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Good with Their Hands

Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt

Carlo Rotella (Author)

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This eloquent, streetwise book is a paean to America's Rust Belt and a compelling exploration of four milieus caught up in a great transformation of city life. With loving attention to detail and a fine sense of historical context, Carlo Rotella explores women's boxing in Erie, Pennsylvania; Buddy Guy and the blues scene in Chicago; police work and crime stories in New York City, especially as they converged in the making of the movie The French Connection; and attempts at urban renewal in the classic mill city of Brockton, Massachusetts. Navigating through accrued layers of cultural, economic, and personal history, Rotella shows how stories of city life can be found in a boxing match, a guitar solo, a chase scene in a movie, or a landscape. The stories he tells dramatize the coming of the postindustrial era in places once defined by their factories, a sweeping set of changes that has remade the form and meaning of American urbanism.

A native of the Rust Belt whose own life resonates with these stories, Rotella has gone to the home turfs of his characters, hanging out in boxing gyms and blues clubs, riding along with cops and moviemakers, discussing the future of Brockton with a visionary artist and a pitbull-fancying janitor who both plan to save the city's soul. These people make culture with their hands, and hands become an expressive metaphor for Rotella as he traces the links between their individual talents and the urban scenes in which they flourish. His writing elegantly connects what happens on the street to the larger story of urban transformation, especially the shift from a way of life that demanded individuals be "good with their hands" to one that depends on the intellectual and social skills fostered by formal education and service work.

Strong feelings emerge in this book about what has been lost and gained in the long, slow aging-out of the industrial city. But Rotella's journey through the streets has its ultimate reward in discovering deep-rooted instances of what he calls "truth and beauty in the Rust Belt."
List of Illustrations

Introduction. Truth and Beauty in the Rust Belt
1. The Culture of the Hands
2. Too Many Notes
3. Grittiness
4. Rocky Marciano’s Ghost
Conclusion. Getting There

Acknowledgments
Notes
Index
Carlo Rotella is Assistant Professor of English and American Studies at Boston College. He is author of October Cities (California, 1998) and a regular contributor to the Washington Post Magazine. His essays have appeared in The American Scholar, DoubleTake, and Harper's, and his work is included in Best American Essays 2001.
“Rotello paints a vivid portrait of the modern cultural environment in the Rust Belt states, from Illinois to New York.”—Chicago Tribune
"This is a brilliant study, warm and frequently thrilling, of an inspired combination of subjects. Postindustrial American urban culture has found its great poet-theorist in Carlo Rotella."—William Finnegan, author of Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country

"In the hands of others, we have learned much about the process of deindustrialization. Rotella powerfully brings the reader to the core of these socio-economic transitions in a manner that is almost palpable in its ability to connect the reader to any one of his subjects. Rotella held me, taught me, opened my eyes to an appreciation of new ways of seeing. The writing is electric, the broader conceptual framework is rich and complex, and his touch is deft throughout the book."—Nick Salvatore, coauthor of We All Got History: The Memory Books of Amos Webber

One

The Culture of the Hands

Things change. Now . . . we have women boxers. Look, I know it's not politically correct to say this, but I'm against women boxing. I've got no problem with women as referees or judges. But women are too precious to get banged up. I see women as a minority, just like black folks, and recognize that they're discriminated against. I'm sympathetic to them. Fact is, I don't like to see women driving big tractors or fighting with guns in a war. I like to see women doing things that aren't hazardous to their health. Larry Holmes, former heavyweight champion

They say that men box to get out of the ghetto. I joke that boxing was my way into the ghetto. Kate Sekules, author, travel editor of Food & Wine, boxer

  I first saw Liz McGonigal fight at the Golden Gloves competition held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in April 1996. Young amateur fighters and their retinues of trainers, parents, broken-nosed uncles, and advice-shouting friends had gathered from all over the state in the big gymnasium at Liberty High School to contest the state novice-class championships. Success in the novice class allows a fighter to move up through what is left of the fight network's strata—into the open amateur class, where more experienced opponents await, and perhaps eventually into the local professional circuit, the regional, the national. In Bethlehem that evening the most polished boxers, narrow-waisted and black, came from Philadelphia. For the most part they managed their rougher-edged opponents like toreadors coaxing performances from tank-town bulls. The biggest hitters came from Pittsburgh, blocky white guys throwing bombs with both hands. Most of the fighters came not from these metropolitan bookends of Pennsylvania but from the small cities and big towns that lie between and around them, places whose names still bear the resonance of heavy industry long past the time when factory work was the principal livelihood available to their residents: Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Erie, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Scranton, Hanover, York, Altoona, Mechanicsburg. These Pennsylvania mill cities, and others like them, were a cradle of the American Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century and a heartland of manufacturing well into the twentieth. But on this April evening, Bethlehem's last rolling mill and blast furnace had been cold for six months. For the first time since before the Civil War, no steel was being made in town, and the Bethlehem Steel Company, which had played such an important role in building America's cities and military, had cut its local workforce to a mere twelve hundred employees, down from a high of thirty-one thousand in the 1940s.1 The fighters climbed through the ropes at an uncertain moment when many people in town, and no doubt many people at the fights, were wondering what the city's next organizing principle would be: the Christmas City? Affordable housing for transient service professionals within commuting distance of the office parks of suburban New Jersey? Historical tourism built around oddly paired nostalgias for the Moravians' progressive moral rectitude and the heroic productivity of Big Steel?

The emotional peaks of the event came early. Angel Nales, a local high school hero who trained at the Larry Holmes Training Center in nearby Easton, won his 112-pound bout against Ernie Bizzarro, one of the fighting Bizzarros of Erie. It was the first bout of the card, an undistinguished affair in which both kids threw plenty of punches, most of which did not conform to the textbook definitions of jab, cross, hook, and uppercut. Bizzarro might have been the more accomplished boxer, but he lost the initiative and forgot his craft. The judges' decision in favor of Nales seemed fair, but the Bizzarro corner erupted when it was announced. Even before the crowd was settled in its seats, there were paunchy men in sweat clothes shouting and passionately restraining one another while guards rushed to ringside to calm everybody down. After the Bizzarro Boxing Club faction stormed off, the audience settled in happily, like fighters who have broken a sweat and are ready to get to work.

After a few more bouts, though, they were beginning to fidget again, since three-round amateur scuffles between novices tend to resemble one another and do not often feature spectacular knockdowns. The crowd's attention was reclaimed before intermission, though, by the evening's one bout between women: Liz McGonigal of Erie's Lower East Side Boxing Club versus Sarah Kump of the Hanover Boxing Club. Kump was a head taller and at least twenty pounds heavier, an advantage so enormous that the tournament's organizers behaved unethically in offering the matchup to the fighters' trainers. The first time Kump whacked McGonigal with a right, the smaller woman was lifted up and thrown back a step as if by a strong wind. Kump, however, was the greenest of beginners, and McGonigal, though still a novice, was not. McGonigal looked at home in the ring: surefooted and quick-handed, nicely balanced in her southpaw fighting crouch; always in motion seeking a line of attack; light on her feet, heavy with her punches. She clearly knew how to box, but after tasting her opponent's advantage in power and reach, she dispensed with fistic nuance and went for a quick knockout. The two women spent most of the first round exchanging murderous blows like granite-jawed movie heroes. Kump loaded up big right hands, which usually missed; when she did land one, it knocked McGonigal back on her heels. McGonigal, for her part, punched more crisply and with either hand, navigating past Kump's long arms to land left-right-left combinations to the head. Between rounds, McGonigal's cornerman reminded her to keep moving from side to side as she bored in, thus neutralizing Kump's ponderous right leads. McGonigal, embarrassed at having let herself be drawn into so unlovely a brawl, weaved contritely on her stool to show she understood and would do better. She returned to work with greater precision, and by the middle of the second round Kump was almost finished—beat-up, arm-weary, and winded. The referee stopped McGonigal's battering of Kump along the ropes to administer a standing eight-count, at the end of which he asked Kump if she wished to continue. Her ambiguous answer—it looked like she said, "I can't breathe"—obliged him to stop the fight.

The paying audience responded to the bout with the curious mix of prurient hysteria and sporting fervor that female boxers excite in fight crowds, which are overwhelmingly male. Most of the men in the Liberty High School gym were sports fans rather than boxing fans, and most of them were Lehigh Valley sports fans who reserve their appreciation of technique for high school wrestling and professional auto racing; so they were not particularly interested in pugilistic niceties. Like most people at the fights, who want to see rolling heads rather than accomplished footwork, they were happy to see lots of punching and drama. But they were especially moved by a fight between women. They may have enjoyed it for the same reasons they enjoy offense-heavy slugfests between stalwart men, but they also responded to the action as if it were a kind of advanced Jell-O wrestling or striptease, with damage replacing flesh as the dirty female thing to be revealed. When Kump began to break down under the smaller woman's assault, her head snapping back with the punches and her face reddening, they whooped and howled like conventioneers at a strip joint. This wild electric climate, part sex and part violence, was only partially tamed by protestations of more conventional sporting admiration—"those young ladies are really scrapping, buddy"—offered most earnestly by men who were there with wives or children and therefore felt obliged to reel in their tongues off the floor. Both reactions, the prurient and the sporting, were about girls and about boxing and about women boxing—three different things—at the same time.

The contrast between the fighters and the ring girls further complicated the crowd's responses. In the last twenty years there has been a significant increase in the number of female noncombatants one might see at the fights—seconds, judges, referees, ring physicians, lawyers. But until the upsurge in women's boxing in the 1990s, the only women one could count on seeing in the ring during a fight were the ring girls, who, uniformed in swimwear and high heels, climb through the ropes between rounds with a signature bend-and-wriggle motion and sashay around the inside perimeter of the ropes with a card indicating the number of the next round. The traditional division of labor in pugilistic spectacle has men fighting while ring girls do a different kind of public body work more closely related to sex work than to manual labor. The ring girls at the Golden Gloves in Bethlehem had the long legs, prominent breasts, and glossy hair expected of them, they had obviously spent time working out in the gym to tone their bodies, and they had more flesh on display than did the female fighters (since the fighters wore shorts and sleeveless T-shirts), but compared with the fighters, they looked unsavory, even sickly. Kump, bigger and darker than McGonigal, was strong and well built, with a tattoo of Superman's S insignia high on one shoulder blade. McGonigal was compact and graceful, in fine fighting trim, with a smart, sharp-featured face and a thick blond braid swinging down her back in rhythmic counterpoint to the movements of her boxing style. On her shoulder blade she wore a tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil, the perpetual-motion cartoon character who rips insatiably through trees and everything else in his path. Stalking and planting to throw punches, the fighters made the ring girls' shapely calves and buttocks, tensed by high heels, seem like side effects of some unhealthy hobbling practice akin to foot binding.

