[Paleopsych] "Battered Women " by Benjamin Wallace-Wells

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"Battered Women " by Benjamin Wallace-Wells
March 2005

                                Battered Women

                    Female boxing is brutal and hopeless.

                         By [4]Benjamin Wallace-Wells

    When I was just out of college I
    worked as a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia, and we used to go to
    Friday night boxing fights at a club called the Blue Horizon, on an
    iffy block of North Broad Street at precisely the point where Center
    City peters out into a vast ghetto. Like the rest of Philly, the Blue
    Horizon knows very well what it is selling, a twisted nostalgia for a
    time when things were tougher. The concession standa fold-up table in
    the entrance hallsells only $3 cans of Bud and Bud Light. Past the
    stand, the space opens up into a big, brightly-lit room with a couple
    of dozen rows of wooden chairs, like those in an elementary school
    classroom, surrounding a boxing ring four feet above the floor, a
    theater in the round. These are the cheap seats, 15 bucks, half of
    them filled with blacks from North Philly, the other half with
    slumming yuppies like me. Only two in 10 are women, but their catcalls
    are as rough and fierce as any.

    For 50 bucks, you can buy yourself an armchair seat on a balcony
    ringing the room, from which you can peer down over the room. These,
    however, are always filled with older Italian men, the Unindicted
    Co-conspirator set, fat and inert in their little chairs, each one
    looking like a marshmallow stuffed into a shot glass. They spend the
    evening pretty much unmoved by the drama of the moment, passing
    assured little nods back and forth: They knew who would win all along.
    The lights are bright, and the crowd is less drunk and less loud than
    you'd expect. But they are experts.

    They know, for instance, that it is no fun to watch heavyweights or
    lightweights fight because a heavyweight is too big for any but a
    world-class opponent to knock out, and all but the best of
    lightweights (135 pounds) don't have enough bulk to hit hard enough to
    make the fight interesting. So, all the fighters are middleweights and
    welterweights; the first matches of the night are between the youngest
    and greenest, and they slowly build to the headliners. The first two
    bouts are brief snoozers, three-rounders between fighters just good
    enough to play defense but not good enough to really hit. The crowd
    focuses on the way the boxers shift weight, issuing idle calls of yes,
    sir! when a fighter works himself a brief opening with his feet,
    exhaling slowly when his fists move too slowly to take advantage of
    it. By the third fight, a six-rounder, the boxers can really hit; as
    they tire, their defenses loosen, and their heads start to snap back
    against the fat compress of the other guy's fists. The mafia goons on
    the balcony are applauding now, and their cigars are out; the
    antiquated on the floor are calling out adviceleft, move, left, move.
    When the ring card girlsthird-string, fourth-decade strippers from a
    South Philly gentlemen's clubcome out between rounds, they are greeted
    for the first time now with more than an auditorium full of lazy
    disinterest. You realize that everyone in the room, from the old
    Philly goons to the homeboys and the yuppies, is invested, against all
    probability, in the idea that something historic might happen here
    tonight, that a new welterweight might emerge, that the epic is still
    possible in Philly. And then, for the first of two last fights before
    the headliner, they bring out the girls.

    The girls were ugly and thick, but the crowd didn't care, whistling
    and hooting for themSweet Ass Angie! junk like that. It seemed almost
    endearing at first. A scrawny little black girl, a north Philly local
    named Angie Nelsen, danced around the ring, throwing up her gloves and
    revving up the crowd. In the red corner, called the ring announcer,
    was Jessica Flaherty, a corn-rowed white girl from Amish country who
    couldn't muster the same kind of flamboyance; she just looked scared.
    Clapping, the crowd leaned forwardhere was something new. The girls
    shrugged off their robesnow looking young and nervousand charged each
    other at the bell, wind-milling with both arms.

    The worst male fighters know how to play defense, but these girls
    looked like they'd never been trained. They didn't even try to protect
    themselves. There was no effort to dodge, no shifting of weight, no
    clever, calculated movement of feet. Both girls just kept charging,
    swinging both fists at the same time. It was like watching
    six-year-olds fight before they're old enough to realize that they
    might be hurt: All you want to do is make it stop. The action in the
    middle of the ring was an inchoate tangle of limbs and fists. Thirty
    seconds into the whirling, Angie fell down, striking the mat
    violently, as if she was attacking it. Jessica waved her arms above
    her head chaoticallya caricatured Rocky gesturea huge grin on her
    face. I thought to myself that these two must be the worst girl
    fighters in the world. But it turned out that six months earlier,
    Jessica had placed second in her weight class at the National Golden
    Glovesthis was as good as it got.

    They never should have let Angie back in the fight, but they did. She
    wobbled out to the center of the ring, too hurt to lift her hands
    above her waist. Jessica whacked her right in the nose; Angie went
    down, a series of limbs hitting the canvas in a successive heap. The
    nervous white girl from Lancaster started dancing around, and it was
    Sweet Ass Jessie this time, her reward whistles and hooting. Angie was
    out for 15 minutes, white-cloaked medical personnel bending ominously
    over her. They revived her, and the same crowd that had cheered the
    sophistication of the earlier male boxers gave a perfunctory clap for
    Angie's health, and then immediately started chanting for the
    evening's male headliner, a fighter with the nickname Black Gold.

