The sport of Boxing, on the surface at least, does not automatically come to mind as obvious subject matter for the premier writing talents of Joyce Carol Oates; even though Ms. Oates certainly can get down and dirty with the best of them as in her "Man Crazy" or "Zombie."
But as Oates explains in her 1987 collection of essays (revised in 1994), "On Boxing":"No one whose interest began as mine did in childhood--as an offshot of my father's interest is likely to think of boxing as something else, a metaphor...Life is like boxing, in many respects. But boxing is only like boxing."
Oates is a boxing fan and a great writer and it was inevitable that these two facets of her life would converge.
"On Boxing" is really 3 separate essays: "On Boxing," "On Mike Tyson" and "The Cruelest Sport."
The first essay is so crammed full of fascinating, revelatory statements about the nature and function and the social and psychological nature of boxing that it is hard to pick out only a few to quote here. But I will try: "To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one's life is to make of one's audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate. It is to ease out of sanity's consciousness and into another, difficult to name. It is to risk, and sometimes to realize, the agony of which "agon" (Greek, "contest") is the root."
In Oates view, the boxer brings more than his body to bear in the ring...he also brings his soul: "There are some boxers possessed of such remarkable intuition, such uncanny prescience, one would think they were somehow recalling their fights, not fighting them as we watch."
"On Boxing" the essay is also a boxing history lesson highlighting the careers of Jack Dempsey,Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali,Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, etc.: their careers, their boxing styles, their defeats and in some cases their lives after the boxing ring: "the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America's tragic theater."
The second essay, "On Mike Tyson," written in 1988 predates all of Tyson's legal troubles, court cases and incarceration. And so Oates, who had extensive access to Tyson, writes of his home,his dog and his friends in glowing terms.With Oates, Tyson is soft-spoken, courteous, sensitive, thoughtful and intospective. Things that in 2002 we do not normally associate with Mike Tyson. Never a pushover, Oates also quotes Tyson after his 1986 fight with the hapless Jesse Ferguson, whose nose was broken in the match, "I want to punch the bone into the brain...Tyson's language is as direct and brutal as his ring style, yet as more than one observer has noted, strangely disarming--there is no air of menace, or sadism, or boastfulness in what he says: only the truth."
Oates also speaks of a boxing match as a "catharsis" as Aristotle wrote: "the purging of pity and terror by the exercise of these emotions; the subliminal aftermath of classical tragedy."
The third essay, "The Cruelest Sport" details in part the physical toll of boxing. For example the 1980 Ali/Holmes fight in which Ali takes a tremendous beating from Holmes: in Sylvester Stallone's words, the fight was "like watching an autopsy on a man who's still alive." This as well as the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974 began irreversible loss for Ali: progressive deterioration of Ali's kidneys, hands, reflexes and stamina.
"On Boxing" is Joyce Carol Oates's Ode to Boxing and by extension her father's interest in boxing, the smokiness of the arena, the smell of the hair oil and the hot dogs.And, even if you are not a boxing fan you cannot help but revel at the insights and amazing depth of feeling she brings to this subject and it's denizens.