Some of the more demonstrative men in the crowd had hooted and called out perceptive remarks the first few times the ring girls made their rounds, but after a while the novelty began to wear off for all but the most dedicated poltroons. The women's bout, though, touched off a more general surge of wolfish behaviors that felt like an extension of the ring girls' reception. Something about potent, capable women in the ring caused even men who had been silent before to throw off their reserve and howl not just for female flesh but for women's blood (at least the kind that emerges north of the waistline). Evidently, it was stirring to see these women fight, and it was important to see at least one of them hurt. In the second round, when McGonigal was nailing Kump with solid punches and the referee was getting ready to step between them to wave off the fight, it sounded as if a hotly contested high school basketball game and a giant stag party were being held at the same time in the old gym.

When it was over, with the crowd abuzz and Kump sitting blearily on her stool in the corner, McGonigal stood in the center of the ring amid the usual postfight chaos of seconds and officials. Her trainer had taken off her headgear and gloves and jammed a billed Everlast cap on her head. As she made her way to her corner to descend from the raised ring, a photographer rushed up an aisle to the ring apron and called out to her. She turned to give him a traditional dukes-up pose: hands still taped, chin tucked in, eyes meeting the camera, a cool smile that both disdained this regrettably necessary game of publicity and promised another butt-whipping to whoever messed with her next. I followed the line of her gaze through the cameraman and into the crowd, where it transfixed a guy one row ahead of me and a few seats over. He had come to my attention earlier because he knew two tricks he thought worth repeating over and over: one was holding up a dollar bill and yelling, "Come get your money, baby" when the loveliest ring girl did her turn with the round card; the other was loudly heckling another ring girl whom he found insufficiently appealing. Now he was standing, openmouthed but silent, looking up at McGonigal. It was hard to tell from my vantage point—or perhaps from any—whether the look on his face was one of awe or rage.

This little triangular encounter, occurring at the junction of many tangled lines of social force and historical circumstance that linked the young fighters and their audience to the mill cities of Pennsylvania, made me wonder how it came to pass that women in the ring had moved the crowd so powerfully on that April evening in Bethlehem. I wanted to find out how a woman becomes a fighter and pursues her craft in places where skilled labor and rough sport—two ways of being good with one's hands—have been traditionally yoked as manly body work. A New York Times reporter, writing an elegiac piece about "life after steel" in Bethlehem, captured the conventional wisdom about factory work and manhood in a nutshell when he observed that the steel industry and other heavy manufacturing work have traditionally provided jobs that not only pay well but also have special added value in the calculus of American masculinity: "It is also gloriously proud and male work." This calculus is especially ingrained in regional culture: "Bethlehem and steel have long been intertwined, much as Kentucky and bourbon, Wisconsin and cheese, Winston-Salem and cigarettes," and one can extend the local relationship between Bethlehem and steel to embrace Pennsylvania and heavy industry in general.2 The contraction of heavy industrial work and the expansion of service work in the latter part of this century—the complex, layered process condensed into the word "postindustrial"—have been intertwined with changes in what it means for men and women to work and play. Boxing is the sport farthest from play and closest to work, especially body work. Women in the ring, good with their hands, inspire in fight crowds powerful reactions that seem to be both about the isolated sphere of boxing and about a set of related matters—among them the character of work, the value of skilled aggression, definitions of manhood and womanhood—that frame boxing within a larger social world. I wanted to understand the encounter of female fighters and their audience within the specialized confines of the fight world, which has grown increasingly alien to Americans as boxing has taken on the air of an esoteric throwback practice. But I also wanted to understand female fighters, their audiences, and the fight world in relation to a social landscape that was changing around them.

 

Erie

I went to Erie to see where Liz McGonigal came from. It takes six hours to drive from Easton (where I lived) to Erie on the interstates, straight west almost all the way across Pennsylvania and then up to the lakeshore. If you cut a corner by departing the westbound interstate early and taking smaller roads to go north, you pass through brick-and-wood towns like Clarion and Oil City, up through Titusville to Centerville and Union City. In this part of the world, the winding two-lane road runs between heavily wooded hillsides, briefly becomes a main street as it passes through a town, then curves out the other side of town, where the trees crowd down to the shoulder once more. Between towns there are hunting lodges, motels, antique shops. In the fall, bearded men in bulky camouflage jackets with cased rifles stand around smoking next to pickups parked on the shoulder. Erie boosters make a habit of deploying tables of comparative weather data to prove that Erie is not as cold and snowy as one might imagine (Fewer cloudy days than Pittsburgh! Less average annual snowfall than Buffalo!), but my sense of approaching the place—having made the trip the first time in November—is of gradually sharpening cold air, windblown eddies of snow skeining on the road surface, and wet, black branches and trunks making strong lines against white hillsides.

Erie is a foursquare little city surrounded by suburbs and malls and bolted onto the southern shore of Lake Erie. State Street runs south from the lakefront through the downtown and up a gently rising slope to the South Side, where Mercyhurst College, the Veterans Administration hospital, and some of the city's most prosperous neighborhoods are located. Bisecting the city's rectangular layout, State Street divides the East Side from the West. Some people in town consider the East Side, where the giant General Electric plant is located, to be the "grittier" (by which it is meant both the more blue-collar and the poorer) part of town; some consider the West Side, with higher land and housing values and a higher proportion of tidy residential blocks, to be more respectable (or less suffused with character) than the East Side. A pleasing collection of midsize prewar buildings dominates the downtown, and more recent architecture has been mixed into that older urban texture with less ground-clearing urgency than is evident in other Rust Belt cities. Erie's principal historical attractions, a bicentennial tower and the Flagship Niagara museum that exploits the American victory over the British at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, are sited on the central axis just north of downtown where State Street meets the lakefront. The Presque Isle peninsula, joined to the mainland just west of the city and curving out offshore to enclose a bay, forms the backbone of a lively Rust Belt riviera during the summer—which seems like a long time ago when winter ice storms buffet the motels and beachfront facilities. On one return visit to Erie in March, I had one of only four or five occupied rooms at a downtown motel: the sound of wind-driven ice particles hitting the north-facing metal door of my room was so insistent that I turned off the television and the lights, opened the curtains, wrapped myself in musty quilts off the bed, and spent most of the night in an armchair by the window watching lonely cars in the parking lot rocking in the gusts.

I was in town that time to see the Golden Gloves competition of 1997, which was hosted at Headliners, a West Side nightclub, by the Lower East Side Boxing Club. The crowd at Headliners was full of thick-shouldered, helmet-haired men and women in black T-shirts or shiny windbreakers. The sound of countless plastic beer cups being drained and crushed underfoot approximated that of a spirited exchange of musketry, and nonstop smokers created hanging blue clouds that limited our already obscured view of the feebly lit ring. I sat in front of a large bloc of GE employees, who cheered lustily for the East Siders in their struggles against devious outlanders from abodes of effeteness like Pittsburgh, Altoona, and the West Side. The GE crew vigilantly studied the fighters for signs of flashiness, retrograde movement, or other indicators of questionable virtue. On those rare occasions when a young amateur blocked or slipped a punch or otherwise showed signs of passing familiarity with the manly art of self-defense, voices from behind me would yell, "Showboat! Get to work!" The East Siders were therefore displeased when Lou Bizzarro Jr., the talented standard-bearer for the next generation of fighting Bizzarros (who are West Siders), took the decision in the evening's big local grudge match by outboxing Jose Otero. The latter, an intense-looking guy with dark hair parted in the middle and frightening basket-weave stomach muscles (also parted in the middle), represented the Lower East Side Boxing Club. Bizzarro, expertly neutralizing the endlessly game Otero's rushes and sticking him with hard counterpunches and combinations, had very evidently won every round, so the crowd could not complain that Otero was robbed, but there were rumblings nonetheless. A greasy-bearded biker type seated near me turned to his pals and said, "If they're giving points for moving around and punching, that's one thing. But what about taking it to the other guy?" Everyone nodded and drank beer glumly, considering the dark implications of the thought.

The East Siders were reassured, though, by local darling Liz McGonigal's fight. Once again matched out of her weight class, this time against a Pittsburgh beanpole who was six inches taller and (no matter what the program claimed) about twenty pounds heavier than she, McGonigal upheld the Lower East Side Boxing Club's honor. She bored in against long jabs, taking her punishment and giving some back, and won a questionable decision on the strength of her indomitable advance rather than her considerable boxing skills, which were largely negated by her opponent's advantage in reach. Prurience did not audibly animate the crowd's reaction to the women's fight as it had in Bethlehem, where McGonigal was a blond stranger. In Erie she was local and widely respected as a scrapper, and she had many friends in the crowd—plus, this time her opponent was not a babe. The hometown fans (and, apparently, the judges) wanted to see a local boy or girl wade into an opponent, absorbing punishment in order to dish it out, and gradually wear down that opponent by relentless application of the local virtues: gumption, elbow grease, strength, resilience. They wanted to see the local heroes impose their will on their own and the other fighters' bodies—which one might see as recalcitrant pieces of machinery or raw material, depending on how one wishes to cast the industrial metaphor. The blows absorbed and sweat expended by the local fighter in persevering were of primary importance; the hero had to labor spectacularly as an earnest of his or her representativeness. Without such suffering, the victory was too cheap and smacked of white-collar work, a puling matter of loophole exploiting and rule bending.

The GE line workers who supported Liz McGonigal so devoutly are the standard-bearers of industrial Erie's social order and cultural traditions. Erie is still recognizably the city it became during the high-industrial period between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Its physical form still tells the story of a place shaped by the processes of gathering raw materials (ore, grain, coal, rubber, wood), turning them into products (locomotives, machine tools, building hardware, hospital supplies, castings), and circulating them (Erie was an important railroad city, lake port, and canal nexus). Postindustrial expressways and poured-concrete buildings are contained within the older frame made by the port, railroad tracks, brick factory buildings lining the Twelfth Street corridor, the GE locomotive works that dominates the East Side, and rows of workers' housing flanking what were once immigrants' parish churches. Erie's demography also bears the imprint of migrations that supplied the growing city with factory workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: people of German descent form the largest ethnic group, followed by Poles, blacks, Italians, the Irish, Yankees who drifted west, and Hispanics who found their way north. That mix is typical of the inland Rust Belt, so typical that test marketers often use Erie as a guinea pig for commercial and political campaign strategies. The industrial-era infrastructure and demography are not just of historical interest: Erie is still a manufacturing city. In the last fifty years, the percentage of American workers employed in manufacturing has been contracting (to about 12 percent of total employment in the nation, a bit more in the state) and the service sector has been expanding, but about 25 percent of Erie's working residents still make things in the city's diverse and often homegrown factory enterprises. Of course, as is the case elsewhere in the Rust Belt, technological advances have allowed the manufacturing sector to get more productivity out of fewer and fewer workers. GE may still be the city's largest employer, and there are other industrial firms on the list of the city's most important employers, but the list is dominated by hospitals, schools, an insurance company, government, supermarkets, and fast-food outlets. The GE plant may be the city's most imposing structure, but the giant mall in suburban Millcreek functions as the region's central business place, attracting shoppers from northwest Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Canada.3 The city's industrial sector and the cultural and social traditions that grew up with it may no longer be dominant, but they enjoy the special cachet of tradition because they trail long roots in local senses of past and place.

