George Bellows' "Stag At Sharkey’s - Redux" by MikeG
Publishing with permission of its owner Drew Hammond
Women and the 'Cruelest Sport'
The development of women's boxing was quite separate from that of other women's sports. In a different social sphere, middle-class women were struggling to get into the "respectable" world of organized sports, but found themselves seriously constrained by dominant medical ideologies about the innate physical limitations of females and their unsuitability to take part in vigorous exercise. Whereas the development of mainstream sports for women was based upon notions of sexual difference, and male and female bodies in most sports are signifiers of those differences, the basic symbolism of women's boxing seemed to contradict this trend. In its most pure form, it was a celebration of female muscularity, physical strength and aggression. Power was literally inscribed in the boxers' bodies -- in their actual working muscles -- an expression of physical capital usually ascribed to men. Nevertheless, gender and sexuality received heightened expression. While the battered body of the male boxer was a symbol of the defeat of heroic masculinity, the battered body of the female boxer was the very denial of the supposed essence of femininity and a symbol of brutalization and dehumanization, at the same time creating an image of exciting and animalistic sensuality. However serious the women were about their sport, because of its low-class, disreputable image, it remained "underground," or at best marginalized. Working women who used their bodies freely and powerfully were characterized as uncivilized and vampish, in distinct contrast to the listless, weak and sexually repressed image of the well-bred middle-class Victorian lady. For that reason, women's boxing always attracted male voyeurs -- not only working men, but also local dignitaries and businessmen. Its explicit sexuality (through bare breasts and the ripping of clothes, the scope for male fantasies, and potential as a surrogate for male brutality against the "weaker" sex) increased the entertainment value of women's boxing into the twentieth century.
Женщины и 'самый жестокий спорт'
‘Naked Aggression' By 'Tatyana Of Sagittarius'
From album of Drewhammond
Professional boxing is the only major American sport...
which survives as the most primitive and terrifying of contests:
two men, near-naked, fight each other in a brightly lit,
elevated space roped in like an animal pen.
Several quotations about boxing related to the matter
- [A boxing ring] is a place where men believed they could escape from the narrowness of women’s influence into the wide free world of men.
Joyce Carol Oates:
- Boxing is without a doubt our most dramatically ‘masculine’ sport.
- Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.
- ...boxing... a 'so-called' sport, even a 'meta-' or an 'anti-' sport: a 'vicious exploitation of maleness' as prostitution and pornography may be said to be a vicious exploitation of femaleness.
- Boxing may be a manly sport, but some of the best books on it have been written by women.
- In this world, strength of a certain kind-matched of course with intelligence and tirelessly developed skills-determines masculinity. Just as the boxer is his body, a man’s masculinity’s his use of his body. But it is also his triumph over another’s use of his body. The Opponent is always male, the Opponent is the rival for one’s own masculinity, most fully and combatively realized….Men fighting men to determine worth (i.e., masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men.
Brett & Kate McKay
- Indeed, the sweet science of bruising has for its entirety history been inextricably tied up with a culture’s perception and conception of manhood. This connection to cultural ideals and masculinity has given boxing a volatile history. At times when society felt its manliness to be on the wane, boxing was wildly popular and seen as the iron needed to fortify a pansified culture. At other times, people have recoiled as boxing’s perceived brutality, seeing the sport as evidence of a barbarism at odds with a perception of themselves as too enlightened for such pursuits. All of which makes for a fascinating history and a subject every man should know something about.
- Ladies, men's boxing is a thing of beauty
- Women perhaps do not always know it, but the strong man and the boxer will always be the favorites of the unconscious feminine drive … The primitive instinct of the woman to detect love in masculine brutality… this and more influence the unconscious, primitive drive of the female spectators … and so women collect around the heroes like flies around a piece of sugar.
Edward Topol ('Russia in bed')
- Since the earliest times, when mating cavemen fought with clubs, men have fought over women. Not to mention that this is the universal law of nature: bucks fight over does, tomcats - over pussy-cats, cocks - over chickens, etc. If they do, why men shouldn’t fight over us?
- As a matter of fact, there have been times when men arranged such fights in a decent way: knights fought for ladies in jousting tournaments, musketeers fenced with swords, noblemen engaged in pistol duels over ladies… Unfortunately, nowadays, men’s fights are much less romantic and decent. In Russia, men prefer fighting with fists which is accompanying with dirty swearing. But even such unromantic duels may please a woman if men fight over her – such enjoyment came to us from our progenitrix: it is delightful to be a subject of bloody fight between males.
