Scholarship and the 'Sweet Science'

Scholarship and the 'Sweet Science'

In Cut Time, Rotella sees common threads of boxing and academia

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Up on a hill overlooking Easton, Pa., sits Lafayette College, whose 2,300 undergraduates work and live on a picturesque campus nestled among maple and cypress trees.

At the bottom of the hill, near the city's railroad tracks and canal, is the Larry Holmes Training Center, a gym used by boxers of all ages and skill levels.

The boxing world and the academy, says Assoc. Prof. Carlo Rotella (English), "have plenty in common. They're not only places of learning and accumulated knowledge, they also have a similar relationship to the wider world." Photo by Lee Pellegrini
The journey between these two seemingly disparate places may be arduous, but there is less separating Lafayette and the Holmes Center than one might think, says Assoc. Prof. Carlo Rotella (English), whose familiarity with both forms the basis of his latest book, Cut Time: An Education at the Fights.

"The fight world and the academy have plenty in common," said Rotella, who has never set foot in a ring to fight, and does not care to do so. "They're not only places of learning and accumulated knowledge, they also have a similar relationship to the wider world."

Boxing and academia are "remote islands" largely cut off from everyday life, Rotella says, but both offer lessons that are applicable in everyday life.

In Cut Time Rotella uses boxers and their lives as a way to examine the nature of education and the basis of suffering that it requires. He explores the limitations of revenge, what "going the distance" truly means and one boxer's own inner life told through a look at former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes - the best technical fighter in recent memory, according to Rotella. Each chapter of Cut Time depicts a fight, and more subtly, a lesson.

Along the way, Rotella tells the story of Russell, a former student of his, who learns quickly that boxing isn't for him. Rotella also reports on a bar room dust-up and explains its significance, and discusses his Sicilian grandmother, comparing her life to that of the careers of two aged boxers.

"Teaching and checking out a fight are highly specialized activities that are very different from the rest of life, but they also raise ideas that extend far beyond the closed world of the classroom or the ring," said Rotella.

Rotella said he first found that Easton gym while out walking one afternoon soon after he began teaching at Lafayette in the mid-1990s.

He began spending his afternoons there, not working on a punching bag nor skipping rope, but observing the so-called "sweet science" up close.

"People in boxing don't mind it when you wander in. They rarely question what you're doing in the gym or at ringside," said Rotella. "I'm always pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to simply show up and hang around. It helps, too, that I'm a fairly anonymous-looking person. My main skill is to sort of disappear in plain sight."

Cut Time gets its title from the moment in a fight when the lesson is learned, as Rotella describes it in the book:

When blood from a serious cut finds its way into the lights, everything seems to change: it's cut time. You can almost hear it, a droning almost-music that hangs in the smoke filled air of fight night, strumming the optic nerves and vibrating in the teeth, encouraging fighters to do urgent, sometimes desperate things.

Cut Time is something of a continuation of Rotella's larger interest in post-industrial American cities. In his previous writings, including last year's Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen and Other Tales From the Rust Belt, Rotella has translated his fascination with urban landscapes into stories of blues musicians, police officers, and boxers - all of them, like all of the stories in Cut Time, told as creative non-fiction.

Since those days in Easton, Rotella has taken in his share of fights, using press credentials for magazine articles he was writing as an entrée to fight world.

"Nothing in this book was written on deadline," said Rotella, who, while never a sportswriter, has published essays on boxing in Washington Post Magazine, Harper's and The American Scholar, among others.

"I always knew I was going to do this book, and my other writing gave me the access I needed to ask the bigger questions of the right people," he said.

Some chapters of Cut Time are drawn from unexpected lessons for which no press pass was required. In one chapter Rotella uses a friend's injury in an automobile accident and his own traffic mishap to explore the concept of suffering. A fight he witnessed outside a bar 12 years ago became fodder for another chapter.

"I was lucky that I could take my time to sharpen and polish this book over many years," said Rotella. "I had to spend a lot of time walking up and down that hill, but it was worth the trip."

Tonight at 7:30 p.m., Carlo Rotella will read from and discuss Cut Time at Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut Street in Newton.


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