Dunn’s novel-in-progress, Cut Man, is set in the boxing world. She is an editor and contributor at www.cyberboxingzone.com. She contributed some essays to a volume of writing and photography called Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice & the Will to Survive in American Boxing Gyms (Stone Creek Publications) and, for her efforts, shared the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University with photographer Jim Lommasson.
She has also written about the sport for numerous publications, including Vogue, Playboy, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated/Women, and Willamette Week, an alt-weekly in Portland, Ore. A generous selection of this magazine and newspaper work is included in her new book, One-Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing (Schaffner Press).
“It is a privilege to serve as a reporter for the pugilistic art,” Dunn writes in her introductory chapter, called “Sometimes the Subject Chooses you," and she spoke to me by telephone from her Oregon home about One-Ring Circus and the brutal yet elegant sport she loves.
Why do you love boxing?
They say you should write what you know. That always makes me very uncomfortable. In any given day, in my case, that wouldn't amount to much. I prefer to write what I want to know, what scares me, what fascinates me. Go find out and write about it. A long-term fascination of my life has been the human tendency to aggression and violence. Boxing is a lab and subculture built around creating beautiful violence, yet it is contained and tamed and restrained. Boxing is a stove that keeps that necessary need for the capacity for violence safe and useful. Boxing is one of those subcultures that contains everything human. Every possibility of the species is played out there overtly. There's not a whole lot that's subtle. It's very clear.
Did boxing really choose you, rather than the other way around?
It sure felt like that. It really did. I was a little kid. My folks were blue-collar people, living in towns around the Pacific Northwest. My step dad and brothers were interested in boxing. My mom really disapproved of it. My mom would not allow the radio to be tuned to boxing. She never quite forgave me for writing about boxing, and I must admit I couldn't help rubbing it in her face.
Are you hooked? Are you a lifer?
I'm afraid so. Every time I wander into a gym it gets me all over again.
You say in your introduction that “what happens in and around that mislabeled ring is a potent distillation of everything human.”
When a hurricane hits or a flood or invasion, the news shows us people doing extraordinary, sometimes incredibly brave things, and sometimes behaving like complete yahoos. It's humans in their extremes, at their best or their most intense. Because boxing creates a ritualized but genuine crisis, it's a place where people are pushed to their most intense, their most real.
Why, exactly, what makes boxing a circus? And not just a "spectacle," but a circus?
The word circus as applied to the performance in the big top refers to people who offer for entertainment very demanding, dangerous skills that they take joy in. The high wire or animal training or fire juggling is an art, but it's a dangerous art, so I use the word circus with great respect. Commonly, when boxing people say it, the entrance was too flashy or there is too much hype built around something, and they use it as a pejorative. But I resist that and resist that construct on the concept of circus. Circus is the artist taking the audience where they cannot go. Boxing is that precisely, in a contained setting. Boxing takes its audience where, for the good of the social contract, we cannot go, but we would like to.
What does Alexis Arguello mean when he says in your book that “boxing is a great art form.”
What I think he feels is the combination of the constant application of very demanding techniques in a constantly changing, really fast setting. He would view it as an improvisational dance in which the penalty for a misstep is severe.
What do you remember about that first club show you went to with Pete? [This refers to the first professional boxing matches that Dunn saw in person in the early 1980s, with her then-husband Peter Fritsch].
I remember it very vividly. It was in a big, old barn of an expo center. The crowd was enthusiastic. Most of the fighters on the card were experienced guys, calm, cool, up for it, but completely in control of themselves. The thing that really kicked this off for me was an amateur kid who was having his first pro bout. I saw this kid climb in. He was a featherweight with a neck about the size of my wrist and he was about 120 pounds and was just vibrating with excitement and fear, and I could feel the emotion and the excitement coming off of him. He won his bout but was so much more emotional than the others. I saw this distinction. He had gone into an entirely new situation for him. It was his first bout with no helmet and smaller gloves and new rules and his emotion was not as much in control as the older pros. I realized that there was a process going on in which the kid would eventually become as contained and controlled as these older guys. I realize that this level of emotion and fear could be container. This was a magic door for me, the clue to what the process is about. One of my adventures was tagging around with Archie Moore [Note: Former light heavyweight champion with 220 career bouts] when he was an old man. He stopped at a gym. Kids were asking questions, getting autographs. A 10-year old asked, “Were you ever afraid?” “I was always afraid,” Moore said. “If not you shouldn't be in there. But I just ride my fear like a fast horse.” That stuck me as the most intelligent appraisal of the psychological phenomenon of fear, the whole concept of fear. In culture we have a fear of fear itself, instead of using it as an enormous tool that gives us the activation syndrome to allow us to be stronger, faster, smarter. Don't avoid it. Learn about it, control it. It's like somebody gives you an enormous gift and you hide it in a box and pretend not to have it. Boxing is all about hauling it out, dusting it off, explaining it and making it useful.
In the piece “School of hard knocks,” you say, “Boxing is so hard that anybody who ventures into it has demonstrated toughness. By walking through the gym door, you earn the right to be kind.”
In those gyms I see an environment in which men are allowed to be kind to one another. In a society in which so much is built on offensive structures, particularly between men, where their camaraderie has to be rough and in some ways quite cruel, in a boxing gym all that seems stripped away. It's perfectly O.K. and necessary for men to demonstrate that they are as attentive to other people's needs as anyone else on the planet, meaning women.
In “Golden Girls,” you say, “For many female boxers the sport is an opportunity to grapple directly with fear.” Do you think that's the allure of the sport for a lot of fitness boxers, men and women?
