can be useful so Appendix 2 “Weight Class” is valuable for the non-boxing reader. However, the inclusion of Appendix 3 “Boxing Rules,” in light of the vast amount of rules material not included, seem problematic. Also, one wonders if the notion of criminality...