The history of boxing in Erie intertwines with the city's industrial history. Erie was never a particularly important fight town and certainly is not one today, but like almost all Rust Belt cities, it was a thriving outpost of the fight world between the late nineteenth century and World War II. A sampling of local heroes from this period makes a map of the city's immigrant ethnic-dominated industrial working class: Nonnie Kane, Bing Welsch, Leo Finneran, Billy Purdy, Kid Gleason, Derby Giles, Jerry Cole, Young Frank (an Italian), Kid Xeny (Xenophon Kakouras), Jimmy Dean (a popular black fighter), Tommy Freeman, Heavy Andrews, Maxie Strub, Frankie Bojarski.4 In that period, the golden age of boxing as an American institution, there flourished in Erie a network of gyms and clubs, amateur organizations, and professionals across the range from local club fighters to creditable national figures. This network, and the national network of which it was a part, sustained itself because it attracted paying audiences and because it provided niches for men of various skills and at every stage of a fighter's life. From amateur novice to retired professional, fight people within the network met one another's demands for opponents, sparring partners, trainers, managers, students, referees, and so on. As a boxing city, Erie served as the central place of a minor region comprising the mill towns of northwest Pennsylvania, each with its own local network, and was in turn a satellite of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other capitals of the fight world. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of practicing boxers lived in the city and surrounding towns, and a large audience followed boxing. If most of those fans went to the fights to see blood and guts, a minority of connoisseurs cultivated some appreciation of boxing skill and supported fighters who demonstrated it, and in any case both kinds of fans went to the fights regularly.

The industrial working class produced most of the fighters and most of their audience. Many Erie fighters and fight fans worked in local factories, and one can see a further intertwining of industrial work and boxing in GE's sponsorship of amateur boxing in the 1930s.5 The GE plant was a kind of town within the city, with its own busy civic life, a newspaper, cultural and social organizations, and athletic leagues. Jim Donnelly, an employee at the East Line Assembly that made flat-top refrigerators, had been a professional boxer and had trained, managed, and promoted local professionals before becoming GE's in-house fight promoter and trainer in 1932. In 1936 he had thirty-two men, all of them GE employees or affiliates, in training at the company gym six days a week for amateur bouts against opponents in Erie, surrounding towns like Meadville and Titusville, and cities as far away as Syracuse and Rochester. Many of those opponents also represented industrial employers. Retired Erie fighters served as referees and judges on Friday evenings at GE Field, where for fifteen cents one could watch a card of bouts as well as a baseball game, all featuring GE athletes. "Interest in the Friday night bouts this year is more enthusiastic than ever before," reported the always boosterish company paper in 1936, "and as the crowds increase, better boxers will appear—the worth of the talent depending on the size of the patronage."6 Both management and shopfloor workers were invested in the fight world, and their patronage, measured not just by financial backing or size of crowds but also by the extent and integration of the region's boxing network, produced skilled boxers. The institutional arrangements of industrial labor and boxing—two forms of skilled body work—fit together like hand and glove, and the precipitous contraction of the fight network in the industrial heartland has paralleled the contraction of factory work in the last fifty years.

Erie's fight network and industrial sector may be much reduced in comparison to those of the century's early decades, but they persist, and there continues to be a vital connection between them. In 1997, when Liz McGonigal had a chance to go down to Georgia to compete for the women's national amateur title in the 112-pound class, GE workers donated the $2,500 she needed to make the trip. "They had a party at a bar with a five-dollar cover and a raffle," she told me, "and people came up with five or ten dollars or whatever they could. The GE people, the East Siders, who don't always have a lot of money, they always support me." It was a reminder that boxing, as a form of rough, work-related play, still retains its cachet in what the sociologist Kathryn Dudley calls "the culture of the hands," the system of values and meaning that evolved around the sweat and shopfloor cooperation of industrial body work. Dudley contrasts the culture of the hands with a competing worldview associated with service-professional work, the "culture of the mind" built around intellectual credentials and individual self-improvement.7 The GE hands cared that a hardworking local girl who was good with her hands—even one who, as we shall see, was also deeply invested in the culture of the mind—had a chance to make good. They pooled their limited resources to put their money behind their convictions.

McGonigal fought out of the Lower East Side Boxing Club, a fragmentary revival of the old fight world network during its postindustrial contraction. GE workers, this time with no significant help from management, have been instrumental in rebuilding what is now regarded as an esoteric institution—the local boxing gym—that their grandfathers and even their fathers would have taken for granted as part of the fabric of the old neighborhood. After the city's remaining gyms closed in the 1960s and 1970s, a group of men started the Lower East Side Boxing Club in the late 1970s, not to save boxing in Erie but to give East Side kids a place to go. "It started out as a place for kids to go who didn't have anything," said Matt DeForce, the dedicated, patient, reddish-blond-bearded man who runs the club and trains its fighters. "A bunch of friends started it who were basically the tough guys in town. We had poorer backgrounds, working-class backgrounds. We had ironworkers, bricklayers, painters, and five or six GE guys." DeForce was one of the GE guys, a rigger-millwright who set up and maintained machinery at the plant. (He retired in 2000.) The kids who have come into the club over the years make up a motley bunch: white and black and Hispanic, male and (lately) female, curious athletes and dead-end kids, young people headed variously for the shopfloor or college or nothing much at all. Most of them dabble, do it for the exercise and fighter's confidence, and drift away; some do well as amateurs, a few turn pro and win some fights.

In the 1970s the mayor gave the club an abandoned turn-of-the-century firehouse on the depressed eastern fringe of downtown, but, DeForce said, the city later threw them out when the block went upscale during a resurgence of historical renovation. It turned out that the owners of a new restaurant coveted the picturesque site. The restaurant, named the Pufferbelly after a nickname given to steam pumpers and engines of the late nineteenth century, is a classic postindustrial reuse of an atmospheric industrial-era brick building. I went there for dinner once. Everything on the menu was spuriously presented as the product of exacting workmanship mixed with healthy good sense, as if old-time craftspeople with a New Age horror of saturated fats were in the back doing the cooking. Flipping past the menu's pages of char-grilled, hand-tossed, and apricot-glazed selections, I encountered a history of the Erie Fire Department's early days, an account of the building's construction, and an invitation to prove the vaunted synergy of historical tourism dollars by visiting the nearby Firefighters Historical Museum, Inc. A capsule account of twentieth-century urbanism lurks in the displacement of the boxing club by the restaurant, which sells as atmosphere the history of high-industrial-era masculinity embodied once upon a time by mustachioed firefighters and now by the restaurant's period decor.

Since being evicted, the Lower East Side Boxing Club has moved several times—"always on the East Side," insisted DeForce. When I began visiting it in 1996, the club occupied a sort of garage down an alley. It was hard for me to believe that the Lower East Side Fighting Eagles (as they are called) had only been training in this garage for a few years. The fantastically cramped, weathered interior of the gym made it easy to imagine that guys named Mushy and Skids were heaving medicine balls at each other in there in 1926. Branching lines of tarry black glop filled chinks in the cinderblock walls; poolroom-style fluorescents hung down from a wooden ceiling reinforced with metal brackets; ropes, chains, and wires trailed down to punching bags, lights, and fuse boxes. DeForce and his associates had managed to wedge three heavy bags, two speed bags, three bob bags, some free weights, a couple of exercise bikes, moldy rug remnants, and an undersized sparring ring into a space the size of a two-bay car repair joint, and at times it appeared that the fighters in training came dangerously close to blindsiding one another while they worked. Training in these close quarters, the Fighting Eagles filled the room with a thunder of gloves on bags, huffing and puffing, and stamping feet, all counterpointed by a loud warning buzzer and a quieter bell that divided the training session into round-sized segments. DeForce had given generously of himself to a shoestring operation—hustling to put together fight cards at a local parish or bar, finding suitable opponents, driving fighters long distances to out-of-town bouts, training his charges and working their corners during fights—and he dreamed of somehow getting his hands on the resources to buy a building for the Lower East Side Boxing Club, turning it into a permanent institution he could pass on to successors.8

The Bizzarros, his crosstown rivals, had money and owned property. The elder Bizzarros sold cars, ran bars, had their own gym, and employed their offspring in the family businesses. They exuded an air of comfort that made a strong contrast with the scrappy Dead End Kids atmosphere of the Lower East Side Boxing Club. Lou Bizzarro Sr., father of Lou Jr. (an up-and-coming amateur in the late 1990s, now a professional) and the veteran professional welterweight Johnny Bizzarro, had a good lightweight career. Lou Sr. fought for the title in 1976 against the great Roberto Duran, who knocked him out in the fourteenth. Lou Sr. has since acquired the ring in which they fought and had it installed in the Ringside, one of his bars. John, his brother and business partner (until his death in 1998), was also a very good lightweight, earning two title shots: Flash Elorde beat him by decision in 1963, and Carlos Ortiz stopped him in 1966. Other brothers—Angelo, Paul, Ralph—all fought, and Ernie, one brother who did not, now has a son who does: young Ernie Jr., who lost the close fight to Angel Nales in Bethlehem in 1996. As Lou Sr. tells it, the original Bizzarro in the Erie region was his grandfather, an Italian who settled in Meadville; that man's son, father of Lou Sr. and his many fighting brothers, worked at Bucyrus Erie making cranes. When Lou Sr. was coming up, the choice of livelihoods he faced was still the traditional industrial one: "It was fighting or factory work," he said. But the fight world of the 1960s in which he was formed was already much reduced from its prewar extent. "There was the one real gym in town, but it wasn't like it used to be. To get really good you have to spar with pros, and there weren't that many decent fighters around anymore." In 1997 his son Lou Jr., the family's best amateur prospect, had a distinctly postindustrial and middle-class choice to make: turn pro or go to college, or try to do both at once. Lou Sr. thought his son was ready for the pros; he was certainly smart and confident enough in the ring. On the other hand, a young man with his background needs a college degree and not just property to establish credentials that enable an upward-curving class trajectory, so perhaps the best thing might have been for him to hit the books, not the bags, with everything he had.

