Valuable and welcome contribution to the body of scholarly work on boxing

Anne Tjønndal
Nord University

Joseph D. Lewandowski
On Boxing: Critical Interventions in the Bittersweet Science
94 pages, hardcover
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2021 (Routledge Focus on Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-1-03-201889-8

Joseph D. Lewandowski was a pugilist long before he became an author, researcher, educator, and professor of philosophy at the University of Central Missouri, USA. Professor Lewandowski also currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. In the preface to On Boxing Lewandowski writes about his own passion for boxing from a young age. After reading the preface, my expectations for the book were high, because just like myself, Lewandowski was a boxer before he became a scholar. It is rare to read scholarly work in the philosophy and sociology of boxing from an author with such extensive engagement in and knowledge of the noble art of self-defense.

On Boxing is partly inspired by, and draws on, Joseph Lewandowski’s many years of experience as an active member of a Kansas City boxing gym called Authentic Boxing. He combines these experiences with extensive knowledge of the sport of professional boxing in the United States and utilizes theoretical concepts and ideas from philosophy and sociology to critically scrutinize boxing in the US.

The site of Lewandowski’s ethnographic work (or perhaps it is more accurate to call it memory work), Authentic Boxing, is located in West Bottoms, Kansas City. In the author’s own words (p. 8) West Bottoms is: “a kind of no-man’s land: an artifact of a bygone era in the city’s history” and functions like “a magnet for a variety of urban practices, social interactions, and commerce, not only boxing but also street-walking (low-income and high-risk prostitution), drug-dealing, street-peddling, evangelizing, scavenging, payday loan centers and check-cashing services”. Both amateur and professional boxers train at Authentic Boxing, whereas Lewandowski’s book mainly focuses on the latter of the two. Training at Authentic Boxing functions like most other boxing gyms globally, with a combination of shadow boxing, strength and conditioning drills, bag work, and designated weekly sparring sessions.

Lewandowski’s rich descriptions of the everyday practices at Authentic Boxing in Kansas will undoubtedly provide other pugilistic readers with a humorous feeling of recognition.

A main argument in the book is that boxing is best understood as a bittersweet science of cultural reflexivity and rational constraints. This argument is developed in two parts. Part I, “Boxing and Culture”, consists of chapters 1-5. This first part largely focuses on Lewandowski’s experiences in Authentic Boxing. Part II, “Boxing and Philosophy” aims to outline a constraint theory of sport. Here, the author builds on the work of what the author describes as the ‘problematic rules of boxing’ (referring to professional boxing, not Olympic boxing).

In his introduction, Lewandowski writes that the book aims to suggest further avenues of research and critique of the sport of professional boxing. On Boxing does exactly that. It is a highly enjoyable read for anyone interested in boxing in the USA. Lewandowski’s writing style is both elegant and engaging. One aspect of it that I particularly enjoy is the efforts the author has made to explicitly describe the main arguments posed in each chapter. In the book these arguments are often highlighted both at the beginning and the end of the chapter, making it easy for readers to follow Lewandowski’s thinking. Readers with their own experiences of boxing will especially enjoy the rich descriptions of the materiality and culture of boxing described in Part I. Even though my own boxing experience mainly stems from different countries in Europe I recognized many of the defining traits of a boxing gym that Lewandowski outlines in Part I. For instance in chapter 1 (p. 8), when he writes “it was on a scorching July afternoon that I finally managed, after three unsuccessful attempts, to find the gym… housed in the basement of one of the many mostly abandoned ware- and packinghouses in the 19th century industrial district”. I dare say that any well-versed pugilist knows that the mark of a good boxing gym is that it blends in completely with its surroundings. There are no signs to advertise the activity inside, and very often it is situated in a basement. My boxing gym, Bodø Bokseklubb, is located in the basement of an abandoned post office. Lewandowski’s rich descriptions of the everyday practices at Authentic Boxing in Kansas will undoubtedly provide other pugilistic readers with a humorous feeling of recognition.

Authentic Boxing Cclub, Kansas City (YouTube)

Another main merit of On Boxing is Lewandowski’s efforts to outline a constraint theory of sport that is both descriptive and normative (p. 56) using professional boxing as an empirical starting point. While his constraint theory of sport undoubtedly needs further elaboration and work beyond this book, On Boxing offers a great contribution that serves to inspire readers to further critical explorations of perilous sports such as professional boxing. After reading his book I am very much looking forward to seeing the direction of Lewandowski’s work on boxing in the future. I could end my review of the book here; it is a valuable contribution to the boxing literature and a delightful read. However, based on my daily engagement in Olympic boxing, I have four critical points to raise.

Firstly, while there are aspects of the descriptions of boxing that I believe will resonate with pugilists from a wide range of countries, there are too many instances in the book where the author writes ‘of boxing’, but more accurately, the descriptions are limited to professional boxing in the USA. It fails to properly acknowledge this or accurately describe the diversity of boxing cultures around the world. First and foremost, the book reflects a North American perspective on boxing and boxing culture.

This leads me to my second point of critique, dealing with gender. Women are almost invisible in Professor Lewandowski’s accounts of boxing. As a book aimed at developing novel theory, I find this problematic. Thirdly, while it is stated in the introduction (p. 3) that to engage a broad readership, including scholars from various social science disciplines, as well as policy makers, coaches, and athletes, references are kept to a minimum, for a reader with knowledge of boxing literature, this is a weakness of the book as it could engage more with a broader scope of previous sociological work on boxing. Finally, and this is a minor critique, there are some factual mistakes in the accounts of Olympic boxing regarding the IBA Technical and Competition Rules (duration and number of rounds).

These four critical points might make it appear as if I have a negative impression of the book. That is not the case. This is a good book and, in my opinion, a valuable and welcome contribution to the body of scholarly work on boxing. Besides Professor Lewandowski’s efforts to theorize professional boxing and other dangerous sports, there are two arguments made in ‘On Boxing’ that represent particularly important contributions to boxing research. Firstly, Lewandowski’s argument that the deeper value of combat sport is found in sparring, rather than in competitions (chapter 8). Secondly, the argument for reformation of the rules of competitions in professional boxing.

I wholeheartedly enjoyed reading Lewandowski’s On Boxing.

Copyright © Anne Tjønndal 2022

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