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A First-Class Sport

By (August 1, 2009) 5 Comments
Boxing is good for you. That idea might sound strange to a 21st century generation unaccustomed to seeing the bright side of violence. Yet boxing has a long history and continues to have committed adherents, and not only among those whose livelihoods depend on the sport. Belief in the benefits of boxing persists among police officers, for instance, and police athletic leagues factor significantly in boxing history. Police departments do not encourage boxing because with the aim of helping in the creation of future champions, though this has been the outcome more than once. Instead, they do so for another out-of-fashion notion: that boxing is good not only for individuals but for communities.

Theodore Roosevelt regarded boxing, “whether professional or amateur, as a first-class sport.” In his 1913 memoir, he described how as New York City’s police commissioner in the late 19th century he discovered “the establishment of a boxing club in a tough neighborhood always tended to do away with knifing and gun-fighting among the young fellows who would otherwise have been in murderous gangs.” The key was to give potential law-breakers something positive to do. “Many of these young fellows were not naturally criminals at all, but they had to have some outlet for their activities.” Even though later, when serving as governor, he signed a bill outlawing professional boxing, he did this because “the prize ring had become hopelessly debased and demoralized.” Roosevelt objected to the “brutalizing” business of boxing, not to boxing itself. “I shall always maintain that boxing contests themselves make good, healthy sport,” he says in An Autobiography. The advocate of the strenuous life boxed with prizefighter friends as governor and later when he was president.

Senator John McCain, a great admirer of Roosevelt, also sees boxing as a first-class sport but worries about the corrupt business practices surrounding it. McCain devotes a chapter in Worth the Fighting For to praising Roosevelt, both for his efforts to develop the Navy (in which McCain served before entering politics) and for his character and industry just in general. “For the McCains of the United States Navy … presidents just didn’t get much better than Teddy Roosevelt.” More ebulliently, he exclaims: “my God, what a superior man TR was.” TR said the sole objection he had to boxing was “the crookedness that has attended its commercial development,” and McCain would certainly agree. When I interviewed him in the summer of 2002 about the sport, McCain expressed concern about the “exploitation of boxers” as a result of the “predatory practices” of “greedy promoters.” He discussed “abuses” in the conduct of the business of boxing and predicted that there would be “more scandals” in an activity that has become synonymous with scandal. When talking about boxing itself, however, he saw plenty to praise as well as criticize. “It’s given us some of the highest and most exhilarating moments in sports and it’s given us some of the most disgraceful.” He referred to the “uplifting things about boxing” such as the “magnificent display of courage” boxers like Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti offered when they fought.

More than a century after Roosevelt led New York’s police department, another of the city’s police commissioners also briefly held chaired the state’s athletic commission. Ray Kelly brought the policeman’s longstanding faith in boxing to actual regulation of what he called the “much troubled sport.” Like both Roosevelt and McCain, he sees “abuses” plaguing the sport but finds quite a bit to admire about fighters. “The best thing about boxing is the boxers themselves,” he told me during the period when he had the dual roles. He respects their hard work, determination, and willingness to participate in “the most demanding sport situation you can imagine.”

Another Teddy – trainer and boxing commentator Teddy Atlas – was precisely the sort of “young fellow” that concerned Roosevelt, and boxing played a decisive role in turning him away from self-destructive criminal behavior. When Atlas, still a teenager, faced gun and robbery charges, trainer Cus D’Amato testified on his behalf and Atlas received probation on the condition that he remain living with D’Amato. Soon after Atlas’s day in court, D’Amato would start training a juvenile delinquent named Mike Tyson, who was released from reform school into D’Amato’s custody. Even before becoming involved with D’Amato, Atlas had experience with the sort of club Roosevelt endorses. “In those days the cops tried to get problem kids involved in boxing in the Police Athletic League,” (PAL). Atlas writes of his youth in 1970s Staten Island in Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man. He says PAL boxing “was a good program in lots of ways. It helped kids.” Atlas suggests that his long career in the sport, including guiding Michael Moorer to the heavyweight championship, can be traced back to his time “boxing in an old laundry room in a rough project.” Young Atlas continued to steal and get into street fights even after he started boxing and then, because back problems forced him to stop competing, start training fighters, and eventually go straight. Atlas says he would love to see the charitable foundation one day open homes for troubled and abused kids where living would be “centered around a boxing program,” which could help give them “care, direction, instruction, discipline, accountability, and dreams.”