Not all gyms have a house style, but many do. Bizzarro fighters stress technique and defense, while Lower East Side Boxing Club fighters always press their opponents, advancing with bad intentions. "Matt trains all his guys to be straight ahead, put your hands up, and go at the other guy," said Lower East Side stalwart Jose Otero. "Because I studied karate first, I'm probably the slickest amateur fighter in there," he added, laughing at the thought of himself as a paragon of finesse by default. "They've got heart, but they just walk in and swing," young Lou Bizzarro Jr. said of the Lower East Siders, shaking his head. DeForce saw it differently: "Mostly, the kids from the Bizzarro gym don't fight worth shit. They run, then complain. My kids fight." DeForce told me he never boxed, but he does seem to know something about fighting. He starts slowly with his protégés, first teaching them to place their feet right and manage their balance, then slowly builds their punching skills and conditioning. Defense does not enjoy a place of honor in the curriculum. When a dejected Jose Otero, having abandoned any pretense of slickness and rabidly pursued Lou Bizzarro Jr. from bell to bell every round but lost the fight anyway, turned to his trainer for a word of wisdom, DeForce said, "You got to throw more punches." Even DeForce's most skilled boxers—like Liz McGonigal, and Otero, who is better than he looked against Lou Bizzarro Jr.—treat defense as a matter of neutralizing an opponent's punches as they advance to land their own blows. The Bizzarros are more polished boxers, in part because they are connected to the remaining fight world through an older generation who fought professionally and learned from good teachers. Their house style includes side-to-side movement to create advantageous angles, clever escapes when cornered, and counterpunches against an advancing opponent. But, especially in a time when boxing is an esoteric rather than a common interest, fight crowds are less impressed than ever by such fetches of style, and too many people in Erie with an opinion on the subject are inclined to believe that the Fighting Eagles (male and female) fight like men and the Bizzarros (senior and junior) run like women.

Most of the Lower East Side Boxing Club fighters have at best rudimentary skills, but they win many fights on the strength of unremitting aggression, which impresses crowds and judges and opponents, especially at the amateur level. DeForce is not an old boxing hand, and he cannot call upon the deep store of boxing knowledge that more traditional trainers accrue as they pass through the fight world network, so he has wisely taught his charges what he knows best—how to win a fight. Every boxing match is also a fight, but the two things are not identical. Although Lou Bizzarro Jr. outmaneuvered Jose Otero and kept their boxing match from turning into a street fight, Lower East Siders have won many bouts by inducing opponents to abandon boxing technique and maul with them. DeForce told me that his fighters have won most of their bouts with Bizzarro fighters, a plausible claim because good boxers take much longer to develop than hearty brawlers. Even though a seasoned technician who can fight will almost always pick apart a brawler of similar experience, at the lower amateur levels a well-developed aggressive impulse can often overwhelm a nascent boxing style. DeForce and his friends built a boxing institution, but they could not rebuild the whole boxing network and high-industrial milieu in which such institutions thrived. In the absence of most of the old network, and in the absence of the professional teachers and good sparring partners it provided, his rough-and-ready fighters charge ahead and prosper because they have heart, not because they are expert boxers.

 

An Enigma to the Sport

When I began poking around Erie in 1996 and 1997, I was mildly surprised to discover that many people considered Liz McGonigal—a woman, a relatively inexperienced fighter already in her early twenties, an aspiring psychologist whose education was more important to her than her boxing career—to be the most promising ring prospect in town. Mike Acri, a promoter based in Erie, thought the Bizzarros should "take it slow" in developing Lou Jr., but in 1997 he already wanted to rush McGonigal into turning pro so she could appear on the undercard of a pay-per-view fight between Macho Camacho and Sugar Ray Leonard. Women's boxing appeared to be the next big thing, and Acri wanted to get in on it. He knew McGonigal's Irish name and banty blond good looks would add to her appeal, but, he said, "The main thing is she can fight." If McGonigal had all the fighter's heart and verve that characterize the Lower East Side Boxing Club house style, she was also a more complete boxer than most of the maulers she trained with. Asked to evaluate her strengths, Matt DeForce said, "She's got good technique. She's real smart, she can take punches real well, she's got good defense. And she's a tremendous puncher. For a girl her size, 112 pounds, she hits girls, she hurts them."9 She can fight; how did she get to be that way, and what might it mean?

As is the case with many gifted pugilists, some of McGonigal's talent is inexplicable enough to fall under the category of "natural": some people have a knack for imposing their will on others, or a feel for nuances of movement, force, and damage. But, with the help of teachers, she has also worked diligently at her craft. "Sooner or later," said DeForce, "I was going to get a girl." Other women have trained at the Lower East Side Boxing Club since McGonigal started there, but she was the first. She came to DeForce through Jose Otero, whose karate student she had been for years. Otero had his own East Side karate school, the Otero Goshin Jutsu, but he also trained at the Lower East Side Boxing Club. "I followed my sensei to the gym," McGonigal said, because she was curious and because she had grown impatient with the restraint and stop-start character of karate. "With karate I was fighting and winning," she explained, "but after a while I wasn't making any progress. It was like tag. I found boxing harder, faster, more continuous, more strength-to-strength." The black belt did assist her development as a boxer, though. "When you fight, any kind of fighting, you have to keep control of your center. Martial arts was great for that, and for doing it in front of an audience. Most people when they get hit in that situation they just freeze, but I'm used to it." And it helped that her stepfather had taught her the rudiments of boxing when she was very young. "He would put the gloves on me and my sister when we were fighting, to settle our fights. He trained boxers in college, and he didn't have any sons of his own, so he worked with me on basics and combinations. It's just like he did with a football, throwing it at me and teaching me how to tackle." DeForce showed her how to train with bags and jump rope and sparring partners, and she watched professionals fight on television. "I try to watch good fights," she said, "so I can pick up something and use it when I spar." Her voice is soft and very clear, with a hint of iron in it when she wants to underscore a point: she has good form in that, too.

After three months of training, McGonigal asked DeForce if he could get her a fight. He did, and she won it, breaking her opponent's nose and winning by knockout, despite being matched against a larger woman. Her increasingly fearsome reputation in the region and her size—"She's so damn little" at 5{pr}2{dpr} and 112 pounds, said DeForce—made it hard to find willing, qualified opponents in her weight class in the still-formative world of women's amateur boxing. DeForce always had to balance the need to build up McGonigal's ring experience against the danger of putting her in with women she should not be fighting. One of the principal deficiencies in her style, punching to the head too much and to the body too little, can be traced to the unsuitability of her opponents. "When I'm in against somebody much bigger," she said, "I know that one punch can put me on my butt. So I try to get them out of there quick with a knockout. That means I go for more shots to the head and can't work the body as much." Even though she had won the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves championships in both novice (1996) and open (1997) classes—which is supposed to mean she had met and beaten the state's best female amateurs in her weight class—she had rarely fought a woman her own size until she fought for a national amateur title. In July 1997, funded by the GE workers' $2,500, she added to her list of accomplishments the 112-pound title at USA Boxing's National Women's Boxing Championships in Augusta, Georgia, by dispatching opponents from New York City and Boston in the eighth and ninth bouts of her career.

That a woman can be a national amateur champion or have an amateur boxing career at all, and that she can have prospects for pursuing that career in legitimate professional circles, is a recent development that points to significant changes not only in boxing but also in the sexual division of work and play. There was a much commented-upon upsurge of women's boxing and related practices in the 1990s, part of a larger postindustrial boom in strenuous exercise. Many women come to, or toward, boxing through fitness training and body sculpting. "Boxerobics" and similar exercise fads that appropriate elements of a boxer's training routine draw inspiration from the fact that fighters tend to be in superb shape. Their broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted bodies, armored with flat bands of muscle, radiate supple competence and easy power. Next to fighters, serious weight lifters often appear to be blown up into showpieces—like the ring girls—rather than trained down into fighting machines. Liz McGonigal is one of millions of women, especially students and service-professional types, who lift weights, although women do it in smaller numbers than men and with less imperative to develop massive muscular bulk. A special impulse to get big informs the weight lifting of male brain and face workers, who, working out during time set aside for play, effect a compromise between the neck-up quality of their jobs (which build up their phone-cradling and smiling muscles rather than their chests or legs) and the persistent demands of an older tradition of masculinity rooted in body work that thickened the male physique. Convention still often labels such thickness in women as unlovely, freakish, or grossly mannish. Women with money to spend on fitness regimes, women who must deal with pumped-up male associates fondling their own muscles and cracking their backs all day in the surrounding cubicles, have found that boxing and boxing-related exercise produces a streamlined sort of fitness, as well as the tangible air of confidence that goes with learning how to throw an old-fashioned punch. Women in health clubs mime a boxer's training to get in shape, and more and more women have found their way to boxing gyms to do the real thing. Most of this latter group go to boxing gyms just to get in shape (also true of men) rather than to work up to amateur or professional bouts, but a significant number of women mean to get in the ring and fight somebody. Among this latter group of serious practitioners, especially among achievers looking for progressively stiffer tests of their mettle, many women with martial arts training (again, like McGonigal) consider boxing to be the logical next step.

The individual and ad hoc character of boxing, with a core of serious practitioners and many more who are semiserious or just in it for the workout, makes it difficult to determine how many women box. Frank Globuschutz, president of the International Women's Boxing Federation and proprietor of the Academy of Boxing for Women (an all-women's gym on Long Island), estimated in 1999 that there were perhaps two thousand licensed female professionals in the United States and perhaps a thousand amateurs, each group constituting no more than a third of the worldwide total. More were arriving in gyms all the time.

Among the several social and cultural frames one might place around this phenomenon—and its high visibility in a recent round of movies, books, news features, and advertisements—is the larger movement of women into traditional proving grounds of manhood. The generation of women currently integrating boxing, contact sports, the big-time corporate stratum of professional team sports, hunting, and the military combat arms (not to mention the action movies that sublimate these sources into bang-bang mythology) has grown up in a time of remarkable fluidity in the sexual division of work and play. In particular, the assumption of a male monopoly on skilled, socially valued aggression has been seriously undermined, and not only by the feminist impulse.10 The movement of women into previously off-limits areas of work—and areas of sport connected to them—has also been driven by the final collapse of the family wage system that theoretically allowed a working man's salary to support his wife and children, and by a complementary movement of men into service jobs that resemble what used to be called "women's work." Postindustrial transformation also drives this process. Deindustrialization and the expansion of service work have helped to throw off the traditional calculus of masculinity based on body work and associated rough play, on being good with one's hands.

Enterprising women, exploring the evocative ruins of that partially collapsed tradition, have salvaged usable parts for their own purposes. Women pushing for access to the fight world have been part of a larger push, in both work and play, to claim once-"manly" virtues that boxing is supposed to nurture and embody: autonomy, physical competence, and discipline, all wrapped up with productive aggression.

