“A beautiful piece of research on the culture of boxing”

Anne Tjønndal
Nord University, Norway

Benita Heiskanen The Urban Geography of Boxing: Race, Class, and Gender in the Ring 192 pages, h/c. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2012 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society) ISBN 978-0-415-50226-9
Benita Heiskanen
The Urban Geography of Boxing: Race, Class, and Gender in the Ring
192 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2012 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-415-50226-9

As part of the Routledge book series on research in sport, culture and society Benita Heiskanen (University of Turku) explores the inner workings of pugilistic power in her book The Urban Geography of Boxing – Race, Class and Gender in the Ring. Over the course of seven chapters, Heiskanen discusses a multitude of issues related to the interplay between power, gender, race and social class in boxing.

Heiskanen’s book is based on her ethnographic fieldwork among professional and amateur boxers in Austin, Texas (USA). Chapter one (‘On the Barrio’s Ropes’, pp. 13-27) explores boxing in the East Austin barrio where many of the boxers Heiskanen has interviewed began their careers. The chapter discusses the established premise that those who take up boxing as a trade are often from ‘disposable’ minority groups with few other opportunities in life.

Chapter two (‘Wo/Manly Art at the Gym’, pp. 28-43) focuses on male and female boxers’ conceptualization of the bodily labor, social relations and identity formations under the everyday premises of the sport. Chapter three (‘Business is Business Backdoors’, pp. 44-61) sheds light on some of the economic and judicial issues of boxing.

Chapter four (‘The Limelight of the Ring’, pp. 62-80) showcases the rituals before, during and after the boxing match itself. Chapter five (‘Through the Media’s Lens’, pp. 81-96) considers the role of the media in depicting boxing to the public. Chapter six (‘Politicking in Combat Zones’, pp. 97-112) investigates the ways in which boxing is connected to political power relations.

In her final chapter, chapter seven (‘The Ivory Tower in The Real World’, pp. 113-125), Heiskanen reflects on her own research process by “exploring the spatial dimensions of knowledge, brought about by the comings and goings that turn into academic discourse” (pp. 12).

Many the topics discussed by Heiskanen in this book are not new to sport sociologists and certainly not to boxing aficionados. Boxing has always been associated with certain groups in society, and is often described as a sport for ‘working class’ men with an ethnic minority background. However, chapter one and two provides insightful analyses of race, social class and gender in East Austin boxing gyms, an area dominated by Latino fighters exploring their social opportunities through sport. Chapter two also tells important stories of female fighters’ everyday experiences in the boxing gym. Heiskanen’s well placed use of quotes from interviews with boxers especially makes these stories of the everyday practices of the fighters come to life. Here Heiskanen manages to give voice to women as a marginalized group in the sport of boxing (both amateur and professional), for instance on page 32 where a female boxer retells a story from her first professional bout: “The boxing commissioner said at my first weight-in: ‘You’re a boxer! You’re too pretty to be a boxer. If I were your dad, I would put you on my knee and spank you!’”.

Personally, I enjoyed reading chapters three through six the most. This is also the part of the book where I feel Heiskanen makes her most important contribution to the social, political and cultural study of boxing. In these chapters, Heiskanen sheds light on some of the inner workings of power in professional boxing. The author skillfully demonstrates how promoters, trainers, the media, politicians, ideologies and politics influence the world of professional boxing. She also illustrates how the fighters themselves often are taken advantage of during their careers as professionals: “I’ve met a lot of ugly personalities in boxing, and have found out that it’s really crooked. A lot of people are in it just for themselves and not the boxer, and it’s the boxer who does all the work.” (pp.56).

Overall, The Urban Geography of Boxing is a beautiful piece of research on the culture of boxing, the everyday lives of fighters and the contemporary issues that haunts professional boxing today. Heiskanen writes well, merging her sociological analyses with compelling narratives of boxers’ lives and struggles, all the while managing to incorporate small reflections on her own role as a researcher (and a sister of a former professional boxer) in her study. The final chapter (7) where Heiskanen reflects on her own research process during her fieldwork in boxing was an especially delightful bonus to read. Anyone interested in social, cultural and political issues in modern sport should pick up Heiskanen’s book.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2016

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