This desire to aid children’s development through boxing is common among both trainers and cops. In his memoir, Serenity, Ralph Wiley recalls his early days as a sportswriter on the boxing beat and visits he paid to the New Oakland Boxing Club, where he met a police officer representing the PAL who worked with young fighters. “Boxing breeds respect,” Jerry Blueford told Wiley. “I don’t care if any of these kids ever become pros, or even good amateurs for that matter. I’m trying to get them into something they can work at. Off the streets. If they leave here in a couple of years and rob a bank, at least they didn’t rob it while they were here.” In a section that harkens back to Roosevelt’s remark about tough neighborhoods, Wiley describes visiting Detroit’s Kronk Boxing Club, in “the bottom of the rundown bunker of a recreation center on an otherwise barren lot of the decayed inner city.” Wiley calls the place “a haven of sorts for the children of Detroit” and he cannot help being impressed by its principal, trainer-manager Emanuel Steward, because of “how Emanuel had overcome long odds, and helped his young men overcome long odds, just to be strong and functional.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson boxing, in 1924

Although the police may be more concerned with giving kids something lawful to do (and connecting them with mentors) than with moving them toward athletic success, individual policemen and particular PALs have helped form a number of champions, including Muhammad Ali. According to McCain, one of the best things about boxing is the “opportunity that it gives for someone who might otherwise never have a chance to achieve fame and fortune.” Discovering his bicycle had been stolen, Cassius Clay, as the twelve-year-old was then known, wanted to report it to the police. Directed to a gymnasium underneath Louisville’s Columbia Auditorium where officer Joe Martin taught youngsters how to box, the future fighter met his first trainer. Martin’s new trainee impressed him with drive: “he had more determination than most boys…. He was a kid willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve something worthwhile in sports.” According to Thomas Hauser’s biography of the boxer, Ali believes the endeavor for which he willingly made sacrifices helped him lead a clean, healthy life: “I trained six days a week, and never drank or smoked a cigarette…. Boxing kept me out of trouble.”

Larry Holmes, who succeeded Ali as heavyweight champion, first boxed as a ten-year-old in PAL-organized bouts in Pennsylvania. “The PAL would gather us kids to put on backroom matches for the various civic clubs … like the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and the VFW. All these organizations, not to mention the firefighters, had social clubs, and on Wednesday nights you would see us peewees whacking away at each other with oversize boxing gloves,” Holmes recalls in his autobiography. When, years later, he became serious about the sport, he started training at a PAL gym. Prior to committing himself to boxing, he had been a petty criminal, stealing car radios and selling marijuana. He also took drugs, though an unpleasant, hallucinatory experience with hashish prompted him to forswear drugs forever. “Everyone in boxing knew … that when you fight Larry Holmes you’re going up against a fighter whose body and mind are not messed up with drugs,” he says, referring to himself in the third person. He found himself through fighting: “People express themselves differently. Painters paint, writers write, dancers dance. I discovered I needed physical contact to let what was in me come out.”

Youngsters looking for ways to express themselves, or to vent what Roosevelt calls their “animal spirits,” are not likely to have the opportunity to do so by boxing at school. George Plimpton begins Shadow Box, his first-person account of a writer confronting a professional boxer in the ring (in order to write about it), by recalling his school’s mandatory boxing matches, which he hated:

At school, once a month, we were required to box down in the gym – paired off, with enormous gloves tied to our pipestem arms. When the master blew his whistle, we strained and lifted up these monstrous pillows to push and flail them at each other. It was the worst time of the month.

Of course, a child’s dislike for something does not mean it isn’t good for him, but that may be a moot point, since Plimpton’s schoolhouse boxing experience would had already became rare by the time Shadow Box first appeared in 1977.

College professor Carlo Rotella believes we can learn much from boxing that’s relevant beyond the ring. In Cut Time, he says boxing teaches subjects that may at first glance appear unrelated to the sport, including lessons “about the virtues and limits of craft, about the need to impart meaning to hard facts by enfolding them in stories and spectacle, about getting old, about distance and intimacy, and especially about education itself: boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.” Less abstractly, Rotella says boxing can foster the development of practical habits like “sharpening and strengthening yourself through disciplined application, [and] learning to protect yourself by doing things regularly and the right way.”

