- Boxing in Philadelphia: Tales of Struggle and Survival by Gabe Oppenheim
One of the many intriguing aspects of Boxing in Philadelphia is its central thesis that what counts is not whether you win or lose but where the competition takes place. Gabe Oppenheim’s narrative draws, in many respects, from Karl Raitz’s pioneering analyses of the theaters of sport in which he articulated the notion that sports places (in this case, the arena and the boxing gymnasium) are complex landscape ensembles so that both the contest and its location contribute to the overall experience.
In the world of fiction, one finds, for example, Ian Rankin’s Scottish detective Rebus unravelling mysteries against a background in which the city of Edinburgh emerges as a central dramatic figure/player. Similarly, Victor Hugo in his iconic Les Miserables uses the vast network of the Paris underground as a stage to highlight his storytelling.
With Philadelphia, America’s fifth largest city, the City of Brotherly Love is home to all manner of items and settings that are synonymous with the country’s storied past. In a contemporary milieu, the film Rocky embraced the city, and Sylvester Stallone’s celebrated run and jog, with flying fists, up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art became a cultural beacon. City Commerce Director Dick Doran commented that the training stunt employed by Rocky did more for the city’s image than “anyone since Ben Franklin.”
Oppenheim claims that Philadelphia was the birthplace of boxing in America and that it was a welter of back-street bars where organized brawls launched a public hunger for grassroots professional boxing. The legendary black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson fought three times in Philadelphia, and, arguably, the greatest boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson, boxed on twenty occasions in Philadelphia. Even the incomparable Joe Louis had a Philadelphia connection—he was trained by a Philadelphia boxer.
Boxing in Philadelphia also allows Oppenheim the opportunity to write about cities in decline. He bemoans what has happened to Detroit, Baltimore, Camden, and Newark. He writes of old and broken-down factories, a displaced population, and Philadelphia as “a carcass of what it was” (xxi).
Boxing in Philadelphia makes for a good read because it is a voyage of discovery. Many of the boxers scrutinized are relatively unknown fighters who had to scrap and bully and live out a precarious existence in which life was all about struggle and survival (the book’s subtittle). One such boxer was Johnny “Bang-Bang” Alford, who fought from 1959 to 1968. He read Julius Caesar and Cyrano de Bergerac, and, long before Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali established the persona of the fast-talking athlete with a delicious quote, Alford lined up an opponent and announced, “Your hands are quick, your heart is stout, but now I’m going to knock you out” (xxiii). And he did.
Oppenheim’s book is made up of eight chapters. He calls them “meditations on a different aspect of the city” (xxiii). Several of the chapters are profiles of individual fighters, and, although Oppenheim enjoys recounting stories of success and victory, boxing is never far removed from sagas of loss and disaster. Joe Frazier’s Gym symbolizes that sort of bleak [End Page 437] picture. It was forced to be shuttered in 2008 because of being in financial straits. In 2011, Frazier died of liver cancer at the age of sixty-seven. Frazier’s Gym, a onetime mecca for a host of eager and optimistic boxers, had become a furniture and bedding store.
Boxing in Philadelphia is far removed from the elegant writing of Gerald Early (The Culture of Bruising) or the cerebral thrust of Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing). That being said, Oppenheim’s book has an earthy, genuine, leather, sweat-and-swat feel to it. This man is passionate about boxing and has the rare gift of seeing himself, and his vision, as it really is.
If you’re gonna write about boxing, you need...