Boxing Gym Aesthetics
I am reading Loic Wacquant’s book, Body and Soul: notebooks of an apprentice boxer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), yes I am. I have a postcard of Jeff Wall’s photograph Boxing (2011) on my desk. I have my memories of my own training at boxing (and muay thai) gyms.
Wacquant is a French anthropologist who spent three years training in the Woodlawn boxing club. He joined as a means to do research on the men who live in an urban ghetto of inner Chicago. He signed up as a member, as a complete novice and as the only white guy in the gym. Throughout his time as a researcher, he established life-long friendships, fought in the Golden Gloves tournament, was invited to be a corner-man in a professional fight and wrote some 2,300 pages of field notes on his experiences at the club. Wacquant let his research determine his sporting activity; my impression is that he wasn’t expected to become so taken up with the ‘fight game’. He moved from uncoordinated novice to proficient amateur considering going professional. Wacquant does his work as a boxer and as an anthropologist simultaneously. Boxing is his avenue into learning of the practices of the amateur and professional boxers who train at Woodlawn. From the 2,300 pages of notes he wrote, he has produced a book of some 270 pages. The process no doubt involves much synthesis; indeed, the writer needs to know more than just what he or she puts on the page.
Parts of the book are heavy on description, rather than analysis per se. For example, pages 31-37, are made up of a section titled, ‘a temple to the pugilistic cult’. He writes, ‘in both layout and adornment, the gym constitutes something of a temple of the pugilistic cult by the presence on its walls of the major fighters, past and present, to whom the budding boxers from ghetto gyms devote a selective but tenacious adoration’ (Wacquant 2004, p.35). The gym is also lined with various elements of paraphernalia which support the makings of a strong black identity. Here I was reminded of something similar in a boxing gym in inner suburban Melbourne: there were posters of aboriginal Australian boxers, mixed in amongst portraits of great black boxers. The degree of boxing greatness was not the point of connection: instead, it was that the men pictured had contributed in varying ways to a sense of pride in their identity.
Jeff Wall’s photograph Boxing (2011) shows two boys practicing their boxing technique in the living room of what seems to be a house of a middle class family. The house’s interior is clean, cream, full of straight lines. There is a painting on the wall behind one of the boys, there are large flowers on a coffee table. Vases and ceramic miscellanea can be found on the shelves behind the practicing boxers. The boys are slim and perhaps of north African background. My understanding is that Wall’s photographs are staged; this is obvious in this case. The house looks particularly un-lived in lacking both warmth and a vital element of messiness. The boys seem under-dressed; they’re shirtless. My imagination tells me that the exercise they’re doing isn’t too stressful and the house looks air-conditioned. But, perhaps the point of Wall’s photograph is only to suggest this possibility of boxing practice at home. The boys have removed themselves from a venue of sweat, worn punching bags, the sound of soft-soled shoes sliding on canvas, and tough strangers for the comforts of a domestic space. Boxing takes place outside of the gym, but, it may not feel, look, or sound like it.
photograph by Jeff Wall, Boxing (2011)
Boxing gyms, in many cases, are undergoing a similar transformation: from the aesthetics of worn out bags, thinning leather on gloves, the sounds of skipping ropes striking hard floors, the squeaking of shoes on concrete surfaces and improvised equipment such as a table for sit-ups or huge tyres for jumping on towards the cleanliness of easily cleaned mats, rooms equipped with air-conditioning and surround sound digital hi-fi systems. In these gyms boxers, or muay thai boxers, place their smart phones next to the ring and use apps for determining the length and number of their rounds. There is no universal bell to follow, let alone the orders of the head-coach who shouts ‘time in’ and ‘time out’ as does DeeDee in Wacquant’s eloquent book. The tastes and demands of the ‘fitness boxer’ have usurped those of the old school, borderline amateur-professional boxer. Those with a dedication to boxing beyond getting into shape train apart from the fitness boxers with a subdued sense of separateness.
Wacquant writes in his book of the ambivalent relationship the Woodlawn boxing club has to the surrounding ghetto in Chicago. For example, the boxers don’t discuss the (first) Iraq war that is unfolding during Wacquant’s research. They only briefly mention the processes of ‘urban renewal’ which are interpreted as being governmental efforts at ‘negro removal’. Women too are largely excluded from this particularly socially constructed male space. Moreover, the gym that Wacquant describes is one of uncontested centralised authority. DeeDee, who receives no pay and whose power is only represented by his stopwatch and t-shirt indicating that he is ‘staff’, determines the rules, etiquette and ethics of how to box. His methods are subtly conveyed from the senior to the junior boxers. Boxers indeed do an apprentice in this studio of pugilism. The art of boxing is practiced as if it has remained unchanged since time immemorial.
The Woodlawn boxing gym reminds me of the gyms I’ve trained at in Indonesia, Australia and The Netherlands. Each of these gyms have had counterparts in their cities. Gyms that represent the old school toughness and the new comfort of gyms targeting students (and sometimes, specifically female students): yoga is incorporated into training regimes and classes are conducted in a polite manner. The boxing gym, despite the wishes of the hardened ol’ school boxers, turns out to be permeable and unable to resist changing social contexts.