Although boxing has disappeared from most U.S. college athletic departments, its return to campuses could have some benefits. In A Beautiful Sickness, Hauser advocates the formation of a college boxing league, partially because it could improve the diminished image of the sport, but also because of what it could do for young athletes. “College boxing would be good for the fighters,” he asserts. “It would give them additional options in life and help improve their lives.” To illustrate his argument, he mentions boxers who could not afford college and joined the military (where boxing traditions persist) or dropped out of school in order to pursue professional boxing dreams. “It’s good to get in the ring and get hit and hit somebody,” McCain said to me when reflecting on the boxing done at the Naval Academy, and it is not hard to imagine his hero TR having said the same thing. (“Of course boxing should be encouraged in the army and navy,” Roosevelt writes.) However, the National Collegiate Athletic Association disagreed with such an assessment. It discontinued boxing soon after the post-fight death of a college boxer in 1960. (Indeed, boxing is not always good for you. Then again, neither are some of the conventional collegiate sports, such as football, which can also cause injury and death).

With boxing moving from the mainstream to the margins of the sporting world, boxing gyms, in order to survive, have had to expand their membership beyond professional fighters. Writing in the late 1990s, Holmes describes how Gleason’s Gym changed from the spare, smelly space it had been when he first visited one of its earlier locations in 1970. The Brooklyn incarnation “adapted to this era of boxing chic, counting among its members numerous stockbrokers and women who do white-collar workouts, at the same time that your regular fighters train.”

Nevertheless, boxing gyms continue to operate in the ways Roosevelt envisioned. Gleason’s, for one, perpetuates the policemen’s view of boxing’s benefits though its Give a Kid a Dream program. Frequently, teachers or parents or cops will refer problem kids to Gleason’s, and proprietor Bruce Silverglade will arrange for them to work with trainers. “The man with the less to lose outside the ring usually has the most to gain inside it,” Wiley observed, and the kids directed to Gleason’s come from households which would not be able to pay the membership fees Silverglade agrees to waive. They do not attend the sort of schools Plimpton did. Though in some instances a child might need the sustained exertion of rigorous training mainly for the sake of physical fitness, many others end up boxing for the reasons identified by New York police commissioners: to learn to apply themselves, to practice self-discipline and to develop a vigorous work ethic. Often, trainers become father figures for the fighters, who frequently come from single-family homes. I heard a kid at Gleason’s say his trainer not only taught him how to fight but also taught him how to be a man. Teddy and Teddy would approve.

So would Katherine Dunn, though she notes that women as well as men can benefit from time spent in boxing gyms. Like Roosevelt and Atlas, she praises the sport’s contribution to individuals’ reflexes, stamina and strength. In One Ring Circus, she similarly observes that “the most urgent reason” for training is “to get kids off the street before they get tangled up in drugs or gangs or other forms of destruction,” and offers an anecdote to support the thesis. She recalls hearing a nine-year-old newcomer to a boxing gym express his goal for adulthood: “I’m gonna get me a string of bitches and be a flash pimp.” She learns that while he did later spend some time in juvenile detention, he subsequently returned to boxing, became a Golden Gloves champ and then went onto college and a teaching job. Dunn sees the aggressiveness of boxing as a positive good, linked to the survival instinct. The sport hones a quality human beings – male and female – do not want to lose. For this reason, she regards Dallas Malloy as a hero. As a teenager, Malloy sued U.S. Amateur Boxing for gender discrimination and won, forcing the organization to permit girls to compete and, more generally, making boxing more widely available to anyone who might need what it can provide.  

Larry Holmes says that if he had not quit doing drugs and dedicated himself to boxing, rather than becoming heavyweight champion, he might have ended up like one of his former friends who continued along the path he chose not to keep following: shot to death by law enforcement agents. PAL organizers and supporters around the country no doubt take a small measure of pride that he and many others instead opted to pursue the opportunities offered by a first-class sport.

Boxing, they just might say, is good for you

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s essays and reviews have been published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Logos, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry and The Humanist.


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