Boxing, race and the working class

Although this blog is primarily about rugby, Lucia Trimbur's 2013 book on boxing in America - Come Out Swinging. The Changing World of Boxing in Gleason’s Gym (published by Princeton University Press in 2013) - deals with many of the social issues that I have sought to address in my writing about rugby. I reviewed her book for the journal Sport in History last year and I think that this revised version of that review will be interesting for at least some readers.

Come Out Swinging looks at New York's historic Gleason's Gym to provide an important commentary on the social devastation wrought on America’s black communities over the past thirty or so years. It also examines the growth of women's boxing and the increasing colonisation of boxing gyms by the elite of New York’s so-called FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) economy.

Gleason’s is a gym with an impeccable pedigree. Although now based in Brooklyn’s yuppified, surreally-named DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) district, the gym has its origins in the Bronx of the 1930s and has been the nursery for champions such as Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran and Mike Tyson. Lucia Trimbur began her research there to explore women’s changing relationship to the sport but soon realised that the gym had many other stories to tell.

At the book’s heart is a study of the role that boxing plays in the lives of Gleason’s largely black and Hispanic boxers of colour. For these men, deprived of almost any prospect of work by the destruction of manufacturing industry and living with the continuous threat of jail, boxing becomes their occupation, ‘work without wages’ in Trimbur’s words. Despite being amateurs and few having any ambitions to step up to the professional level, the gym is their workplace and they approach training with the commitment and discipline of a vocation. 

This approach is something that has been observed in other aspects of working-class cultural life. The book’s findings echo Eric Hobsbawm’s observation in his 1986 essay on Count Basie that sport, like the jazz of which he was writing, is ‘a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection.’

This I think explains the apparent contradiction that Trimbur identifies between the desperate social circumstances of the fighters and the extreme emphasis that the gym’s trainers - who are also black - place on hard work, strict discipline and individualism, directly echoing the rhetoric of neo-liberalism. 

There is an extreme reluctance by the gym’s trainers to allow boxers to blame their failures either on racism or the devastating impact of capitalism on their lives. Lacking any current political solution to their problems, boxing offers these men a way to gain respect in a society that has discarded them. Although politically aware, Gleason’s trainers realise that for their charges to fail at boxing would to be swept away into prison, drug addiction or worse, hence their insistence on complete commitment.

The book also examines the importance of boxing in their lives of the women who train at the gym. Perhaps the most machismo of male sports, boxing has had little tolerance for women. It was only in 1983, when faced with falling membership income, that Gleason’s co-owner Bruce Silverglade suggested accepting women as members in order to boost revenue. ‘Half the world is women!’ he told his reluctant partner. 

It was to be another ten years before women were allowed to compete in amateur boxing bouts. When Trimbur joined the gym it had 300 women members, primarily from the middle classes but also some from working-class backgrounds. For these women, boxing is a means of social and physical empowerment no less than for the men. Yet, as the book recounts, neither the increasing numbers of women fighters nor the success of gym members in women’s amateur tournaments has undermined the male chauvinism at the heart of the sport. 

The third and final part of the book looks at the huge growth in white urban FIRE economy professionals joining the gym over the past couple of decades. In an echo of young men in mid-nineteenth century cities, they fear that their office jobs are causing them to lose touch with their masculinity. These are men for whom Fight Club is a self-help manual. 

As Trimbur explains, their visits to Gleason’s are underpinned by a racist belief that the black boxers they encounter possess an ‘authentic’, ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ masculinity that will help them to recover their own maleness, an idea she describes as being ‘based on the very sufferings of racial segregation and class exclusion’. Her description of these men as unashamedly ‘buying and selling blackness’ is a notion that underlines the fact the American Civil War remains unfinished in many respects.

Inevitably a work of this kind will be compared to Loic Wacquant’s 2004 Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, his classic ethnography of a boxing gym on Chicago’s South Side. Wacquant’s book took us deep inside the world of the boxer, as he immersed himself in the daily lives of the black boxers who inhabited the gym. Wacquant called his study ‘carnal sociology’ in that he sought to understand, by becoming a boxer and exploring his physical experience as much as his intellectual response to his environment. 

There are elements of this approach in Trimbur’s book - for example, she does take up boxing - but this is not her central concern. Rather, Come Out Swinging uses the gym to explore the changing social and urban dynamics of twenty-first century New York, the rise of the financial class, the changing leisure patterns of women and, centrally, the tsunami of social devastation that de-industrialisation has wrought upon America’s black working class.

Lucid and refreshingly free of unessential academic jargon, this is a book that should be read by any anthropologist, historian or sociologist seeking to understand the changing world of sport and leisure since the 1980s. 

Most importantly, it is a book is written with great humanity. Trimbur is aware that boxing has always been an insatiable devourer of men and that it is fuelled by the furnace of poverty, racism and class injustice. Yet, as Come Out Fighting admirably demonstrates, she also knows that it can also be a means by which men and women can gain self-respect and, in a world where capitalism deems increasing numbers of people to be valueless, develop their own sense of self-worth. 

(A version of this review appeared in Sport in History, Vol. 34, Issue 3, July 2014)