In the off-season, footy clubs put up videos of their players doing their boxing training: combinations of punches, footwork, sparring. Some footy players have reputations for being adequate boxers, the retired-Shane Tuck of Richmond, being one. Barry Hall thought he was both a boxer and a footy player until the moment arrived for him to fight after his footy career was over. Indeed, he could hit when a player (not a boxer) was on the field. His hit on Staker was as inglorious as Tyson’s bite of Holyfield’s ear. Boxing training complements the skills of a footy player: endurance, reactions, speed. The videos of these players doing their boxing training with their guards down and hands falling by their sides suggests that much can be learned from boxing, even in an imprecise manner. The footy players appear full of confidence and to be enjoying themselves – it seems to be a recreational, relaxing moment of their training – no matter how hard they are doing it.
Loic Wacquant’s book, Body and Soul: notebooks of an apprentice boxer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), on the other hand, is a thorough study of the so-called Sweet Science or the Manly Art. Wacquant is an anthropologist who spent three years training in the Woodlawn boxing club in Chicago. He joined as a means to do research on the men who live in an urban ghetto. Wacquant came to the gym to study the social dynamics and the trajectory of the boxers. He signed up as a complete novice and as the only white guy in the gym. Throughout his time as a researcher, he established life-long friendships, fought in the Golden Gloves tournament, was invited to be a corner-man in a professional fight and wrote some 2,300 pages of field notes on his experiences at the club. Wacquant let his research determine his sporting activity. Sport, exercise, the gym becomes a means in to a specific community. Despite his proficiency as a boxer, his later research is on changes in urban communities rather than following into other sports.
He moved from uncoordinated novice to proficient amateur considering going professional. Wacquant does his work as a boxer and as an anthropologist simultaneously. Boxing is his avenue into learning of the practices of the amateur and professional boxers who train at Woodlawn. From the thousands of pages of notes he made, he wrote a relatively slight book of some 270 pages. The process no doubt involved much synthesis; the writer needs to know more than just what he or she puts on the page. At times it reads like a novel: there is much emotion and empathy invested in the complex characters whom he engages with. His informants are both critical in their engagement with him (as both an insider and outsider) as well as being open and willing to share their life stories with him. Wacquant is subject to their joking and becomes a part of the gang (in the informal sense).
Parts of the book are heavy on description, rather than analysis per se. For example, pages 31-37, are made up of a section titled, ‘a temple to the pugilistic cult’. He writes, ‘in both layout and adornment, the gym constitutes something of a temple of the pugilistic cult by the presence on its walls of the major fighters, past and present, to whom the budding boxers from ghetto gyms devote a selective but tenacious adoration’ (Wacquant 2004, p.35). The gym is also lined with various elements of paraphernalia which support the makings of a strong black identity. This is important for it is suggestive of their marginalised and vulnerable position.
Here I was reminded of something similar in a boxing gym in inner suburban Melbourne: there were posters of aboriginal Australian boxers, mixed in amongst portraits of great black boxers. The degree of boxing greatness was not the point of connection: instead, it was that the men pictured had contributed in varying ways to a sense of pride in their identity. At this gym on Gertrude St, Collingwood, aimed at aboriginal youth, aspiring boxers and teenagers from many backgrounds train. Those who train there perhaps live in the neighbouring housing commission flats, or indeed, are coming straight from their nearby job. Membership is cheap and the facilities are good which suggests generous government funding. But, the numbers in attendance vary greatly; perhaps the Manly Art is not as attractive as it once was as a means for risky upward mobility.
Wacquant writes in his book of the ambivalent relationship the Woodlawn boxing club has to the surrounding ghetto in Chicago. For example, the boxers don’t discuss the (first) Iraq war that is unfolding during Wacquant’s research. They only briefly mention the processes of ‘urban renewal’ which are interpreted as being governmental efforts at ‘negro removal’. Women too are largely excluded from this particularly socially constructed male space. Moreover, the gym that Wacquant describes is one of uncontested centralised authority. DeeDee, who receives no pay and whose power is only represented by his stopwatch and t-shirt indicating that he is ‘staff’, determines the rules, etiquette and ethics of how to box. His methods are subtly conveyed from the senior to the junior boxers. Boxers do an apprentice – with its long hours and tedium – in this studio of pugilism. The art of boxing is practised as if it has remained unchanged since time immemorial. Upon my first attendance at the Gertrude St gym, I was told bluntly: ‘here, we are all equal. Race is not important.’ I heard this as a lament for the persistent racism in broader Australian society, rather than as a pre-emptive strike against my potential racism. And then, the coach pointed to the instructions on the wall of the exercise to perform for the next hour and a half. These instructions were not subject to question or negotiation. If confused, I were to follow the example of those around me.
The boxing gyms of Woodlawn or Gertrude Street contrast with the scene in Jeff Wall’s photograph Boxing (2011) which shows two boys practising their boxing technique in the living room of what seems to be a house of a middle class family. Probably, Jeff Wall is no boxer and the photograph is probably staged. But, the photo is in one way, accurate: boxing gyms, are undergoing a transformation: from the aesthetics of worn out bags, thinning leather on gloves, the sounds of skipping ropes striking hard floors, the squeaking of shoes on concrete surfaces and improvised equipment such as a table for sit-ups or huge tyres for jumping on towards the cleanliness of easily cleaned mats, rooms equipped with air-conditioning and surround sound digital hi-fi systems. In these gyms boxers, place their smart phones next to the ring and use apps for determining the length and number of their rounds. There is no universal bell to follow, let alone the orders of the head-coach who shouts ‘time in’ and ‘time out’ as does DeeDee in Wacquant’s eloquent book. The tastes and demands of the fitness boxer have usurped those of the old school, borderline amateur-professional boxer. Those with a dedication to boxing beyond getting into shape train apart from the fitness boxers with a muted aloofness.
The training of boxing offers skills for the players of footy. But, no matter the brilliance of the player, he remains no boxer until having served the necessary apprenticeship – of perhaps some three years in length, as in the case of the anthropologist Wacquant. The sporting capital obtained from one sport doesn’t easily transfer from one code to the next. Indeed, the professionals of one sport are perhaps only as skilled as some of those who remain amateurs in those sports that remain underfunded and without little media attention. Footy players play at boxing for their fitness and agility. Boxing for boxing’s sake, however – as Barry Hall found out -cannot be played at.