There have also been institutional changes in the arrangement of athletic resources that help women find their way into the ring. Most broadly, the Title IX legislation of 1972 enabled the boom in women's sports of the last quarter century; more specifically, in the 1990s, women's amateur and professional boxing organizations were established to meet the demand of female boxers for a network in which to develop. Women have been boxing, usually on the fringes of the business, since the emergence of modern pugilism—prizefights between women were held in England and America throughout the bare-knuckle era11—but the arrival of legitimate women's boxing in the 1990s is significant not only for the numbers involved but also because it has at least the rudiments of an institutional base. The new sanctioning bodies, amateur tournaments, and other institutions of women's boxing form the outline of a self-contained system, but they also draw strength from links to the promoters, managers, and especially the training grounds of the formerly all-male fight network. As women's boxing flows into and from men's boxing, the fight network may yet find itself reinvigorated as a result. Old hands who hang around gyms looking for fighters to train have found that female novices are seeking them out. Many of these old hands dismiss women's boxing as a freak show or a steep comedown from men's boxing, but others are happy to have eager fighters to train. Often the same guy will have both reactions. Some mangled codgers in a Boston gym introduced two of their number to me as "Hansel and Gretel, the guys who handle the girls," and they all laughed, including the two who train the women, but half an hour later "Gretel" was all business, hanging over the ropes to urge one of his female charges to hook to the body of the man she was sparring with.

The recent growth in women's boxing and signs of intermittent, grudging acceptance of it by male fight people should not lead one to conclude that the current state of women's boxing will do. Many women who satisfy the public's and promoters' demands for female action are just not good enough boxers to merit a place on a professional card, but they are game enough to wade in swinging, which always sells. Euphemistic talk of women's boxing as "more honest" than men's boxing, "more action-packed," "tougher," and "fresher," draws a veil of marketing-speak over the plain fact that green female scrappers, fighting shorter two-minute rounds that encourage bell-to-bell punching (men fight three-minute rounds), often beat the hell out of one another with less regard for defense and technique than more seasoned men display. Women's boxing often pleases crowds because it looks, paradoxically, both conventionally manlier than men's boxing and more womanly. It looks more like the way men pretend to fight in movies, more like the way Superman and the Tasmanian Devil and other cartoon icons of male aggression dish it out and take it, yet at the same time those women's bouts that collapse into unskilled pummeling call to mind certain forms of pornography premised on the principle of the catfight (of which more shortly). In addition to overplaying this drawing card by showcasing female brawlers and comely incompetents with no defensive skills, managers and promoters also engage in plenty of skullduggery leading to awful mismatches. The proportion of bad bouts remains far too high. One should bear in mind, though, that all of these failings are manifest—to a lesser degree, usually—in the male fight world. Women's boxing is still an institutional fledgling. Like female hockey players, deer hunters, and foot soldiers, female boxers in America have not had many chances to work on their violent craft, but it appears that they will.

Liz McGonigal seriously considered turning pro in the spring of 1997, but she did not, and therein lies a distinctly contemporary boxing story. Part of her reasoning did indeed have to do with the grim state of professional matchmaking. "I've been fighting girls who are a lot bigger than me, twenty or thirty pounds" she told me before she went to Georgia and won her national amateur title. "I think that there would be the chance for the same kind of thing to happen to me if I went pro, and there would be more pressure on me because of contracts and promoters to go ahead and take a really badly mismatched fight. It happens all the time. When Deirdre Gogarty fought Christy Martin, they said she was within ten pounds of Martin, but it looked like fifteen or more. They just aren't as strict with women fighters." But the most important factor in her decision to remain an amateur had nothing to do with mismatches or promoters. She was in her senior year of college, at Edinboro University outside Erie, and she worried that her grades would suffer if she had to take too many out-of-town fights. She was on the dean's list, and if she finished well, she could win a fellowship that would enable her to enter the graduate program in clinical psychology. "The most important thing is education," she said. "No doubt about it, education comes first," agreed Matt DeForce, who has seen enough kids pass through his gym into the job market to know that good futures are founded on training that college and graduate school can provide. Liz McGonigal remained an amateur, got the fellowship, and started in the master's degree program in the fall of 1997. She was planning to get her degree first, doing her master's research on how athletes respond to serious injury, while staying in training to defend her national amateur title in the spring. ("I hope my professors understand I'll need to take a week off to go down there and fight," she told me.) She hoped that women's boxing would become an Olympic sport soon enough that she might have a chance to fight for her country while she was still of boxing age. With an M.A. in clinical psychology in hand by 1999, she would face the next round of decisions: Turn pro or hold out for the chance that women's boxing would be an Olympic sport by 2004? Pursue a doctorate? Fight full-time for a while and then go back to school? If she decided to become, say, a sports psychologist, the experiential credential of a successful boxing career would make an impressive addition to her résumé, balancing book learning with hard knocks and perhaps a world title. "I love boxing, but I know I can't box for the rest of my life," she said. "A lot of people put all their stock in it, but I don't have to. If I win, I win; if I lose, I go back to my studies."

As it turned out, a chronic injury to her left wrist forced McGonigal to get out of boxing in 1998, shortly after she suffered her first defeat when she returned to the amateur nationals to defend her 112-pound title. Between the demands of graduate school and the reluctance of other women to fight her, she had gone an entire year without a bout since her victory at the 1997 nationals. She won her first match at the 1998 nationals but then lost to Jamie McGrath, of New York, who frustrated McGonigal by tying up her punches (which involved questionable holding tactics) and landed some telling blows of her own. As a result of the loss, McGonigal failed to qualify for the first-ever women's national amateur boxing team's international competitions. But, she told me, she could not have participated anyway. "I injured my wrist in '96 or '97," she said, "but I kept training, and it got worse." The remarkable force with which she hit bags and opponents had always been her calling card, but every time she used her left hand, she further damaged the bones in her wrist. "I would do a boxing workout," she said, "and I wouldn't be able to write for a week. Finally, in 1998, I had surgery, and the doctors told me to stop. I thought about going back and training anyway, but they were probably right." She added that her master's research on injury gave her a good idea of what she would go through and how to handle it. Still, it bothers her that her last fight was also her one and only loss. "Not a good way to go out," she said in 2001, "but I feel I accomplished a lot in boxing; it was the most exciting thing I ever did. Anyway, I'll always have my black belt; you can do karate your whole life." She was already looking forward to the next challenge: joining the air force as a research scientist specializing in the human-machine interface, opening up a future choice between a military career and a doctorate in psychology.

The story of a good amateur who does not turn pro, choosing instead a more promising or reliable future outside the ring, has been told before; what makes McGonigal's a distinctly contemporary story is that a female graduate student had legitimate prospects as an amateur or professional boxing champion. Women's boxing, still in an institutionalizing phase that resembles men's boxing a century ago, has plenty of room for female versions of the "gentleman" boxer—people who present solid middle-class credentials of education and property and who would risk flattening or even reversing their class trajectory by seriously pursuing a long-term boxing career. At the national amateur championships in 1997, for instance, McGonigal, with a freshly minted magna cum laude B.A. in psychology, won her title by decisioning Laura Schere, a Georgetown graduate pursuing a Ph.D. in cultural studies at the University of Minnesota, and then overwhelming Raphaelle Johnson, a graphic designer (who also led "cardioboxing" classes) with a degree from the Art Institute of Boston. Among the sixty-five participants in the tournament, there were professionals, high-end service workers, and graduate students (including other women with training in psychology, a traditional college major for female jocks), as well as women with high school educations and low-end service jobs. Jimmy Finn, a leading proponent of women's boxing and cofounder of the Women's International Boxing Federation, explained to an interviewer that "most of the women [who box] are educated professionals" who come to it "primarily as an exciting hobby. Many come from martial art disciplines such as kick boxing."12 Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason's Gym, the Brooklyn fight mecca, concurred: "They're real tough competitors who are highly educated, who have these power jobs."13 In 2000 there were 116 women training at Gleason's—seven professionals, sixteen amateurs, the rest in it for the workouts and expertise—constituting about 15 percent of the gym's membership.14

These women do not want to be industrial workers; they want command of body skills and associated character traits traditionally identified with industrial work and with masculinity, both of which are root components of boxing's heroic appeal. Some middle-class women turn out to be good boxers and have successful careers. But, except in the case of Christy Martin (who allied herself with Old Scratch himself, Don King) and a handful of others, even a successful career will not enable a woman to support herself with boxing alone. "They're not in it for the money," said Finn, "because, right now, there's no money to be made."15 McGonigal agreed: "At the moment, there's so little money in boxing for women that you can only do it for love, or because it requires total dedication and you value that. Maybe, once there's money in it, the poorer and hungrier fighters will push people like me out who have less to lose, but right now we've got a great heterogeneous mix of people doing it with similar drives that come from different sources."

McGonigal offered a persuasive reading of this fledgling moment in women's boxing. Only a few men can support themselves by boxing, but enough of them do so that other men aspire to it—or at least these others can tell themselves they aspire to riches, legitimating their less quantifiable reasons for boxing. If women's boxing develops to that point, then one can expect to see the "gentlewoman" boxers pushed to the margin of the profession by working-class women who commit themselves utterly to boxing when they are adolescents and who regard boxing as a better career—in terms of money and status, not just athletic and psychic satisfactions—than whatever else they can envision for themselves. Already, said Frank Globuschutz in 1999, "we're beginning to see athletes from eighteen to twenty-two going straight into boxing as a career. They're pushing out some of the more educated women in their late twenties and early thirties who dominated six or seven years ago." If women's boxing becomes an even marginally viable profession, people with less to lose will dominate it. There are many individual exceptions, but as a general rule people who have or expect to get advanced degrees and undertake careers in professions requiring those degrees are more likely to regard the risk of brain injury, facial damage, and unreliable paydays as unacceptable than are people whose alternative to the ring is working in a sweatshop or cleaning toilets. If ambitious teenage women of limited means throw themselves into the boxing business full-time, women in their twenties and thirties with other careers who can only devote themselves to boxing part-time will be obliged to divert more resources to it to keep up. Many of these "gentlewomen" will then drop out of serious competition.

Right now, though, the "gentlewomen" are still in the business in force, especially in the amateur ranks where the sport's future develops. Many of them are winning amateur and professional fights. Some have taken advantage of their experience to analyze the fight world from within, contributing with authority to a significant new fight literature that has commanded a relatively high cultural profile. Rene Denfeld (Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall), Kate Sekules (The Boxer's Heart), Lynn Snowden Picket (Looking for a Fight), and others have written about their entry into the ring. Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), Katya Bankowsky (Shadow Boxers), and other filmmakers with boxing experience have done much to make the female fighter a figure in the visual landscape, as have documentaries like On the Ropes and melodramas like Knockout. The books and movies have helped to move women's boxing in from the far margin of freakishness. The much-publicized entry of Laila Ali, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, and Freeda Foreman into the ring, renewing their fathers' heavyweight rivalries of the 1970s, has in some ways pushed women's boxing back toward that margin—especially to the extent that none of the three could box well enough to merit the attention they received. But one might also see a further mainstreaming of violent female aggression in the fact that most people in the general public and the sports business had no problem accepting the notion that daughters would want to defend the family honor in the ring.

