Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Good with Their HandsBoxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt
By Carlo Rotella
University of California PressCopyright © 2004 Carlo Rotella
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Culture of the Hands
Things change. Now ... we have women boxers. Look, I know it's not politically correct to say this, but I'm against women boxing. I've got no problem with women as referees or judges. But women are too precious to get banged up. I see women as a minority, just like black folks, and recognize that they're discriminated against. I'm sympathetic to them. Fact is, I don't like to see women driving big tractors or fighting with guns in a war. I like to see women doing things that aren't hazardous to their health. Larry Holmes, former heavyweight champion
They say that men box to get out of the ghetto. I joke that boxing was my way into the ghetto. Kate Sekules, author, travel editor of Food & Wine, boxer
I first saw Liz McGonigal fight at the Golden Gloves competition held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in April 1996. Young amateur fighters and their retinues of trainers, parents, broken-nosed uncles, and advice-shouting friends had gathered from all over the state in the big gymnasium at Liberty High School to contest the state novice-class championships. Success in the novice class allows a fighter to move up through what is left of the fight network's strata-into the open amateur class, where more experienced opponents await, and perhaps eventually into the local professional circuit, the regional, the national. In Bethlehem that evening the most polished boxers, narrow-waisted and black, came from Philadelphia. For the most part they managed their rougher-edged opponents like toreadors coaxing performances from tank-town bulls. The biggest hitters came from Pittsburgh, blocky white guys throwing bombs with both hands. Most of the fighters came not from these metropolitan bookends of Pennsylvania but from the small cities and big towns that lie between and around them, places whose names still bear the resonance of heavy industry long past the time when factory work was the principal livelihood available to their residents: Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Erie, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Scranton, Hanover, York, Altoona, Mechanicsburg. These Pennsylvania mill cities, and others like them, were a cradle of the American Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century and a heartland of manufacturing well into the twentieth. But on this April evening, Bethlehem's last rolling mill and blast furnace had been cold for six months. For the first time since before the Civil War, no steel was being made in town, and the Bethlehem Steel Company, which had played such an important role in building America's cities and military, had cut its local workforce to a mere twelve hundred employees, down from a high of thirty-one thousand in the 1940s. The fighters climbed through the ropes at an uncertain moment when many people in town, and no doubt many people at the fights, were wondering what the city's next organizing principle would be: the Christmas City? Affordable housing for transient service professionals within commuting distance of the office parks of suburban New Jersey? Historical tourism built around oddly paired nostalgias for the Moravians' progressive moral rectitude and the heroic productivity of Big Steel?
The emotional peaks of the event came early. Angel Nales, a local high school hero who trained at the Larry Holmes Training Center in nearby Easton, won his 112-pound bout against Ernie Bizzarro, one of the fighting Bizzarros of Erie. It was the first bout of the card, an undistinguished affair in which both kids threw plenty of punches, most of which did not conform to the textbook definitions of jab, cross, hook, and uppercut. Bizzarro might have been the more accomplished boxer, but he lost the initiative and forgot his craft. The judges' decision in favor of Nales seemed fair, but the Bizzarro corner erupted when it was announced. Even before the crowd was settled in its seats, there were paunchy men in sweat clothes shouting and passionately restraining one another while guards rushed to ringside to calm everybody down. After the Bizzarro Boxing Club faction stormed off, the audience settled in happily, like fighters who have broken a sweat and are ready to get to work.
After a few more bouts, though, they were beginning to fidget again, since three-round amateur scuffles between novices tend to resemble one another and do not often feature spectacular knockdowns. The crowd's attention was reclaimed before intermission, though, by the evening's one bout between women: Liz McGonigal of Erie's Lower East Side Boxing Club versus Sarah Kump of the Hanover Boxing Club. Kump was a head taller and at least twenty pounds heavier, an advantage so enormous that the tournament's organizers behaved unethically in offering the matchup to the fighters' trainers. The first time Kump whacked McGonigal with a right, the smaller woman was lifted up and thrown back a step as if by a strong wind. Kump, however, was the greenest of beginners, and McGonigal, though still a novice, was not. McGonigal looked at home in the ring: surefooted and quick-handed, nicely balanced in her southpaw fighting crouch; always in motion seeking a line of attack; light on her feet, heavy with her punches. She clearly knew how to box, but after tasting her opponent's advantage in power and reach, she dispensed with fistic nuance and went for a quick knockout. The two women spent most of the first round exchanging murderous blows like granite-jawed movie heroes. Kump loaded up big right hands, which usually missed; when she did land one, it knocked McGonigal back on her heels. McGonigal, for her part, punched more crisply and with either hand, navigating past Kump's long arms to land left-right-left combinations to the head. Between rounds, McGonigal's cornerman reminded her to keep moving from side to side as she bored in, thus neutralizing Kump's ponderous right leads. McGonigal, embarrassed at having let herself be drawn into so unlovely a brawl, weaved contritely on her stool to show she understood and would do better. She returned to work with greater precision, and by the middle of the second round Kump was almost finished-beat-up, arm-weary, and winded. The referee stopped McGonigal's battering of Kump along the ropes to administer a standing eight-count, at the end of which he asked Kump if she wished to continue. Her ambiguous answer-it looked like she said, "I can't breathe"-obliged him to stop the fight.