- Handsome, muscular, hyper-masculine men are sorting things out using outright brute force. It can turn on, I’ll tell you! This is a powerful stimulant helping exhale sexual energy. Seeing two men physically fighting, a woman is subconsciously undergone a pristine biological mechanism: once two males fight, they fight over possessing a female.
- The very existence of women's boxing hinders enjoying men's boxing. I perceive a boxing match as a tough male rivalry in the most extreme outright physical embodiment. The most important for me in boxing is the fact that a man goes against a man in the ultimate dispute; my female soul is overfilled with emotions while my body languishes in languor… Actually, the fact of existence of female boxers destroys the last bastion of male exclusiveness which is imperative for us women.
- As soon as women are loosening up, they act quite similar to men in impromptu conflict when people usually act more reflectory. However, as male animals, men need to prove their strength and manliness; they fight for dominance and social recognition in order to prove they are fit to be a mate to women. Women don't care so much about being seen as the tougher fighter; women fight to cause damage, to hurt the enemy or to humiliate her. That’s why fighting was always considered as male activity.
- According to recent studies, women’s fighting is one of the strongest aphrodisiacs for men, so contemporary girl capable to fight and win in a fight receive much attention from guys.
- [In boxing and some other combat sports] the very intention of fighters is to disable an opponent by striking in the head. That is to say, unlike other sports in which participants may accidentally get a trauma, in the sports I mean, the traumas are inflicting not just intentially but inflicting brain damage is the main goal of each fighter.
- The interest in female combat is based exceptionally upon the ludicrousness, ridiculousness, scandalousness and eroticism of these activities perverted for women. Personally for me, a female boxer is the same nonsense as a man practicing in rhythmic gymnastics
- What began as a few day-dreamy women in gyms, believing they could punch back as hard and as fast as some of the guys, has devolved into something very ugly, very violent. It documents the cheat run on working-class girls who think they might find liberation in the ring, like Rocky did, like all the guys can.
Jeff Fenech (Boxing champion)
- If anything has to be done to help the sport of boxing, the first thing we should do is stop women from fighting.
- Sexuality is in the air when guys are fighting
Female pugilism. Fragments of artworks by Faustino Perez
'The Cruelest Sport' by Joyce Carol Oates. Fragment
February 13, 1992, New York Review of Books
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
—Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”
Professional boxing is the only major American sport whose primary, and often murderous, energies are not coyly defected by such artifacts as balls and pucks. Though highly ritualized, and as rigidly bound by rules, traditions, and taboos as any religious ceremony, it survives as the most primitive and terrifying of contests: two men, near-naked, fight each other in a brightly lit, elevated space roped in like an animal pen (though the ropes were originally to keep rowdy spectators out); two men climb into the ring from which only one, symbolically, will climb out. (Draws do occur in boxing, but are rare, and unpopular.)
Boxing is a stylized mimicry of a fight to the death, yet its mimesis is an uncertain convention, for boxers do sometimes die in the ring, or as a consequence of a bout; their lives are sometimes, perhaps always, shortened by the stress and punishment of their careers (in training camps no less than in official fights). Certainly, as in the melancholy case of Muhammad Ali, the most acclaimed and beloved heavyweight in boxing history, the quality of the boxer’s post-retirement life is frequently diminished. For the great majority of boxers, past and present, life in the ring is nasty, brutish, and short—and not even that remunerative.
Yet, for inhabitants of the boxing world, the ideal conclusion of a fight is a knockout, and not a decision; and this, ideally, not the kind in which a man is counted “out” on his feet, still less a TKO (“technical knockout”—from injuries), but a knockout in the least ambiguous sense—one man collapsed and unconscious, the other leaping about the ring with his gloves raised in victory, the very embodiment of adolescent masculine fantasy. Like a tragedy in which no one dies, the fight lacking a classic knockout seems unresolved, unfulfilled: the strength, courage, ingenuity, and desperation of neither boxer have been adequately measured. Catharsis is but partial, the Aristotelian principle of an action complete in itself has been thwarted. (Recall the fury of young Muhammad Ali at the too-readily-defeated Sonny Liston in their second, notorious title fight, of 1965: instead of going to a neutral corner, Ali stood over his fallen opponent with his fist cocked, screaming, “Get up and fight, sucker!”)