    Hard knocks

    Boxing has long existed in a cultural ghetto, revelling in its
    corruption and violence. Women's boxing operates in a further ghetto
    still. No one other than the fighters really takes it seriouslynot the
    audience, not the referees, not the trainers. I've been to more than a
    dozen women's fights since that first one, and nearly all were just
    like it, 45-second bloodfests. It's hard to figure what appeals to the
    girls who fight: You get thrown in the ring with some cretin who is
    trying to rip your head off, you have no idea how to defend yourself,
    and all the while a thousand sweaty men are shouting at you, trying to
    be clever about your rear end. No matter how long you fight or how
    good you become, you'll never be the headliner, some man will. Nobody
    cares enough to teach you the craft. The fights are brutal,
    sexualized, and uncontrollable. What's more, there is not much money
    in the sportprobably the only female boxers you've ever heard of are
    the daughters of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazierbecause no significant
    television audience would ever pay to see this crap. And yet the girls
    keep signing up, keep coming.

    A movie (and, it now seems, Oscar favorite) out from Paramount since
    Christmas, called Million Dollar Baby, traces the pathologies of this
    sport with a mostly deft touch and only the occasional off-putting
    bout of fantasy. The storyline is simple: A poor girl from the Ozarks
    with the ethnically-precise name of Maggie Fitzgerald, moves to Los
    Angeles. She is 31 and has been a diner waitress since 13, picking
    half-finished steaks off her customers' plates for her own dinner. She
    believes she will be a champion women's boxerwhy she wants to fight is
    never fully explained, though Maggie, who is played by Hilary Swank,
    seems to think it's the only thing she has ever been good at. Maggie
    seizes upon a respected, older blue-collar trainer named Frankie Dunn
    and begs him to make her a champion. He balks. (Because Clint Eastwood
    plays Dunn, there is also a lot of soulful squinting.) She
    demonstrates her will, perseverance, brains, and determination. After
    a lot of gruff I-don't-train-girls talk, Dunn takes her on and Maggie
    proves to be an outstanding student. Dunn teaches her the pure
    mechanics of the sport in a long training sequence that is the best
    explanatory document of boxing I've ever seen or read, Malcolm
    Gladwell assigned to the ring. To pivot to the left, you press down on
    your right big toe. Boxing is counter-intuitive, about opposites.

    To the surprise of no one except the movie's characters, Maggie makes
    it. Dunn teaches her how to bait younger, stronger girls; he gets her
    championship fights, and she starts to win. This was the moment when I
    became nervousit seemed like the story was drifting into fantasy. The
    crowds Maggie fought in front of were supportive, paternal, interested
    in the tactics of her fight and not in the rough pornography of
    watching two women pound one another. She fought in clean, well-lit
    places. She fought expertly, against expert opponents, and for this
    mastery of craft she made millions of dollars. This was Rocky, with a
    second X chromosome. This was the full narrative thrust that the
    critics had described, and so I went in expecting to be disappointed
    by a fraud of a movie.

    But there's an awkward convention that persists among movie critics.
    They never mention the end of any film, the moment when the director's
    judgment on all the film's events and themes is finally consummated.
    It's in some ways a ridiculous stand, like assessing Lincoln's conduct
    of the Civil War without considering anything that happened after
    Antietam. And in the case of Million Dollar Baby, it's particularly
    absurd because the fantasy that has built up dissolves in a ring scene
    of sickening brutality, and the movie's last 30 minutes (though they
    feel like a dramatic fraud) end up showing the guilt and tumult that
    develops in those who back a fighter who has been left near death, and
    a girl fighter at that. In this, the film doesn't cheat.

    Boxed in

    Women's boxing inherits its audience, and therefore its pathologies,
    from the men's side of the sport. Boxing was always pornography of
    some kind; it's no accident that the two great novels of black male
    experience, Invisible Man and Black Boy, both have extended boxing
    scenes in which muscular, scared black kids fight for the pleasure of
    fat, white crowds. But things have gotten worse since Ellison and
    Wright's time. Men's boxing has spent the last half century in
    decline; what was once one of the country's most popular sports has
    descended into a subculture that is now wholly dangerous and corrupt;
    few middle-class people, outside of slummers like me, ever go to
    fights anymore. Boxing itself is responsible for part of this, with
    its corrupt regulatory bodies and its decision to relegate the sport
    to pay-per-view. And it doesn't help that American tastes have
    dandified; this is a middle-class country now, and boxing simply isn't
    a middle-class sport. And so for the older gentlemen in the Blue
    Horizon's balcony, the very presence of women fighting in front of
    them marks a comedown in the world; what their fathers watched as art
    is now inescapably exploitation, a catfight.

    Women's boxing seems to be barely not worth worrying about, another
    freak show, except that for all the indignities and the lack of
    reward, the fighters keep coming. There's no shortage of working class
    girls out there who, when all else fails, rely on their physical
    selves and swing away, hoping to steal a little celebrity on the side.
    The fighters themselves seem unable to explain their motivations; when
    pressed by interviewers, they say only that they should be able to box
    if boys do. Million Dollar Baby can feel similarly unsatisfying. It
    takes Maggie's assertion that boxing is the only thing she could ever
    be famous at, acceptsas movie people tend tothat every human being has
    an inner yearning to become a celebrity and leaves it there.

    Or maybe it doesn't, quite. Maggie's career, after all, traces the arc
    of the sport: What began as a few day-dreamy women in gyms, believing
    they could punch back as hard and as fast as some of the guys, has
    devolved into something very ugly, very violent. It documents the
    cheat run on working-class girls who think they might find liberation
    in the ring, like Rocky did, like all the guys can.

        Benjamin Wallace-Wells in an editor of The Washington Monthly.



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