THE MANLY ART: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America by Elliott J. Gorn

THE MANLY ART: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America

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An entertaining and thoughtful history. Gore has crafted a compelling mix of speculation and narrative to hone his thesis that prizefighting was countercultural phenomenon, a violent, male, lower-class response to the mainstream bourgeois culture. The study begins with the English precedents. There, lower and upper classes collaborated in overcoming the censure of the powerful middle class, militated against the raw, disorderly world of prizefighting. However, there was no established aristocracy America to lend authority to the ring's world of gambling, drinking, and brawling. Thus, there were many false starts in the native history of the sport. Both because of that, and because of the dearth of written records, Gorn's chronology is sometimes confusing. Nonetheless, it is clear that bouts were illegal, and, to moralists of the day, a denial of civilization's progress. To Gorn, it was precisely that antithetical role that gave boxing its value. Working-class men inverted the prevailing ethos with coarse male conviviality wherever women were denied: saloons, firehouses, political gangs, and prizefights. The final chapter in bare-knuckle's history belongs to John L. Sullivan who ""epitomized action in an age that feared inertia"" and came upon the world like Henry Adams' dynamo: new, powerful, and self-possessed. The time was ripe for his huge celebrity. With the advent of muscular Christianity, boxing became acceptable. But once the sparring ring was inside a YMCA, the sport was altered in crucial ways. Now the rounds were timed, taking away the control of work rhythms as surely as a factory whistle. There was a new appetite for amusement in this dawning age of abundance, but the sport first had to accept society's configurations. The Marquis of Queensbury rules--with a new emphasis on knockouts over attrition--was more marketable because of its order and apparent humanity. Whether the change was tragic, inevitable, or both, Gorn's history is a convincing argument that prize-fighting grew from a shared countercultural expression by lower-class males into a packaged and controlled entertainment, very much the property of America's cultural hegemony.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1986
ISBN: 0801476089
Publisher: Cornell Univ. Press