By 1999, I no longer felt, as I did in 1996 when I first started investigating women's boxing, that I had found my way into an obscure back corner of the fight world. Women's boxing was suddenly turning up in TV shows, editorials, features, and advertisements; friends sent me dozens of clippings and reported sightings all over the mediascape. For months, I kept encountering a giant billboard picture of a woman with wrapped hands in an approximation of punching position, showing how Noxzema kept one's skin healthy and supple. The satirical newspaper The Onion, which tends to take up a subject only after it has generated a field of clichés to play with, published a mock survey in 1999 that sought to explain "the increased interest in women's boxing." The answers included: "Nation finally coming around to idea of sweaty, underdressed young women," "Fans enjoy nicknames like Tanya 'The Good Listener' Smith," and "Women can do anything men can do, no matter how fucking stupid it is."16

The sudden prominence of women's boxing proceeded at least in part from the cultural confusion it caused. "Liz McGonigal is an enigma to the sport," said Matt DeForce. He meant that in some ways she fits his notion of a typical, even a traditional, Erie fighter—of German-Irish-Italian ancestry, fighting out of the East Side, in love with hard work, connected through the Lower East Side Boxing Club to the GE pugilists of old. Yet she does not have the traditional fighter's background or future prospects. DeForce's comment describes not just a female boxer, an enigmatic figure to many people inside and outside the fight world, but a woman who is going both with and against the grain of history. McGonigal goes with the grain in that, after growing up in factory towns in upstate New York and arriving in Erie with her family as a high school senior, she plugged herself into what is left of the fight network rooted in the industrial past. Several traditional elements are in place: early instruction within the family and then in a neighborhood gym, support from industrial workers who sustain local boxing institutions, gradual movement from the local fight network into regional and national circles, a local promoter who wants her to turn pro. And yet when she entered the ring, she also moved against the grain of history, against the traditional identity between boxing and industrial work. Her family's class trajectory has been working to middle: away from the factory, the immigrant-ethnic inner-city neighborhood, the ring, and other features of industrial America's signature landscape. Her father, mother, and stepfather worked in factories (her mother as a secretary), but her stepfather moved from the shopfloor to management as an executive of a machine company. Liz McGonigal and her five siblings have extended the trajectory via college and military service (two sisters in the marines, two brothers in the navy, and Liz herself in the air force). Those in the workforce have moved into a variety of jobs, principally midrange service work like accounting and retail sales. Her family home in Erie was not on the East Side in the shadow of GE but in subdivided suburban Millcreek, where the mills are only a memory and the giant regional mall squats amid ramifying highways and subsidiary business strips. She came to boxing through karate and fitness, not neighborhood life, street life, prison, or shopfloor culture. She went well out of her way in seeking out the East Side's cult of blue-collar toughness and the single remaining gate to the fight network it keeps open. She did not grow up in a world where a variety of well-beaten paths would naturally lead her to the ring.

And, of course, every time Liz McGonigal climbed into the ring, she went with the grain of women's concerted advance into legitimate boxing but against the deeper grain of powerful, resilient traditions in the public display of male and female bodies. Women's boxing is hounded by a widely held assumption that the female body plus violent aggression always equals pornography. One might argue that men's boxing also has a sexual subtext, and there are plenty of fans who watch it just to see near-naked men hurt one another (a group overrepresented among Mike Tyson enthusiasts, I suspect), but that subtext typically has to coexist with other kinds of meaning: spectators do value men's boxing as sport, craft, or tribal drama. Women's boxing, though, has to contend with the fact that many men (and women), set in their ways of thinking about work and play, can understand women's boxing only as a sex show. Advocates of women's boxing sometimes call this "the foxy boxing problem."

Foxy boxing shows are sex work. These alternately choreographed and chaotic affairs, in which women put on oversize gloves and little else and whale away inexpertly at one another in the ring, form part of a constellation of live, taped, and still-photo pornographic practices that burlesque boxing. Generic cousins of foxy boxing include catfights, gloveless exhibitions with lots of bitchy screaming and hair pulling; "apartment wrestling," a curious variant of catfights employing a domestic setting; boxing-themed pornography, in which mock boxing matches between women serve as foreplay or main event; "mixed boxing," in which women pummel men or vice versa and then do or do not have sex; boxing-themed "dominance," which looks like what it sounds like; and so on down or up some roughly delineated scale to weapons and elaborate restraints. The Internet is a contrived and misshapen index of cultural logic, but a search using the keywords "women" and "boxing" can be revealing. Besides the usual avalanche of useless noise, it will turn up home pages and discussion groups genuinely devoted to women's boxing, material on men's boxing that mentions women peripherally, and a sampling of the pornographic cosmos mapped here. All this falls under the rubric of "women and boxing," so even when such a search leads to useful information on women's pugilism, one is always a couple of mouse clicks away from foxy boxing. Legitimate women's boxing pages have registered that proximity by posting messages instructing those in search of pornography that they have taken a wrong turn.

Pornography has shadowed women's boxing for a long time. One typical advertisement for a prizefight between women in eighteenth-century England started with jibes and counterjibes from the combatants but ended with descriptions of what they would and would not be wearing. The ad, published in a British newspaper in 1726, announced an upcoming fight between women to be held "at the Request of several English and Irish Gentlemen." It led off with the challenger's statement: "Whereas I Mary Welch, from the Kingdom of Ireland, being taught, and knowing the Noble Science of Defence, and thought to be the only Female of this Kind in Europe, understanding here is one in this Kingdom . . . I do hereby invite her to meet me." The English Championess responded: "I Elizabeth Stokes, of the famous City of London, being well known by the Name of the Invincible City Championess for my Abilities and Judgment in the abovesaid Science . . . shall make no Apology for accepting the challenge of this Irish Heroine." The statements attributed to the fighters emphasized experience, technical accomplishments, and identification with a constituency that would help turn the bout into a nationalist grudge match. The ad, though, struck a very different note in closing: "N.B. They Fight in close Jackets, short Petticoats, coming just below the Knee, Holland Drawers, white Stockings, and Pumps."17 Women at the close of the twentieth century also insist that spectators watching their fights should be thinking about skill, heart, and tribal affiliations, but fight crowds and fight world insiders frustrate them by concentrating on sex roles. Female fighters are too womanly or not womanly enough, too manly or not manly enough, desirable or undesirable, appropriate or inappropriate—everything except boxers.

The Onion nailed this contradiction with typical accuracy. Other reasons it cited for the popularity of women's boxing included "Taps into U.S. sports fans' love of violence against women" and "Now that outmoded sexist paradigms of female subjugation and powerlessness have been subverted in the traditionally male-dominated arena of boxing, you can see some major titty-bouncing." This is the core logic of the foxy boxing problem, and it plays out inside the fight world and beyond it. In the late 1990s, Boxing Digest (formerly International Boxing Digest) introduced both a new section reporting on women's boxing in the back of the magazine and a photo spread of the near-naked Round Card Beauty of the Month near the front of the magazine. The round card beauties persist, but the women's boxing update did not last more than a few issues (although the magazine's ringside correspondents do include the results of women's bouts, and often comment on their high action quotient, in their capsule summaries of fight cards around the world). Female fighters themselves, sometimes because they wish to attract fans by exploiting the link to pornography, have also helped to muddy the distinction between foxy and legitimate boxing. A well-known professional named Mia St. John—not much of a fighter, but easy on the eyes—posed on the cover of Playboy with her gloved hands covering her naked breasts. A couple of the women who fought in the 1997 amateur nationals in Georgia listed beauty pageants among their credentials (McGonigal dismissed them as "West Coast" dabblers), and more than one buffed "exotic dancer" has entered the legitimate ring, usually to be slaughtered by a woman who means business.

Jimmy Finn, who became a full-time promoter and manager after being squeezed out of the Women's International Boxing Federation, had in mind this mess of competing meanings stirred up every time women fight when he said, "There's sexism, homophobia and the threat to the world's most exclusive men's club. If I brought a group of prostitutes into the ring, I'd be more accepted."18 When I talked to him, I was struck by how even his conversational style expressed the encounter of traditional and emergent boxing cultures occasioned by the arrival of women in the ring. In his lovely brogue, he switched easily from the usual complaints about the business ("Aah, these roaches all around me, these roaches are fucking me") to a discussion of men who in his estimation fight like girls (like Henry Akinwande, disqualified in a title fight for excessive holding, who "was like a little girl in there, trying to hug and kiss Lennox Lewis") to explaining how female boxers pose "a threat to patriarchy—we're talking about patriarchy and male privilege here, don't you know?"

Liz McGonigal had to negotiate these tricky currents of meaning, too. Although anything but delicate, her fine features excited spectators' anxiety for her looks. She told me, "People always ask me, 'But you've got such a pretty face,' or whatever, 'Why do you want to mess it up?' I don't look at myself as a physical object; the most important thing is my mind." Having started out boldly to refute the premises of the prettiness question, she laughed and reversed field to engage the question on its own conventional terms. "Anyway, I've already got a big nose, and there's a lump on the side of it, and it's off-center already. I've been kicked in the nose a few times, it's pretty beat up." The drama surrounding her narrow, breakable-looking (but unbroken) nose always did seem to engage a crowd; a matronly Hispanic woman in Bethlehem shouting for McGonigal to keep her hands up may be the only spectator I have ever witnessed rooting for good defense at a fight in Pennsylvania. But it was McGonigal's relentless Lower East Side offense that broke down opponents, whipping crowds into a frenzy that made her think twice about the spectacle she participated in. McGonigal told me that she usually paid no attention to the crowd because she was concentrating on her opponent, but sometimes she wondered about what men got out of her fights. "Sometimes I can hear them yelling 'Hit that bitch' or something that makes me think about it. After a fight some people will come up and say 'You fought well' or 'You had good technique,' but other guys will say 'You messed her up' or 'You broke her nose.' That's when I ask if this is really ethical. That gives me kind of a conflict because I'm doing it for the skill. I respect women, and I don't want to hurt anybody, and outside the ring I would never do anything like that."