It's very important. I trained for 12 years with a very good coach. I was hesitant, because it compromised my objectivity, but I wanted to know what these people I was writing about were enduring. One thing I was impressed by the first time I sparred, the first big lesson, was that just because somebody hits you, you don't break. And just because you hit somebody else, the sky does not fall. Despite Title 9, women are acculturated to the idea that we're not strong, that it might be a terrible thing to get hit. Of course, I grew up with brothers. I'm thinking, “I can stand up to this. You can hit me. I'll hit you back.”
Is boxing a chance to reveal what you call an individual's “deepest identity” or “spinal identity”?
We spend so much time pushing paper or at a computer or doing things that are not demanding of our bodies or physical strength. There's a kind of wistfulness. Also we need to move or die. We lead such upholstered, air-conditioned lives, we need things that challenge us as creatures, that make us feel viable, that make us feel we could stand up if an emergency hit. And we need practice, damn it. It’s an old about the 100-lb woman who is challenged and suddenly fights off the bad guys. We know on an animal level that we need to exercise it. And if we haven’t tested it, we doubt ourselves.
Do you think that people -- men and women, kids and adults -- can benefit from learning to box, if it's done in the right atmosphere?
I really do. One of the curious things to me is that the clever Asian martial arts have always welcomed everybody, male and female, kid and adult, all the Asian arts. But this strange kind of hyper-surreal world of boxing in America has placed it in a realm of lowly, vulgar, blue-collar vice, or it's something that only men can participate in. A lot of silliness surrounds it. Not from the boxing people, but the culture sets up these puritanical notions. I know a lot of pacifistic intellectuals who would not let their kids watch boxing even if they go to karate class.
Do you find it sad that boxing no longer has the central place it once had in American life?
I do, of course, but it’s understandable. There's so much more competition for the entertainment eye and dollar on T.V. In the wake of the Korean War, there's been so much more corporate backing for the big team sports, also a cultural shift toward team identity. “There is no I in team,” and all that. I'm from the old American tradition of the individual and bootstraps. There's no way to corporatize boxing.
Do you think the growth of fitness boxing is a good way to help sustain boxing in the culture?
I think that's a really important thing. I think a lot of gyms, even Gleason's in New York, are supported by fitness boxing. Their dues and participation are what keeps that gym alive. And I think because of the dearth of coverage of the sport, because a lot of papers and mainstream sources refuse to cover it, that the more individuals who are involved in it, the more of a subterranean word-of-mouth existence it has. The more people there are who know the good. sound fundamentals of the sport, the more vital and energetic the sport it is. And Americans are not the be all and end all. Other countries and continents are very involved. In Latin America, soccer and boxing are the most popular sports. In Africa. [Nelson] Mandela encouraged boxing. In Europe, there’s more boxing than ever. In Asia, a friend of mine who's a judge for the IFBA [Note: International Female Boxers Association] flies to Korea and China, where they will fill the equivalent of a huge football stadium for women's boxing. There will be a whole card of women professionals with 150,000 people there.
If you were made worldwide boxing czar for a day, would you make changes in the way pro boxing is run?
It always has been a problem, and its gotten worse, because more and more groups spring up [Note: Dunn is referring to the confusing alphabet soup of governing bodies in professional boxing; the WBO (World Boxing Organization), WBA (World Boxing Association), etc.] They are just little parasites. You and I could put out a set of rankings and say if anybody wants to fight for our championship they have to put up a certain amount of money. Most real boxing fans don't pay any attention to the sanctioning organizations. We all have an idea of the best fighters and which fights should take place, and when those fights take place we're thrilled and when they don't we're pissed. I think it would be good to have a central, unified ranking system. I think the Indian casinos have really saved boxing in America. They have become the equivalent of the old club shows to get experience for boxers. But there’s a design flaw. Casinos pay promoters a flat fee. O.K., here’s $80,000 or $100,000. Give us X number of rounds on X date, and whatever's left over you get to keep. The motivation for the promoter in general is to put on as little a show as possible. There’s little inclination on the part of a given promoter to really promote an individual boxer, unless he has a contract on the boxer, which is very iffy ethically. But the promoter has no motivation to promote individuals, and the individual sport needs individual stars. At some point above the club show level, there has to be a different design to what Bob Arum did with [Oscar] De la Hoya. Your have to make these personalities crossover personalities who communicate with people who are not aficionados of the sport. MMA [Note: mixed martial arts; e.g., the enormously popular UFC] has been so smart, and I wish the boxing promoters would take a lesson.
Does the average person, even the average sports fan, tend to ignore amateur boxing and conflate it with the worst excesses of pro boxing? When people talk about banning boxing, do you think it even occurs to them that comparing amateur and pro boxing in those terms is ludicrous?
I think you’re right. I blame the media. In towns all over America, the major newspaper used to be the sponsor of the local Golden Gloves, and there was regular coverage of amateur boxing. There were thousands and thousands of people involved. There is a huge media bias to the corporate or team sports. And amateur boxing itself has fallen down in publicizing and winning support for the sport. The clubs used to be able to put on smokers [Note: small, one-off fight nights] and go up the street and sell tickets to the diners and shoemakers and the gas station. Every business might pony up for a few tickets, 5 or 50, and give them to customers. This would help support the gyms. I think the failure of U.S. amateur boxing to support its local and regional clubs and its failure as far as publicity is so spectacularly stupid.
Does boxing have a future?
I would like to see it more popular, but years ago, when I first started out, I used to be worried it would be banned and I would have to go to the wharves and barges to see it. I was very worried about that, and very defensive when the AMA would say boxing should be banned. The more I see, the more I know that this sport is 5000 years old. It has its ups and downs. It doesn't go away. It's fundamental.
Jesse Chambers is Special Projects Editor for Birmingham Weekly and a frequent contributor to bhamweekly.com. You can give him your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.