“In a perfect world boxing might not exist. But the world is not perfect.” Reflections on the historical development of pugilism

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Anne Tjønndal
Department of Sociology and Political Science
Norwegian University of Science and Technology


Gerald R. Gems Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science 343 sidor, inb., ill. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2014 ISBN 978-1-4422-2990-7

Gerald R. Gems
Boxing: A Concise History of the Sweet Science
343 sidor, inb., ill.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2014
ISBN 978-1-4422-2990-7

Boxing is thought to be one of the world’s oldest sports (Poliakoff, 1987; Potter, 2012). This fact, in combination with the violent nature of boxing, might make up some of the reasons why many see the sport of boxing as a primal activity – a residual sport with no place in a modern and civilized society.

In his book Boxing: A concise history of the sweet science, Gerald R. Gems takes the reader on a journey through the history of boxing: from early boxing competitions in ancient Greece, to modern boxing as we know it today.

The book is structured both in a chronological and a thematic way. The first part, chapters one and two, outlines some central events in the historical development of boxing as a sport. In his first chapter, Gems describes what are perhaps the earliest historical traces of the sport as he discusses early boxing competitions in ancient Greece and Rome. Chapter two portrays the evolution of modern day boxing from the eighteenth-century until the 1980s and 1990s. Arguably, some of the most significant events in this chapter are the transitions from earlier regulations of boxing, like the London Prize Ring Rules, to the introduction of the Marquis of Queensberry Rules in 1867. The Queensberry Rules still form the foundation of regulations in boxing bouts today.

Chapters three through seven are categorized by thematic topics, more specifically boxing and social class (chapter three), race (chapter four), ethnicity (five), religion (six) and gender (seven). In addition to highlighting influential advances in boxing (and society in general) in relation to these topics, each chapter contains several entertaining stories and historical recollections of famous boxers and memorable boxing bouts in both early prize fighting and modern professional boxing. From early fighters and sports heroes like John L. Sullivan and Elizabeth Stokes, to modern day champions like Floyd Mayweather, Claressa Shields and Manny Pacquiao, the high points of many supreme and iconic pugilists’ careers are depicted in Gems’ book.

The stories of boxing in Gems’ book will interest boxing fans and professionals as well as academics and researchers with little or no knowledge of the sport.

The final chapter (eight) contains some summarizing conclusions. Gems closes his book by stating that he does not wish to glorify boxing as a sport. There are many medical and ethical issues connected to the practice of boxing, and furthermore, it is a sport that is frequently plagued by corruption and greed. For each heroic boxing champion we see in the media, there are many brutal and tragic stories in the shadows. Despite these dark sides, boxing remains an accepted sport in modern and otherwise civilized societies, and Gems wonders why. As a response he points out several good arguments, and one of them is that studies have shown that there are many unlicensed boxers both in the UK and the US today that are actively practicing their sport. In contrast to official (and regulated) bouts, underground boxing fights follow no rules, and as a consequence, fights are vastly more dangerous than regulated boxing competitions. By banning boxing entirely it is likely that such fights would increase, ultimately leading to more, and more severe, injuries than officially sanctioned boxing bouts today. Furthermore, the sad truth is that for many men and women in the inner cities, boxing provides a safe haven from violence in the streets:

In a perfect world boxing might not exist. But the world is not perfect, and in the eyes of many, thousands of young men (and women) are better off because of boxing (Hauser, 2012: 44)

Overall, Gems provides a detailed and comprehensive insight into the historical development of the sport of boxing in his book. The story of the development of boxing, which Gems depicts, is well documented throughout the book. The notes and bibliography is quite comprehensive. The book does however rely heavily on American and British sources. Boxing in other parts of the world are not as well-documented in this particular sport history book, which in some ways is a shortcoming. Additionally, Gems’ focus is primarily on the history of professional boxing. Although amateur boxing is mentioned in some chapters, it is above all the history of professional boxing Gems describes in his book. Taking these (possible) drawbacks into consideration, Boxing: A concise history of the sweet science is, in my opinion, still a good read. It is both interesting and fun to read, as well as educational. Moreover, it has the potential to reach a wide scope of readers. The stories of boxing in Gems’ book will interest boxing fans and professionals as well as academics and researchers with little or no knowledge of the sport. Academics in the field of sport sociology may find this book particularly refreshing as it discusses the significance of fundamental sociological topics such as race, class, ethnicity and gender in the sport of boxing.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2015

References

Hauser, Black Lights, cited in Benita Heiskanen, The Urban Geography of Boxing: Race, Class and Gender in the Ring (New York: Routledge, 2012): 44.
Poliakoff, M.B. (1987). Combat sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence and Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Potter, D. (2012). The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium. New York: Oxford University Press.
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