Almanac Book Review – ‘On the Chin: A Boxing Education’ by Alex McClintock

 

 

The old cliché runs that a week is a long time in politics; what Alex McClintock knows, from his own beautifully observed experience, is that 30 seconds is an absolute eternity in the boxing ring.

 

Books on the sport of boxing are rare in Australia; even less from literary publishers such as Text. This is disappointing, as the literature of boxing is as rich as that of any sport, and Australia has produced its fair share of outstanding fighters. To that small collection of Australian works can now be added Alex McClintock’s On the Chin – a genuine pleasure from start to finish, not only for lovers of boxing and sport, but also for lovers of great Australian comic writing.

 

McClintock is aware that most people (dare we say, most ‘book buying’ people) do not like boxing. People tend to either love it or, there being no middle ground, actively loathe a sport that has developed a reputation for brashness, corruption and unnecessary violence. It is not a part of many polite conversations; being, like McClintock, someone who has engaged with both the worlds of Australian boxing and Australian arts, I can attest to the sidelong glances often received from cultured Australians when the topic of a love of boxing comes up.

 

McClintock is too clever not to be fully aware of this. Thus, he is dutiful and thorough in his explanations of the history, rules, development, classification and scandals of boxing, along with its eye-wateringly complicated different systems of titles, to say nothing of the dangers of brain damage and depression to ex-boxers as they age. But that is all more or less common knowledge. Where On the Chin truly shines is in McClintock’s own story of transformation from uncoordinated, asthmatic, chubby, middle class, soft touch goody-two-shoes swot, to State novice boxing champion in the 75kg division. That is what this book is really all about; it is, in the best sense of the term, a ‘coming of age’ story, highly original, often hilariously funny, and without a shred of the self-pity that often colours non-fiction narratives that recount stories of personal transformation.

 

As with many good non-fiction works, the story is strongest when most personal. McClintock is hugely engaging as a writer: he has a deft comic touch, seeing himself always as the most unlikely part of any tableau. Boxing is nothing without its scarcely believable characters, even – perhaps especially – at the humble amateur level. His renditions of the truly eccentric men and women who people the world of boxing, perhaps most especially the hard-as-nails-but-heart-of-gold trainers and their combination of weirdness, crankiness, brutality, generosity and tenderness, are a joyful part of this book.

 

And as with any good comic writer, McClintock reserves his harshest judgements for himself, as when describing the sheer act of bastardry by which he abandons his faithful trainer, Fritzy, in search of greater opportunity with a better trainer, Paul Miller. There is nothing wrong with that, in principle, until you learn that he abandoned his trainer without so much as a word of explanation or thanks. Perhaps he was just too polite and too middle class, and sensed any attempt to wrap the truth in anything but the plainest of packaging was going to be an embarrassment to everybody involved. So he simply bailed on Fritzy, just like that. McClintock knew what he and his training mate were doing was shameful (‘we did the millennial thing and ghosted him’; it was ‘a dog act’); that knowledge only made him more fearful of facing its consequences, and the act itself more shameful. When he encounters Fritzy again, later in the book, we have another fine episode of comic observation. McClintock does not seek to exculpate himself; his sharpest wit is always that turned inward, but his is not a performative self-deprecation: it is clearly born from a deep love of the absolute strangeness of this world.

 

Recounting how he prepared himself for the long ride to a novice State title, McClintock takes the reader along the Stations of the Cross for any would-be boxer: the gruelling training, the vomiting, the pain, the shock of being hit, hard, in the nose and face and ribs; more gruelling training, the skills work, the repetitions, the growing ability to hit others, and hit them hard; the increased flexibility and reflexes, the hardening body, the careful diet, the sacrifices, the doubts of friends and family … all these beautiful rituals lead up to the moment when you look in the mirror, and there you find nerves, fear, even terror, as well as adrenaline, enormous pride, and then an astonishing post-fight ecstasy. For boxing is not only a drug; it is also something of a religious experience – utterly transformative, and most rewarding for those who truly believe.

 

There is a ‘primal thrill’ to boxing, and McClintock knows it well. To watch fine boxers is like watching a fast-moving game of chess (or as McClintock says, ‘ringcraft is all about geometry’); manoeuvre follows counter-manoeuvre; to see a skilled boxer harry his opponent into a corner, cleverly cutting off all escape routes, then to deliver a series of body shots, merciless jabs and hooks is not to watch a brawl, but the superb culmination of hours, weeks, months and years of dedication, training, discipline and sacrifice. This is not brawling or slugging: as any trainer will tell you, especially at the amateur level where often less experienced boxers might be involved in a match-up, it is very hard to fight a ‘brawler’. As a boxing referee, I can attest to the job of refereeing being much more difficult with poorly trained, ill-disciplined fighters. They lose their temper (a big no-no), spray punches and are dangerous to all concerned. Brawling is not boxing; boxing is not brawling.

 

In the ring, McClintock testifies, you learn a lot about yourself. It is one of the oldest clichés, and one of the truest. You might equally achieve self-knowledge at a meditation retreat, but there is something about having to defend yourself from attack – a relentless attack and, depending on the quality of the opponent, a more or less bruising attack – that sharpens the path to self-awareness. The difference, of course, is that this is not a random attack. It is one to which you have voluntarily agreed to submit. It is one you have worked months towards. And the flip-side of offering to be the object of attack is, of course, that you will, at the very first chance, unleash an attack on your opponent and do everything possible, within the strict rules of the contest, to out-manoeuvre, hurt, damage and stop him or her. That you are prepared to do this is, for many people, revelatory. The power is electrifying. And indescribably enjoyable.

 

This book is very highly recommended – for something a little unusual to place under the Christmas tree, forget the hacks, the pollies and the blockbusters, and grab instead a copy of On the Chin.

 

 

Luke Stegemann is a writer, cultural historian and boxing referee based in southeast Queensland. His next book, Amnesia Road, is due in 2020.

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

 

Comments

  1. Sounds like a good read, Luke, with a very different take on a contest that struggles for credibility as a sport. To be fair, you’d have to say that a lot of it’s problems are self-inflicted due to the well-documented alphabet soup of associations, divisions, etc and the many ‘colourful characters’ who constitute its murky backrooms.

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