"Boxing has always attracted writers because it issues a standing challenge to their powers of description and imagination, and also a warning--really a promise--that no matter how many layers of meaning you peel away there will always be others beneath them" (1).
Over the past half-century boxing has endured a strange fate: a fall from cultural dominance simultaneous to a rise in payouts so enormous that top fighters are the most valuable athletes on the planet. A puzzle like this attracts the fighter, the fan, and the scholar; and boxing is full of such befuddlers. Expressive of a variety of injustices and imbalances of power, boxing offers careful analysts the chance to look beyond the perfectly pebbled abs and airbrushed promotional photos to see into the lives of the people cross-pressured by vast economic and cultural forces both at their command and beyond their control. Enter The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside
(University of Chicago Press, 2017) edited by Carlo Rotella
and Michael Ezra
; a new collection of original essays that probes the mysteries of the sport, business, and spectacle of boxing, asking us to look again at one hundred years of history at the fights.
Bringing together essays by fighters, managers, and keen observers of boxing's past and present, this collection restores the qualitative weight of what appear to be quantitative measures--like a fighter's win-loss record--peeling back the layers of history and culture and life experience in events and careers in the fight industry. While they engage the legacy of boxings all-time greats, the writers here also plumb the networks of amateur and Olympic fighters, trainers, managers, and administrators who make up the vast majority of those in the fight world. Often correcting for the force of the "invisible numbers" behind the record book page, this book's perspectives from around the fight world reveal the ways in which national culture, race, gender, and social status open and close opportunities for a professional fighter, and influence current and future earning potential. Fitness, skill, speed, and style can lift a fighter to greatness, but it takes a different level of savvy to carve an opening in the industry in a fighter's post-prime; a savvy that the sport itself may need to capture in a culture that seems to have moved on to younger, stronger attractions.
For sports historians, fight fans, and observers of American writing, The Bittersweet Science
provides a potent sampling of "either the glorious last stand or amazing comeback of boxing writing as a genre of literature," and offers fans and scholars the analytical tools and historical perspective to make meaning of fighters climbing into the ring.
Carl Nellis is an academic editor and writing instructor working north of Boston, where he researches contemporary American community formation around appropriations of medieval European culture. You can learn more about Carl's work at carlnellis.wordpress.com.