This is because boxing’s mimesis is not that of a mere game, but a powerful analogue of human struggle in the rawest of life-and-death terms. When the analogue is not evoked, as, in most fights, it is not, the action is likely to be unengaging, or dull; “boxing” is the art, but “fighting” is the passion. The delirium of the crowd at one of those matches called “great” must be experienced firsthand to be believed (Frazier–Ali I, 1971, Hagler–Hearns, 1986, for instance); identification with the fighters is so intense, it is as if barriers between egos dissolve, and one is in the presence of a Dionysian rite of cruelty, sacrifice, and redemption. “The nearest thing to death,” Ali described it, after his third title match with Joe Frazier, in 1975, which he won when the fight was stopped after the fourteenth round. Or: “This is some way to make a living, isn’t it?” as the superlightweight Saoul Mamby said, badly battered after a title fight with the champion Billy Costello, in 1984.
A romance of (expendable) maleness—in which The Fight is honored, and even great champions come, and go.
For these reasons, among others, boxing has long been America’s most popularly despised sport: a “so-called” sport, even a “meta-” or an “anti-” sport: a “vicious exploitation of maleness” as prostitution and pornography may be said to be a vicious exploitation of femaleness. It is not, contrary to common supposition, the most dangerous sport (the American Medical Association, arguing for boxing’s abolition, acknowledges that it is statistically less dangerous than speedway racing, thoroughbred racing, downhill skiing, professional football, et al.), but it is the most spectacularly and pointedly cruel sport, its intention being to stun one’s opponent’s brain; to affect the orgasmic communal “knockout” that is the culminating point of the rising action of the ideal fight. The humanitarian argues that boxing’s very intentions are obscene, which sets it apart, theoretically at least, from purer (i.e., Caucasian) establishment sports bracketed above.
Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the more evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as a means of eradicating boxing that poverty itself be abolished; that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene. The pious hypocrisy of Caucasian moralists vis-a-vis the sport that has become almost exclusively the province of black and ethnic minorities has its analogue in a classic statement of President Bush’s of some months ago, that he is worried by the amount of “filth” flooding America by way of televised hearings and trials: not that the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearing and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial revealed “filth” at the core of certain male–female relations in our society, but that public airings of such, the very hearings and trials, are the problem. Ban the spectacle, and the obscenity will cease to exist.
Boxing today is very different from the boxing of the past, which allowed a man to be struck repeatedly while trying to get to his feet (Dempsey–Willard, 1919), or to be knocked down seven times in three wholly one-sided rounds (Patterson–Johansson I, 1959), or so savagely and senselessly struck in the head with countless unanswered blows that he died in a coma ten days later (Griffith-Paret, 1962); the more immediate danger, for any boxer fighting a Don King opponent, is that the fight will be stopped prematurely, by a zealous referee protective of King’s investment.
As boxing is “reformed,” it becomes less satisfying on a deep, unconscious level, more nearly resembling amateur boxing; yet, as boxing remains primitive, brutal, bloody, and dangerous, it seems ever more anachronistic, if not in fact obscene, in a society with pretensions of humanitarianism. Its exemplary figure is that of the warrior, of some mythopoeic time before weapons were invented; the triumph of physical genius, in a technologically advanced world in which the physical counts for very little, set beside intellectual skills. Even in the gritty world of the underclass, who, today, would choose to fight with mere fists? Guns abound, death to one’s opponents at a safe distance is possible even for children. Mike Tyson’s boast, after his defeat of the twelve-to-one underdog Carl Williams in a heavyweight title defense of 1989, “I want to fight, fight, fight and destruct the world,” strikes a poignantly hollow note, even if we knew nothing of subsequent disastrous events in Tyson’s life and career.
Illustration above right:
George Bellows. Stag at Sharkey's, 1909
The Cleveland Museum of Art
'Knockout' by George Bellows
Ink & pastel on paper. 1907
Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville
Gaby Wood about Kate Sekules and her book "The Boxer's Heart. How I Fell in Love With the Ring"
Sunday 7 January 2001, The Observer
In her book on boxing, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that her subject was 'without doubt our most dramatically "masculine" sport'. Now Kate Sekules, a writer and journalist who has fought professionally, has written 'The Boxer's Heart', about how it feels to be a woman and become a boxer.