Headliners, the Erie club where McGonigal won the 1997 Golden Gloves open-class title, appended a pornographic shadow to her victory by putting on a foxy boxing show a couple of weeks before it. "They called it 'Babes in Bikinis Boxing,' or something like that," she told me. "My stepfather came into my room with the newspaper ad, and he wanted me to pull out of my fight. They had these women in little bikinis with humungous boxing gloves on. I felt like I've worked really hard"—at boxing, that is—"and this ad was awful; just these women as objects. If they had tried to advertise the Golden Gloves in any way like this, I would have pulled out."

Even when foxy boxers are nowhere in evidence, at every fight the ring girls remind the crowd of its investment in the link between female body work and sex work. When women box, argued McGonigal, "There's two totally different things going on with them and the ring girls. There's women's bodies on display, as objects, and then there's women fighting in the ring with skill." In her view, the fighters are doing something—skilled work—while the ring girls remain passive as things to be viewed. She suggested eliminating the semiotic signal jamming that the ring girls produce at women's fights: "They ought to have men up there walking around carrying the cards." I ran her proposal by three ring girls next to whom I found myself seated one night at the fights in Boston. They were for it. "Put the guys in boxer shorts," said one, "it could be like a theme thing." And, we agreed, certainly there are literally millions of men in the working-out class who have been preparing themselves for such display with weight-lifting regimens, removal of body hair, and other such practices designed to turn their bodies into beefcake sculptures suitable for ogling. A trio of veteran referees—Messrs. Flaherty, Fitzgerald, and Ryan—were seated on the other side of me, so I asked them what they thought of this inspired idea. They had no opinion.

McGonigal's and the Boston ring girls' wish came true in January 1998, when a 6{pr}1{dpr}, 258-pound "round card guy" in a "skin-tight, zebra-striped one-piece leotard with shoulder straps" worked a card of eight women's bouts in Atlantic City. The Associated Press account reported a positive reception. "Women wolf-whistled. Men cheered. 'Meet Larry,' said ring announcer Ed Derian wryly, pausing for effect. 'Isn't he just divine?'"19

 

Body Work

The identity between boxing and work has always been right there on the surface of the fights. In the labor-obsessed language of the fight world, fighters work the body, outwork an opponent, impress the judges with a good work rate, display good work habits in the ring. The identity between boxing and work also persists in the bodies of fighters and the traditional training regimens that produced them. Fighters in training do exercises that still betray origins in precise, repetitive labor. Once upon a time, fighters got into shape by systematically hewing wood and drawing water—and some still do today when they feel it is time to get back to basics. When word got around in 2001 that Oscar De La Hoya was up in the mountains chopping wood, fight people began to assure each other that the Golden Boy had put his recording career and other distractions behind him and was ready to get back to work in earnest. Work and the materials of work also find their way into fighters' ring names (Christy "The Coal Miner's Daughter" Martin, Iron Mike Tyson), a practice that was more common among British bare-knuckle heroes like Bill Stevens the Nailer and Big Ben the Collier—and also among early female prizefighters like The Fighting Ass-Driver from Stoke Newington, A Female Boxing Blacksmith, and The Vendor of Sprats.20 Now those are ring names.

The identity between boxing and work can be found as well in the biographies and backgrounds of the combatants, the deep structure of historical and social situation that remains largely invisible to us when we watch two fighters moving in the blank space of the ring. Sociologists have unsurprisingly observed from time to time that, as S. Kirson Weinberg and Henry Arond put it in their definitive 1952 study, boxers "are recruited from among the youth of the lower socioeconomic levels. Their changing ethnic composition reflects the ethnic shifts in the urban lower socioeconomic levels."21 A French participant-observer named Loïc Wacquant, revisiting the Chicago fight scene that Weinberg and Arond studied, recently reiterated and elaborated upon their finding. Copious interviewing, sparring, and hanging around, combined with an impressive command of the sociological and theoretical literature, equipped Wacquant to conclude that "boxing is a working-class occupation," a fact "reflected not only in the physical nature of the activity but also in the social recruitment of its practitioners and in their continuing dependence on blue-collar or unskilled service jobs to support their career in the ring." Wacquant also pointed out that fighters are not in it simply for the money. They treat their bodies as capital to be accrued through labor, and the rewards of their investment extend beyond the financial into the realm of labor-related satisfaction. They are not pushed unwillingly into the esoteric practice of boxing by poverty so much as pulled into "a form of physical work that boxers seek out because it grants them a high degree of control over the labor process and unparalleled independence," especially when compared with "factory jobs."22

Until the parallel contraction of industrial work and the fight network in the decades after World War II, most men who aspired to a boxing career faced the classic choice between the ring and body work. For a very good, lucky, or well-connected few, boxing might bring riches. For others it was a widely respected career path that, while youth and vigor allowed, both diverged from and paralleled the one on which a fighter's peers trudged, lunch pail in hand. For some it was a route toward work and away from crime or dissipation, for others the reverse. For the legion of part-time boxers it was something rewarding one could do—for money, for recreation, for the satisfaction of doing it well or hurting somebody—with a body hardened by regular, strenuous work. Members of the fight world intelligentsia have remarked repeatedly on the link between manual labor and pugilism; by the mid-twentieth century, Cassandras like Nat Fleischer and A.J. Liebling were already warning that postindustrial transformation posed a threat to boxing as they knew it. The contraction of heavy industry and the breakup of industrial neighborhood orders, the expansion of secondary and college education and their sporting cultures, the postwar expansion of the middle class, and the rise of television (which helped to kill local boxing clubs)—all these processes, warned the Cassandras, threatened to strain the life-giving link between the manly art and the industrial milieu in which it grew to maturity.23

The sociologists and Cassandras share the habit of thinking about boxing as heroically productive men's work on the industrial model, but that traditional understanding has been under pressure since the passing of the high-industrial moment when America's heavy manufacturing sector and fight network rose in tandem to worldwide dominance. Postindustrial static has at least partially obscured the connection between body work in the ring and in the factory. In a labor market and culture dominated at Weinberg and Arond's "urban lower socioeconomic level" by low-end service jobs rather than manufacturing, the traditional body work of boxing may eventually be dismissed even by working-class men as painful, overly demanding, barbarously anachronistic drudgery. Of course, it is possible that those same throwback qualities, combined with the reversal of postwar conditions like the expansion of the middle class, will help boxing to persist or even be revived as an avenue back to traditional manhood. Loïc Wacquant emphasizes the importance of boxing as such an avenue, "a self-enclosed moral, emotional, and sensual cosmos in which skillful and fateful engagement of the trained body offers a 'space of forgetting' from restricted everyday lives and a scaffolding for the public erection of a heroic hypermasculine self."24 This talk of erection and hypermasculinity adds up to the notion that, within the fight world's special atmosphere, even men with little power or capital outside the gym can make something of their own—literally making something of themselves and thus reclaiming the heroic, productive virtue associated with manhood since the Industrial Revolution. Certainly that might help to explain the continuing popularity of the fights on television. Americans shell out for pay-per-view fights to see muscles, action, pain, and violent parables of class and race (all of which they can get cheaper at movie theaters or on "free" television), but they also pay through the nose for that whiff of traditional manhood that lingers around bodies doing the work of fighting, an aura that usually does not attach to pneumatic thespians cavorting with bazookas or to athletic bodies playing with a ball.

Liz McGonigal and others like her complicate the conventional wisdom about boxing, which both does and does not account for her. On the one hand, exploring her career and Erie, I found various connections to the social and cultural order of industrial America that shaped her engagement with the fight world. Those connections help explain what she was doing in the ring and what it might mean to her and to spectators. On the other hand, I found that the standard models do not make much room for a fighter who is not a man, not in pursuit of "hypermasculinity," not strictly working class (and upwardly mobile, through means other than boxing, to boot), not black or Hispanic (Jimmy Finn estimated that in boxing, white women outnumber nonwhites about three to one), not feeling especially alienated from her labor or threatened by postindustrial society, not cut off from other avenues to satisfying work and play. The contradictions multiply. McGonigal was drawn to boxing by tradition, especially its durable commitment to self-fashioning through hard work, but also by the prospects for breaking with tradition by pioneering the movement of women into what used to be a men's preserve. She is a proud apotheosis of Kathryn Dudley's "culture of the hands," ratified in that role by the GE hands who pitched in hard-earned dollars to send her to Georgia, but she also lives by the fundamental principles of the "culture of the mind": individual success through credentialing (in her case, by advanced academic study of the mind itself), progressive personal development through the clearing of obstacles, a belief that her mind is "the most important thing." Fighting in the ring, she offered a spectacle with contradictory resonances, reinforcing some people's tendency to see any conjunction of women and aggression as pornography but also, by fighting well, doing something to help break that cultural habit. She is, in short, a postindustrial fighter who came to the ring through a mixed and changing landscape and culture. The way things used to be both enables and constrains what comes next, even though what comes next may well help to destroy the way things used to be.

It is worth reminding ourselves that, for complicated reasons connected to the cultures of both hands and mind, McGonigal loves the art, craft, challenge, and excitement of being a boxer. She smiled happily at the thought of good times to come when she told me, "I lift weights for strength and bulk, but when I know I have fights coming up, I start to train down." Boxers are not simply made by "situations" and "conditions"; almost nobody becomes a boxer against his or her will. Individuals have to choose the ring and choose to stay with it, and very few of them do. The argument that working people are pushed into the ring to serve as gladiators who amuse the middle and upper classes tends to ignore not only the fact of boxing's traditional working-class audience (and the fact that boxers do not come exclusively from the working class) but also the extent to which boxers are consenting adults attracted to the satisfactions of an esoteric and difficult practice. The gladiator thesis finds slightly better, though still shaky, ground when it comes to football and basketball, which have had an incalculably more significant effect on the futures, imaginations, and bodies of people of modest means than boxing ever did or will. (The gladiator thesis might be on still better ground in helping to explain the production of fashion models and gangster rappers, but that is a different argument.) The notion of a consenting adult has its limits, but it is vital to understanding that one must work hard and significantly depart the path of least resistance to even find the entrances to the fight world anymore. Women, on the move into once-male territory, are seeking out those entrances in greater numbers and with better prospects than before.

