Jan. 20, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 9



Professional boxing has taken its share of body blows in recent years, notably with the highly publicized antics of Mike Tyson. More than a few commentators have decried what they see as the sport's deterioration into a farcical shadow of its former self; other pundits barely regard it as a sport at all, but rather an exercise in exploitation and violence.

Yet the "sweet science" suddenly appears to be in vogue once again as the subject for artistic and literary treatment, and public entertainment as well: Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" has drawn critical acclaim and audiences; recent so-called reality TV shows have depicted the preparation of up-and-coming prizefighters; and this week PBS aired Ken Burns' documentary on controversial African American boxer Jack Johnson.

Assoc. Prof. Carlo Rotella (English), who wrote about "Million Dollar Baby" in the Jan. 16 Boston Sunday Globe, isn't particularly surprised by the apparent revival of interest in boxing shown by the public and media. But there's more, and less, to it than meets the eye, he says.

"I don't think there's any love-hate relationship between the general population and boxing," said Rotella, author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights. "I don't buy that anybody knows or cares enough about boxing to be really that repulsed by it. Mostly it's the case that nobody knows anything about boxing anymore, and casual observers tend to find it exciting, confusing, and a little scary, which is actually a pretty good way to attract viewers and readers."

The sport, says Rotella, "has become esoteric, and synonymous with history, like railroads, the Civil War, or Nazis. Boxing stopped being a big deal in the everyday lives of Americans in the late 1950s, when for lots of big structural reasons - TV, universal secondary education, decline of the industrial economy and its associated cultural forms, rise of alternative school-based sports like football and basketball - it began to turn into an esoteric TV spectacle and began to stop being part of neighborhood life.

"General interest in boxing since then in this country has taken the form of periodic revivals that run in cycles: Muhammad Ali was responsible for at least two of them, the 'Rocky' movies and Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney for another, and so on. There's one under way these days, but it's pretty completely contained within movies and books, and doesn't really translate into more interest in actual boxing.

"There are lots of reasons for it, I'm sure, and I think I can see some of them. People interested in 'old-school' subject matter are drawn to the historical resonance of boxing; actors, and some writers, obsessively work out all the time and are attracted to boxers, who are in better shape than just about anybody else; the boxing movie is traditionally a way to make an action movie that's about character; women want in on the action, and now that women's boxing is legit they can get in on it; and so on."

Rotella notes that this year also will see the release of a film about Depression-era boxer and folk hero Jim Braddock, portrayed by Russell Crowe, and a book on women's boxing by Leah Hager Cohen.

And if that weren't enough, Rotella adds, "I hear there's a Rocky musical in the works on Broadway, too, and another 'Rocky' movie."

-Sean Smith

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