Notes from a Midwest Boxing Gym
Over the past two years, I have carried out fieldwork in a Midwest boxing gym in order to better understand the sport in its various social dimensions (from gyms, to competitions, to casual conversations). I have found that the harshness and calculated strategy that characterizes the sport of boxing also characterizes the sociocultural contexts in which boxers, trainers, officials, and fans interact; which make boxing ideal for addressing questions that are of interest to anthropologists. Discussions about how race or nationality affect boxing practices are passionately addressed head on in gyms, locker rooms, arenas, and other social spaces. Volunteering over the last two years as an apprentice trainer in a gym with two very talented athletes, Shelden and Josh, I was able to document how the boxers and their trainers experienced the Olympics from the social margins where many gyms operate.
“I love amateur boxing at the club shows and small tournaments. But once you get to those national tournaments, it is all politics.” Phil, head trainer for over forty years, neatly summed up his feelings about what happened to Shelden at the 2011 Men’s Boxing Olympic Trials in Mobile, Alabama. Phil and I sat in front of a small television hooked up to a video camera watching a replay of Shelden’s first fight at the Trials as other boxers carried on with their training routines. Shelden, who was working on a nearby bag, slowed his pace and added, “We came out of nowhere, they didn’t know who we were. We just started winning tournaments.” Tamera, the gym’s other trainer and former professional boxer, screamed out to me, “And Gabe, did you hear the crowd booing [in the video]? Everyone knew that was a horrible decision. I had no idea!” However, before heading down to Mobile, Phil warned everyone in the gym not to get their hopes up; but that did not stop him, Tamera, and Shelden from voicing their disgust with “boxing politics.” Shelden’s Olympic hopes officially ended with a second questionable loss, albeit in a closer fight. Later, I asked Phil whether he thought that such blatantly wrong decisions were a result of political corruption or judging incompetence. “Both!” Phil explained that if USA Boxing and the International Boxing Association (AIBA, which is in charge of amateur international competition) made better efforts to bring in judges “who knew anything about boxing,” then judges would not be biased when scoring a fight that pitted an unknown boxer like Shelden against a better known opponent with financial backing (in the form of monthly stipends) from USA Boxing.
Losing a close or bad call in amateur and professional boxing is not uncommon. Consequently, there are many narratives within the world of boxing that aim to explain what is commonly understood by its practitioners as “robberies.” For the trainers and fighters invested in the process of competing for top national amateur rankings and a spot on the Olympic team, these narratives of protest are highly contingent on more complex cultural configurations that differently inform boxing throughout the United States. Intersecting questions of class and regionalism (East/West coast versus the Midwest), bureaucratization of Olympic organizations, and marginal identities (race, youth, and working class) sit below the surface of the grand Olympic boxing spectacle. Of course, such cultural configurations also vary considerably around the world, where “life-as-a-fight” metaphors are often informed by broader understandings of the nation, gender, and the body.
Olympic Trials In and Out of Focus
For many people around the world, sports are routine: from sports talk radio to the restructuring of calendar years according to sport seasons and championships. Few sporting events garner as much global attention as the Summer Olympics, when, for many fans, sporting euphoria mimics nationalism and vice versa. As a global ritual, anthropologists have recognized both the importance of studying the local impacts of such major sporting events as well as the historical and political economic circumstances that resulted in the globalization of certain sports. I maintain, however, that it is equally important to ethnographically shift attention away from the grand spectacle, and instead focus on the social and cultural milieu from which the Olympic elite emerge. This focal shift is especially important for boxing, where in the US the road from gyms to the Olympic team can be quite abrupt. Two or three victories in state and regional tournaments lead to national tournaments, where boxers are then only a few wins from the Olympic trials. The boxers that I have worked with found it difficult to move from the familiar routines of the gym to the unfamiliar structures of Olympic boxing.