Boxing may be highly visible on television from time to time, but the entrances to the boxing world are often out-of-the-way, dingy places wedged into a city's gray areas—between the railroad tracks and the expressway, between the past and the present. It is much easier to find one's way to a basketball court, a weight room, the mall, or a television. The gym was once a very accessible part of a chain of institutions that shaped the industrial city's landscapes of neighborhood and manhood. "I grew up in blue-collar America in the years after the Second World War," wrote Pete Hamill in his introduction to a book of photos of the now-closed Times Square Gym. "There were institutions where I lived: the factory, the church, the police station, the saloon, and the gym. I have lived long enough to see them slip into the irretrievable past. The factory was the first to go, and that was the crucial blow."25 Hamill, an old hand at elegizing industrial urbanism and its native forms of masculinity, looks back to the last days of an urban world bracketed by factory and gym. The now-deceased cultural historian Frank Sinatra backed him up: "In my particular neighborhood in New Jersey, when I was a kid, boys became boxers or they worked in factories; and then the remaining group that I went around with were smitten by singing."26 Taking a break from the heavy bag, sweat soaking through his clothes and forming a puddle beneath him on the gym mat, the former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes offered a postindustrial variation on Hamill and Sinatra's theme in explaining his decision to fight on into his late forties: "What am I gonna do instead? Drive a truck? That business closed up. Work in a motherfuckin' factory in Bethlehem? That business shut down." All three of them exaggerate, of course, in putting the gym on a par with the factory as a principal element of the American landscape—and the thrifty, prosperous Holmes, whose brief working stints in Lehigh Valley steel mills and as a truck driver for Strongwear Pants are decades behind him, exaggerates by implying that he might still be obliged to do blue-collar work to pay the bills. But they exaggerate, rather than fabricate, to make a point.

A.J. Liebling, the dean of American boxing writers and a believer in the gospel of conventional masculinity circa 1926 (he pretended to be more ironic about it than he was), would have been floored by the boom in women's boxing. Liebling, who by the 1950s was already lamenting the lost golden age of boxing, preceded Hamill in identifying the gym as a place that embodies not only pugilistic tradition but also a way of life, a broader set of time-tested orthodoxies that included his sense of manhood. He saw fighters' bodies themselves as similarly embodying tradition, a view captured neatly in his observation that "the Sweet Science of boxing is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder."27 He meant a man's shoulder. "The presence of women, chaperoned or not, is contra-indicated in a training camp."28 Traditionally, women in the gym meant spectators, either girlfriends or wives, and were signs of a male fighter's dangerously divided attention. Times have changed. If crowds still often react to women's boxing matches as pornography, in the gym—where boxing renews itself and where women willing to work hard at their craft are increasingly accepted—fight people tend to stick to business. Male fighters busy themselves with their own training, and the hard core of gym regulars not in training want to spend their afternoons standing around, arms folded, watching fighters apply themselves and get better. For that, women fighters will do just as well as men. The sweet science, still joined to the past like a man's arm to his shoulder, can only sustain itself if it remains joined to its traditions and accumulated lore. But boxing may also find itself joined to the present, and the future, like a woman's arm to her shoulder.

I was sitting in a corner of the Lower East Side Boxing Club one afternoon in 1997 when the fighters started coming in to train. Outside it was a cold and overcast November day, a Pennsylvania specialty, with rain coming down at an angle and the old brick structures of the East Side looking built to last through this and whatever else you got. Inside the gym it was hot and close. The fighters' movements and the sounds they raised in that confined space made a kind of rondo, with each fighter entering in turn, stripping off layers of outdoor clothes, wrapping hands, getting loose, shadowboxing, moving to one bag and then another. The buzzer and bell went off in sequence every three minutes to mark time. The first to come in was a big, light-skinned black guy, who nodded to me and set to work. By the time he was hitting the heavy bag, two high school girls, one dark-haired and one fair, had arrived and were getting warm. By the time those two were working on the speed bags, Jose Otero had arrived and started stretching. Then Liz McGonigal came in, dropped her jacket, twisted her curtain of long, blond hair into a braid, wrapped her hands, limbered up a bit, and started shadowboxing. She had on a sleeveless blue Cleveland Indians T-shirt and gray sweatpants. From her southpaw crouch she was throwing a right jab and then following it with a short left cross. She did this carefully, over and over, turning her shoulder just so and watching her form in a wide mirror that was propped on a ledge along one wall. She was working a staple of the fistic armament—the old one-two—into a personal instrument, ingraining an old move and a young woman's body into one another. It looked like she knew what she was doing.

   

Notes

Larry Holmes is quoted from his book with Phil Berger, Larry Holmes: Against the Odds (New York: St. Martin's, 1998), 275. Kate Sekules is quoted in Nancy Hass, "When Women Step into the Ring," New York Times, October 1, 2000, sec. 9, 1, 7.

1See "Town Built on Steel Industry Resigns Itself to End of an Era," New York Times, November 19, 1995, A27.

2Peter T. Kilborn, "A City Prepares for Life after Steel," New York Times, December 6, 1994, A12.

3See William P. Garvey, "Erie: The Anatomy of a City III" (Erie, Pa.: Erie County Historical Society, 1993), 9-10, 16-18. See also two papers (both released in March 1998) prepared for and disseminated by the Regional Government Opportunities Task Force of the Erie Conference on Community Development, an organization of chief executives and allied progrowth boosters: "How Do We Compare? Rating the Erie Region in a National Context" and "A Snapshot of the Community: Regional Baseline and Trend Indicators for Understanding and Improving the Greater Erie Area and Its Economic Future."

4See John G. Carney, Saga of Erie Sports (Erie, Pa.: John G. Carney, 1957), 193-215.

5In Muscletown, USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), John D. Fair tells a similar story about bodybuilding in York, Pennsylvania, a city "known for the manufacture of air conditioners, chains, motorcycles, stoneware, caskets, and dentures" (1). The city is also known for York barbells and other weight-lifting equipment. That business grew out of an oil-burner factory, to which Bob Hoffman recruited men interested in bodybuilding. "That the training platform was situated in the middle of the oil-burner factory aptly characterized the relationship of lifting to the business," which was gradually "converted for use in underwriting and promoting American weightlifting" (3) and associated masculine ideals. Fair's account wraps physical culture around manufacturing in a tight, mutually shaping fit.

6"Jim Donnelly Trains G.E.A.A. Boxers in Well Equipped Gym," Erie Works News, July 17, 1936, 7; "Herbie Phillips Kayos Tom Stanley in Main Bout of G.E.A.A. Show," Erie Works News, August 28, 1936, 6.

7See Kathryn Marie Dudley, The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 59-61, 71-74, 107-108, 126-134. Dudley explores the nuances of her distinction between the cultures of the hands and of the mind in the cited passages, which provide useful background to my discussion of Liz McGonigal's place in both cultures.

8The club moved again at century's end, displaced by a drugstore. This time it came to rest in a larger space above a restaurant. DeForce added more weight-training equipment and set about incorporating the club so he could qualify for grants that would allow him to buy a building.

9Matt DeForce, quoted in Dave Richards, "Ready and Waiting: McGonigal Will Defend U.S. Title Next Week," Erie Daily Times, May 18, 1998, 8C.

10Women's movement into boxing and the military combat arms has occasioned a good deal of public discussion and press coverage. Their movement into hunting, less prominently publicized, has also been noted. See, for example, James Barron, "A-Hunting She Will Go," New York Times, November 26, 1997, B1. Barron notes that women "have become the fastest-growing group among hunters, reviving an industry that was in danger of stagnating as fewer men signed up for hunting licenses." Many men remain ambivalent about the prospect of women saving hunting, though, as one female hunter suggests in observing, "'Anytime women become associated with weapons, it's really problematic.'"

11See Allen Guttmann, Women's Sports: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 74-76, 99-100; and Jennifer Hargreaves, "Bruising Peg to Boxerobics: Gendered Boxing—Images and Meanings," in Boxer: An Anthology of Writers on Boxing and Visual Culture, ed. David Chandler, John Gill, Tania Guha, and Gilane Tawadros (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), 125. It appears that women bent on mixing it up have always found their way into the fights. The recent discovery of a young woman buried with gladiatorial honors in a Roman cemetery in London, for instance, seems to confirm archaeologists' belief that fighting women carved out a place for themselves in the ancient world's bloodsport trades.

12Jimmy Finn, quoted in Marion Lloyd, "Scores of Knockouts Later, Risks for Women Still a Mystery," AP wire story, May 4, 1997. The Women's International Boxing Federation is not the same organization as the International Women's Boxing Federation. Women's boxing, just like men's boxing, now has its own mess of competing sanctioning bodies.

13Bruce Silverglade, quoted in John Powers, "Throwing a Combination," Boston Globe, November 15, 2000, A1, F3.

14Hass, "When Women Step into the Ring," 7.

15Finn, quoted in Lloyd, "Scores of Knockouts Later."

16"Women's Boxing on the Rise," The Onion (www.theonion.com), 1999. I downloaded the chart, which bears a copyright by The Onion, in 1999; as of July 2001, I could no longer locate or retrieve it from The Onion's archive.

17Advertisement in Weekly Journal: or, The British Gazetteer, October 1, 1726. I am indebted to James Woolley for this citation. Moving forward almost two centuries and across the Atlantic, Madelon Powers's fine history of barroom culture (Faces along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920 [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998]) finds a similar tension between skill and sex in women's boxing in American saloons. Powers cites a program for a card of fights at a saloon in 1899 that describes one participant, Bessie Raymond, as "Handy with Her Mitts." But foxy boxing, either between women or between foxy boxers and men who paid for the titillating privilege of laying hands on them, was already part of vaudeville's lower reaches. "In the same era," Powers notes, "a wealthy bon vivant in New York . . . reported witnessing a saloon boxing match 'between two ladies, with nothing but trunks on'" (158).

18Finn, quoted in Lloyd, "Scores of Knockouts Later."

19John Curran, "Women in the Ring: A Card of Their Own," AP wire story, January 11, 1998.

20See John Sugden, Boxing and Society: An International Analysis (New York: Manchester University Press, 1996), 18; Hargreaves, "Bruising Peg to Boxerobics," 125.

21S. Kirson Weinberg and Henry Arond, "The Occupational Culture of the Boxer," American Journal of Sociology 57 (March 1952): 460.

22Loïc J.D. Wacquant, "The Pugilistic Point of View: How Boxers Think and Feel about Their Trade," Theory and Society 24 (August 1995): 502. Wacquant has published his boxing work at book length in Corps et âme: Carnets ethnographiques d'un apprenti boxeur (Marseille, France: Agone, 2001). It will be published in English, translated by Christopher Rivers, as Body and Soul: Reflections of an Amateur Boxer (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, forthcoming in 2003).

23I have engaged with this argument at length elsewhere; see Carlo Rotella, "Three Views of the Fistic Summits from College Hill," South Atlantic Quarterly 95 (spring 1996): esp. 306-320.

24Wacquant, "The Pugilistic Point of View," 519.

25John Goodman and Pete Hamill, The Times Square Gym (New York: EVAN, 1996).

26John Lahr, "Sinatra's Song," New Yorker, November 3, 1997, 78.

27A.J. Liebling, introduction, The Sweet Science (New York: Penguin, 1982), 2.

28A.J. Liebling, "A Blow for Austerity," in A Neutral Corner: Boxing Essays, ed. Fred Warner and James Barbour (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), 118.

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