Here’s a little introductory reflection I just wrote for my Global Sports Cultures students in preparation for our unit on Muhammad Ali, which will be in our second week of classes.
Probably when most of us think of boxing we have strong reactions. You may have mixed feelings, but I think few people are indifferent to boxing. It’s good to note the difference between emotional ambivalence and emotional indifference. Mixed feelings can sometimes be hard to tolerate, especially when they are strong. Strong mixed feelings can be confusing or disorienting. Usually when we have a strong feeling we take it as a pretty clear guide to action. Love something? Go toward it! Hate something? Go away from it. But what if you have mixed feelings? What do you do then? How do you decide what to do? Many people try to make this confusion and paralysis go away by simply pretending that one of their feelings is the “real” one, and they explain away the other as “false.” Or, at least, they might decide that one of the feelings is just the most important one.
It sounds like I think this is a bad thing. But I don’t think so, not necessarily anyway. When we have to act, urgently, it’s important to prioritize and compartmentalize this way. But, when we have the luxury of not having to act immediately, when we have the luxury of taking the time to experience our feelings and to reflect on them and whatever we think is causing them, we have an exceptional opportunity to learn a great deal about ourselves and our world—an opportunity that is not to be missed; an opportunity you have right now just by being in this course. So take it. Here, I’ll go first.
I’m terrified of boxing. I’ve never once in my life struck another person or been struck by one (if you don’t count a spanking my father gave me when I was a little boy). The force of the blows in a boxing match make cringe. I mean literally, physically cringe. And wince, and kind of crunch up my shoulders, as if to protect myself from something. And the anticipation of more punches, more force, more contact, more blood, more violence gives me a feeling similar to what I get watching a suspenseful horror movie (which I also hate): a kind of knot in my stomach that seems to tie together all the tensed muscles in my entire body.
All of this, I notice, also makes me feel something like a creeping sense of shame. When I look at that shame I see that it resembles the feeling I have when I enter a hardware store and have to ask questions, or when I go take my car to get fixed and don’t know what they are talking about. It is as though I’m somehow not man enough. After all, these activities—fighting, tools, cars—have been traditionally associated with men. I’ve grown up in the same culture as everyone else and however much I may be aware that there is no intrinsic, necessary connection—no causal—connection between punching someone, hammering a nail, and changing your oil and being male, I’m still prey to a certain insecurity in those moments. It’s an insecurity about my masculinity. Probably to compensate for this, or defend myself against the belief that really truly I do have a reason to be ashamed, I also notice a rising sense of disdainful superiority toward those who gleefully revel in every punch, watching the critical highlight over and over again. I think that feeling lets me imagine something like this: “You may be more of a man than me, but you’re less of a human.” I don’t say it. I’m not even conscious that I’m thinking it in the moment that I have that feeling. But still, there it is.
However, it doesn’t stop there. I’m also fascinated by boxing. Having never once been in a fight, the image of two men fearlessly (or bravely, because they overcome their fear) charging at each other, trying to hit each other in the face as hard as possible, hopefully to actually render the other man unconscious is utterly alien to me—I just can’t put myself in that picture, you know? However, it’s also strangely familiar to me, because even if I haven’t ever been in a fight, I’ve certainly felt the desire to strike other people, even to pound them mercilessly within inches of their lives. And in that fantasy, knowing the whole time that I’m asserting my domination over them, and that they know this too only sweetens the image. So there’s something at once completely foreign and distant and something intimately familiar, primally my own in boxing. It appears I find that combination fascinating.
Now those are just some of the feelings, mixed and strong, as you can see, that I notice in myself when I encounter boxing. I want to explore your versions of these this week. To narrow that a bit and provide a focus, we’re going to look at one boxer in particular, Muhammad Ali and even at one fight in particular, his 1974 heavyweight championship fight against the reigning champion and heavily favored American boxer George Foreman. That will give us something very specific to consider. And, we’ll see, in the course of this (that is, if we didn’t know or imagine it already in our foolishness), the technique, intelligence, imagination and artistry that boxers weave into their sport.
But, to complicate this, we’re going to provide a framework for thinking about how we feel about boxing, about Ali, and about that fight. That framework will involve culture, and society, and history. Boxing—that elemental human thing going on it between two men, Ali and Foreman, between the ropes—will also be inseparable from (shaped and shaped by) world political events like wars, dictatorships, colonization and revolution and by human attitudes and practices both vicious (like racism and slavery) and inspiring (like courage and political protest). And finally, since none of this is unfolding live before our eyes in real time (but even if it were, as you’ll learn), we have to think about the ways in which these events and figures are portrayed (in technical terms, that’s called the problem of “representation”).
To help us do this we’ve got two reading assignments and one movie to watch:
When We Were Kings(D. Leon Gast, 1996)
Harvey Young, “Between the Ropes: Staging the Black Body in American Boxing” from Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), pp. 76-118 [CTools].
Michael Ezra, “Introduction” and “Good People” from Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), pp. 1-3 and 135-197 [CTools].