The uncertainty that accompanies the road to the Olympics leads many boxers to adopt a cautious optimism that views the tournaments preceding the trials as business as usual. On several occasions, Josh came within one or two wins of an invitation to the Olympic trials. For him, winning the trials was a mean to fame and economic wealth. Although he has been outworked (and therefore outpointed) in national competition, a few trainers and other knowledgeable observers have recognized his skill-level and athletic prowess. Josh understands that he can compete at the national level, but he thinks of his abilities as an economic asset. Unlike Shelden who started boxing at an early age, Josh is like many amateur boxers who start practicing the sport in their late teens and early twenties. Many walk into the gym with gross misconceptions about their ability to easily pick up the sport. Such misconceptions are informed by a miscalculation of the equivalence between a strong sense of manhood and the ability to actually engage in skilled combat. Josh is in the small minority who mastered the sport at a late age, but his understating of the sport is heavily influenced by the glory professional boxing. Knowing and navigating the amateur game is a necessity and not part of a boxer’s growing process. Moreover, the marginal social space of many boxing gyms—disconnected from well financed sporting organizations and often contiguous with politically and economically marginalized communities—makes the Olympic Games seem to boxers like Josh like a rare lottery.
A few months after he missed the last chance to make the Olympic team, we sat waiting for his turn to fight in the championship of a regional tournament. Josh, not focused on the fight ahead of him, said, “I am not sure about this whole amateur thing. I’m thinking about turning pro.” Josh’s high Olympic hopes, which I recorded a year earlier on two separate road trips to regional and national tournaments, have faded from his boxing agenda.
Boxing: A Valuable Research End
Although the US Olympic team has not in recent decades produced as many medal winners who have moved on to lucrative professional careers, the idea that a trip to the Olympics can lead to success is present in many boxer’s minds. Josh, Shelden and others like them are engaged in a sport where hope, work and wealth intersect in training and competition; indeed, I think of such intersections as an anthropology of dreams. The dream of the Olympic trials momentarily brought meaningful purpose to hours of training following twelve hour shifts at a factory, to injuries, to hours on the road, and to a collective sense of identity among boxers.
The disillusionment with the trials also yielded valuable information about the manner in which the body differently figures into boxing. When Shelden turned professional in the months following the Olympic trials, Phil and Tamera were very optimistic about his ability to overcome the politics of national amateur tournaments. Phil explained, “It’s gonna be a lot different in the pros. None of those guys [in the amateurs] are gonna be able to handle him.” The savvy trainer’s prediction hinges on the fact that professional boxing is a sport that favors a strong and inherently powerful fighter like Shelden, especially at the heavier weights. Not being well-known and being outpointed by ineffective punches will not be a problem for Shelden in the professional ranks. In amateur boxing, hard and soft punches count the same as long as they land on the opponent. However, in professional ranks, hurting the opponent is encouraged as evidenced by the omission of protective headgear and the use of smaller gloves. Tamera is also hopeful, “Everyone likes a nice guy who can knock people out.” Phil and Tamera’s optimistic outlooks index ideas about gender and race in relation to fighting bodies. Being big, black, powerful, and unknown did not always help Shelden in the amateur ranks. However, professional boxing has historically proven more forgiving of such qualities, especially if Shelden starts inflicting serious damage on his opponents. Interestingly, Shelden and Phil are quite aware of “racial traps” in the professional boxing, so they have instead embraced a boxing nickname for Shelden that matches his easygoing and quite personality: “Gentleman.”
Shelden and Josh have begun to forget about the Olympics, although, according to Shelden, not about the boxers who took “his spot” on the Olympic team, “I’ll just wait for them to come to the pros, and then we’ll see what’s up.” For the moment, the Olympic Games are beyond the reach and visions of most youth. A few years from now, when the Olympics come back into focus for many boxers, making the trials will be yet another incentive to throw and take a few more punches, withstand a few more bloody noses, and endure the physical pains of getting ready for combat.
As of July 2012, Gabriel Alejandro Torres Colón is director for undergraduate studies for the anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his PhD (2008) in anthropology at the University of New Mexico. Gabriel’s anthropological interests include the politics of multiculturalism, race and racism, sport, and anthropological theory. He has carried out research in the North African Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in the Maroon community of Accompong, Jamaica, and in a Midwest boxing gym.