Entertaining and engaging, a book for boxing aficionados, sport historians and sociologists alike

Anne Tjønndal
Nord university, Norway

Meg Frisbee
Counterpunch: The Cultural Battles over Heavyweight Prizefighting in the American West
245 pages, hardcover, ill.
Seattle: University of Washington Press 2016
ISBN 978-0-295-99546-5

The aim of this concise book is to give the reader a ‘fascinating look at early American boxing’. The book considers the symbolic, social and political conflict between heavyweight prizefighters and anti-fight reformers in their battle over national and moral values from 1850s to the 1980s. This encompasses stories of the lives and careers of famous early American prizefighters such as Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, and the people around them. On a broader note, the book also deals with social change in American society during this period.

Long before Las Vegas became the focal point of professional boxing, the sport was popular in the American West. However, boxing has always been subject to controversy, which is also the case here. Not everyone in the region was a fan. Counterpunch – The Cultural Battles over Heavyweight Prizefighting in the American West considers cultural and social change, as well as political conflict on the legality and morality of heavyweight prizefighting in American society during from the 1850s up until the modern day professional boxing of the 1980s.

The heavyweight division has traditionally been the most important weight division in boxing, which makes it a particularly interesting part of boxing and sport history to examine. Since the downfall of Mike Tyson, there has been a shift in professional boxing, as more attention has been given to the lighter weight classes, and to some extent, also to female fighters. The last time a heavyweight title fight was held in the US was in 2003 when Lennox Lewis fought and defeated Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles. In 2015, the fight of the century in Las Vegas was in the welterweight division, as Floyd Mayweather defeated Manny Pacquiao. In many ways, the heavyweight division has lost its appeal not only in the West, but in the entire United States.

What characterizes the truly great heavyweight fighters, such as Muhammad Ali, is their extraordinary speed and agility, combined with their devastating punching power and immense physique. Today there are few heavyweights who can measure up to these characteristics, and the ones who can are not American champions. The long awaited and highly anticipated heavyweight title fight of 2017 will be between Anthony Joshua and Vladimir Klitschko. Joshua is British born and Klitschko is Ukrainian. The fight will be held in England, where two of the greatest heavyweight fighters today will face each other for the IBF, IBO and WBA Super Heavyweight Championships of the world. Some boxing fans might argue that the heavyweight division and the heavyweight title fights will always draw more attention than the lower weight divisions. However, this perception of professional boxing has at least diversified in the last decade, while in the era recounted by the author of this book, heavyweight prizefighting was the undisputed highlight of pugilism.

The best academic attributes of this book is Meg Frisbee’s compelling and detailed records of the lives of prizefighters in this era, and the changing social, political and cultural values of American society.

The author, Meg Frisbee is an assistant professor of history at Metropolitan State University at Denver. Frisbee’s book is based on several biographies, autobiographies and eyewitness accounts. The author presents narratives from the fighters’ battles in the ring, and their personal lives. These narratives are often presented from multiple viewpoints, making the stories of these heavyweight boxers rich and compelling. This interesting look into early American boxing displays fighters such as Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack Johnson (the first African American heavyweight champion), their professional careers and personal lives.

“Counterpunch” is not a book filled with excessive theoretical analyses, and does not claim such ambitions. However, it is a book packed with rich descriptions, stories and narratives of heavyweight prizefighting as a sport and a growing enterprise in the American West. The best academic attributes of this book is Meg Frisbee’s compelling and detailed records of the lives of prizefighters in this era, and the changing social, political and cultural values of American society. Frisbee manages to weave politics, sport, culture and regional development together in her work. One of the best feats of this book is the author’s nuanced treatment of the development of prizefighting in the American West. Frisbee demonstrates how the popularity of the sport progressed and changed alongside changing moral values in American society.

While the primary intention of the book is to give the reader a look into early American boxing history, Frisbee elegantly intertwines this part of sport history with important societal changes dealing with topics such as gender and race. This gives the book another layer and a depth that makes it a compelling read beyond the narratives of early American heavyweight prizefighters.

Overall, I found Meg Frisbee’s “Counterpunch” to be an entertaining and engaging book to read. As a reader, it gave me exactly what it set out to do; an intriguing look into heavyweight prizefighting in early American boxing history. For some, heavyweight prizefighting in the American West might seem as a narrow, unusual and somewhat strange topic in sport history. However, while this book might be somewhat limited in its initial audience of readers, I would encourage skeptics to give it a read.  Boxing fans will undoubtedly enjoy this piece of sport history, but sociologists and sport historians in general might also find the author’s descriptions of the social, symbolic and political conflicts over heavyweight prizefighting in America compelling.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2017

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