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In Defense of the Sweet Science
J. P. Heinz
August 16, 1971
Considering boxing's rich history, its artistic and wholesome nature, it is difficult to understand how the moral entrepreneurs regularly manage to stir up so much righteous indignation
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August 16, 1971

In Defense Of The Sweet Science

Considering boxing's rich history, its artistic and wholesome nature, it is difficult to understand how the moral entrepreneurs regularly manage to stir up so much righteous indignation

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In baseball one batter at a time faces one pitcher at a time, and simultaneously a catcher, a first baseman and a left-fielder all perform their separate functions—with a high degree of interdependence but also with considerable specialization. It is almost a model of the mechanized assembly line. In modern football, subsidiary A of the team may sweep right while subsidiary B goes deep and C heads for the fiat, thus giving the chief executive officer several options. There is plenty of individual violence in football's line play, but the sophisticated fan prefers to sit high up in the second deck so that he can see the pass patterns instead. It reminds me of my childhood, when we had a game called "Photo-Electric Football"—the player on defense chose one printed pattern and the offensive team chose another, the two patterns were overlaid and an electric light was shone through them to determine whether the play succeeded or failed. It would be impossible to devise a Photo-Electric Pugilism.

Since artists and writers are also preindustrial and face lonely struggles, they frequently feel an affinity for boxers. Hemingway boxed; so did Lord Byron, Camus and Leonard Gardner, the author of the recent succ�s d'estime Fat City, whose protagonist is an itinerant boxer, drinker and stoop laborer.

Brinkley acknowledged, in a fashion, the art inherent in boxing, but he did not do justice to the volume and quality of the art boxing has inspired. The American painters Thomas Eakins and George Bellows both did several works; for example, Eakins' Taking the Count, Salutat and Between Rounds, and Bellows' famous Stag at Sharkey's and Both Members of this Club. The list of authors who have applied their art to boxing is a long one. In addition to Byron, Hemingway and Gardner it includes George Bernard Shaw ( Cashel Byron's Profession was boxing), Nelson Algren, Heywood Broun, Eldridge Cleaver, James T. Farrell, William Hazlitt, Edward Hoagland, Norman Mailer, John Masefield, J. B. Priestley, William Makepeace Thackeray and assorted ancient Greeks. In drama, there are Clifford Odets' Golden Boy, Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight and Howard Sackler's recent The Great White Hope. I know of no other sport that has produced a comparable body of artistic work, notwithstanding George Plimpton's energetic efforts to fill in all the gaps. Some of John Updike's characters do play an occasional game of basketball, but it is hard to imagine a Requiem for a Forward. And it was not on the pro golf tour that the Brando character of On the Waterfront "could have been a contender."

Boxing may appeal to the lazy artist, to the artist with an impoverished imagination or to the artist who suspects that his audience lacks wit—it is such a convenient and obvious dramatic symbol, a symbol for an individual's struggle for survival in a harsh world, for the misery or the frailty of the human condition or for the deficiency of strength being overcome by art and courage. It would be hard for an artist to extract this from golf. Lynch made the point, of course:

"The sport without a significant origin, which is and always has been purely a game, tends by the elaboration of its science to become a business; golf, for example."

Thus, if the violence were removed from boxing the symbolic content would be eliminated as well. It would become a meaningless show.

David Brinkley suggested, however, that boxing has been hurt not so much by the brutality or by the modern public's insensitivity as by boxing's "own crookedness, selfishness and greed." A part of his case was the familiar assertion that even those few boxers who are skillful and lucky enough to earn a substantial sum lose it all to their managers' thievery. Brinkley cited two horrible examples, Beau Jack and King Levinsky. Both were prominent fighters 25 and 35 years ago, and both now live in Miami Beach[7] in reduced circumstances; Beau Jack shines shoes and Levinsky is an itinerant necktie salesman. Brinkley stated that Levinsky's "one remaining treasure" was a watch engraved, "To my pal King Levinsky, from Jack Dempsey." Shortly before the taped program appeared on television Levinsky's apartment was burglarized and $5,000 in cash was stolen. Miami Beach burglars do not help television scripts.

Brinkley also said that Beau Jack made $2 million fighting. That figure is too high by about 800%, according to Nat Fleischer, editor of Ring magazine and doyen of boxianaphiles.[8] Two days after the Brinkley program a small item in The New York Times reported:

"Stepin Fetchit, the foot-shuffling Negro comedian who made more than $2 million in films in the nineteen thirties, is now a charity patient at Cook County hospital."[9]

Both Mr. Jack and Mr. Fetchit were men of humble origin who suddenly made a great deal of money. Both spent much and gave away more. Perhaps the only difference between Beau Jack and a Beau Jack who had never boxed is that now he can put his name on his stand and have it mean something.

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