A Professor Who Packs a Real Punch

A Professor Who Packs a Real Punch

Carlo Rotella explores the relationship between urban history and the art of boxing

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Recalling his years growing up on Chicago's storied South Side, Asst. Prof. Carlo Rotella (English) says the lessons learned as a witness to shifting urban tides didn't dawn on him until after he had left the Windy City.

Asst. Prof. Carlo Rotella (English)
"I grew up thinking that my neighborhood was the way it always had been," said Rotella. But later he discovered that his neighborhood, like most urban neighborhoods, has been home to a succession of ethnic groups and social classes, constantly in a state of change.

Rotella, who joined the Boston College faculty this year and teaches in the American Studies Program, has written extensively on the post-industrial transformation of American cities. He says the changes that cities undergo are reflected in elements of culture including art, architecture, music and sports, including one of his favorite areas of interest: the art of boxing.

"When you scratch beneath the surface you'll see that the history of boxing and that of America's industrial cities are closely linked," he said. "As cities have changed, and especially as factory work has become less important in them, boxing has become more marginal in them. Now, you find boxing gyms hidden away between the railroad tracks and the expressway."

Rotella has written on the sport for The Washington Post Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Harper's and Double Take, among other publications. He is also beginning work on The Distance: An Education at the Fights, for which he will draw upon his years spent observing boxing, both as a sport and as a social, cultural and even pedagogical practice.

Last week, Rotella learned that his recent essay "Cut Time" will be included in the forthcoming Best American Essays 2001, a popular annual compilation of creative non-fiction. "Cut Time" was also recently recognized by American Scholar, the magazine published by the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, as one of the best essays of 2000.

"Cut Time" explores an experience Rotella had while teaching at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., where he befriended a young student named Russell who spent his free time working out at a local boxing gym. The essay tells the story of Russell's romance with boxing, which began because Russell sought "life experience" he could not get on campus, and which ended when he had learned some hard lessons about himself and the difference between the classroom and the ring.

For Rotella, a scholar interested in city life and a young teacher perfecting his own pedagogical style, boxing is an intersection he comes to frequently, although he says he has no desire to set foot in the ring himself.

He says his interest in boxing was piqued while teaching at Lafayette, which was located near a gym owned by former heavy-weight champ Larry Holmes.

"Going down there to watch him train, I had a chance to see a master craftsman work at his craft. That, as much as anything else, got me interested in writing about boxing," he said. The fact that everybody else in the gym was watching Holmes, trying to learn from him by observation, encouraged Rotella to think about the gym as a place of teaching and learning.

In that respect, "learning in the gym is not that much like learning in the classroom," said Rotella, who likens the experience to that of an apprentice learning a trade.

"But getting in the ring is like taking the lessons you've learned in school and applying them to real life," said Rotella.

He compares the sport's urban past and present state with that of the industrialized American city, an all but bygone phenomena.

"As cities have lost most of their factory workers, boxing lost its traditional base," noted Rotella.

Rotella explained that in industrial cities young men faced the choice between fighting and factory work. Many chose boxing not only because they dreamed of championships, but also because it called upon some of the same physical skills as industrial work.

"Boxing is full of language that relates it to work," said Rotella. "You 'outwork your opponent,' 'work the body.' It's not like a sport with a ball. You never hear of boxers 'playing,' it's work."

As industry moved from American cities and was replaced by a "dot-com" culture and an economy based on service and information, gone also are the boxers, Rotella says. Boxing's survival in such communities as Brockton, Chelsea and Lowell has to do with the fact that those cities hang onto memories of their industrial bases, he said.

"But people always make their way back to the ring," said Rotella.

If the era of the blue-collar male boxer is largely gone, Rotella said the sport will live on, albeit in a new form, as a fitness activity for men from other backgrounds and, increasingly, for women.

"The same elements will still be there," said Rotella. "It will still be about teaching and learning - and working."


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