But surely simply doing it won't alter its content: women also have to redefine boxing for themselves. None of the myth or the romance of pugilism is set in a woman's world. Neither are the bare facts: women, for example, have to have a pregnancy test before a fight. When Sekules first tried a jab, she found that her breasts were in the way. At her first fight, she heard wolf whistles amid the roar of the crowd. Yet she herself was far from immune to the allure of the 'masculine' sport: when she first walked into Gleason's, Sekules wrote that 'part of what I'm falling in love with is the thing my very presence here will help to subvert; that is, boxing as it used to seem - an arcane testosterone ghetto'. So if women's boxing is not about maleness, what is it about?
Boxing, she says, is 'the final frontier', a way of transcending the assumed limits of our sex. A lot of attention has recently been drawn to women's boxing by the daughters of famous men - Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier Lyde - though Sekules thinks this is a mixed blessing because 'they're no good'. Others are far better: she suggests that good women boxers are more dangerous than the men - 'we're better at locating Achilles's heels' - and says of the super lightweight world champion Lucia Rijker that she has brought the female traits of 'intuition, courage and nurturing' to this previously male territory. More generally, though, she thinks the fact that there are many more female boxers now may indicate 'that there's a lot of anger in women. I mean, I value so highly that socialized-in kindness and supportiveness of women, but this doesn't preclude it. We need a whole range of emotions available to us, including aggression, and we haven't had that this century, and probably not for quite a few centuries.'
Feminism first fought for women's equal right to use their minds; now female boxers are saying they should have equal rights to use their bodies too. But ironically, the latter can do damage to the former. Sekules says she values her brain, and that she didn't, in the end, want it to get beaten to a pulp.
She contrasts the 'boxer's heart' of steel, which gives and gives punches, with the human heart that stops your gloves from hitting someone.
The two are at odds, and although in the professional arena she can only fight women, she has no desire to fight women at all. The first thing she asks her trainer is whether she can fight a man.
Sekules has a theory about why men are afraid of seeing women in that position. ' One day I was training in here, and this little boy walked past and looked up - I was punching a bag, and particularly going for it at that moment - and I looked at this boy's face and it flashed through my mind? This boy sees his mother. All women are mother. And then the boys grow up, and they've always got the little boy left in them. To see that temporarily engaged in violence - even controlled and deliberate and contained - that terrifies men.'
Other men, though, show more attraction than fear, and the complicated sexual tension involved in the inclusion of women in boxing cannot be denied. It is, I would say, one of the central themes of the debate. Sekules traces the history of women's boxing back to eighteenth-century London. Women, she points out, could box even before they could vote. But quite soon, this form of entertainment took on a different tone: women boxers could be found in brothels, the Victorian equivalent of the 'foxy boxing' of 1970s porn. By a nice irony, Sekules once worked as a receptionist in a brothel herself. She remembers that 'every other caller asked if we had wrestling mats', and later on, as a pro fighter in Gleason's locker room, she finds herself turning down proposals of private gigs with men in hotels. She hears that a man she spars with in the gym is a masochist - it turns him on to be hit by women, and he has been known to pay them to spar with him in private. In the lead-up to her first fight, Sekules is interviewed by a Philadelphia journalist. In the course of their conversation he says: 'There's something about watching two women duking it out that causes a tingle in men's groins.'
Nevertheless, it is not all prurience and chauvinism, since Sekules also uses sexual metaphors to describe how she feels in the ring. Of one disappointing sparring session she reports: 'I'm unsatisfied like I didn't come'. After a particularly cathartic bout she extends the analogy and adds: 'This time I did come.' She suffers from a not unrelated worry that her body, and specifically her sexual make-up, may put her at a disadvantage. She writes graphically, 'Does the fact that my body can integrate another body during sex or pregnancy makes me more permeable, and therefore more vulnerable, than a man?' The sexual element in boxing was so strong that, she says, for the time she was training seriously, boxing replaced sex in her life altogether. 'I kind of was fighting men in so many ways,' she tells me, 'I didn't even recognize it till afterwards. But at the time I thought that if I made myself vulnerable to a man sexually I would be weakened in the ring. I would have let down my guard.' 'But other things must have made you feel vulnerable anyway,' I suggest. 'Yes,' she says, 'but it was just this one really deep down way that mattered.'
In the boxing gym. Artwork by Faustino Perez