The paying audience responded to the bout with the curious mix of prurient hysteria and sporting fervor that female boxers excite in fight crowds, which are overwhelmingly male. Most of the men in the Liberty High School gym were sports fans rather than boxing fans, and most of them were Lehigh Valley sports fans who reserve their appreciation of technique for high school wrestling and professional auto racing; so they were not particularly interested in pugilistic niceties. Like most people at the fights, who want to see rolling heads rather than accomplished footwork, they were happy to see lots of punching and drama. But they were especially moved by a fight between women. They may have enjoyed it for the same reasons they enjoy offense-heavy slugfests between stalwart men, but they also responded to the action as if it were a kind of advanced Jell-O wrestling or striptease, with damage replacing flesh as the dirty female thing to be revealed. When Kump began to break down under the smaller woman's assault, her head snapping back with the punches and her face reddening, they whooped and howled like conventioneers at a strip joint. This wild electric climate, part sex and part violence, was only partially tamed by protestations of more conventional sporting admiration-"those young ladies are really scrapping, buddy"-offered most earnestly by men who were there with wives or children and therefore felt obliged to reel in their tongues off the floor. Both reactions, the prurient and the sporting, were about girls and about boxing and about women boxing-three different things-at the same time.
The contrast between the fighters and the ring girls further complicated the crowd's responses. In the last twenty years there has been a significant increase in the number of female noncombatants one might see at the fights-seconds, judges, referees, ring physicians, lawyers. But until the upsurge in women's boxing in the 1990s, the only women one could count on seeing in the ring during a fight were the ring girls, who, uniformed in swimwear and high heels, climb through the ropes between rounds with a signature bend-and-wriggle motion and sashay around the inside perimeter of the ropes with a card indicating the number of the next round. The traditional division of labor in pugilistic spectacle has men fighting while ring girls do a different kind of public body work more closely related to sex work than to manual labor. The ring girls at the Golden Gloves in Bethlehem had the long legs, prominent breasts, and glossy hair expected of them, they had obviously spent time working out in the gym to tone their bodies, and they had more flesh on display than did the female fighters (since the fighters wore shorts and sleeveless T-shirts), but compared with the fighters, they looked unsavory, even sickly. Kump, bigger and darker than McGonigal, was strong and well built, with a tattoo of Superman's S insignia high on one shoulder blade. McGonigal was compact and graceful, in fine fighting trim, with a smart, sharp-featured face and a thick blond braid swinging down her back in rhythmic counterpoint to the movements of her boxing style. On her shoulder blade she wore a tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil, the perpetual-motion cartoon character who rips insatiably through trees and everything else in his path. Stalking and planting to throw punches, the fighters made the ring girls' shapely calves and buttocks, tensed by high heels, seem like side effects of some unhealthy hobbling practice akin to foot binding.
Some of the more demonstrative men in the crowd had hooted and called out perceptive remarks the first few times the ring girls made their rounds, but after a while the novelty began to wear off for all but the most dedicated poltroons. The women's bout, though, touched off a more general surge of wolfish behaviors that felt like an extension of the ring girls' reception. Something about potent, capable women in the ring caused even men who had been silent before to throw off their reserve and howl not just for female flesh but for women's blood (at least the kind that emerges north of the waistline). Evidently, it was stirring to see these women fight, and it was important to see at least one of them hurt. In the second round, when McGonigal was nailing Kump with solid punches and the referee was getting ready to step between them to wave off the fight, it sounded as if a hotly contested high school basketball game and a giant stag party were being held at the same time in the old gym.
When it was over, with the crowd abuzz and Kump sitting blearily on her stool in the corner, McGonigal stood in the center of the ring amid the usual postfight chaos of seconds and officials. Her trainer had taken off her headgear and gloves and jammed a billed Everlast cap on her head. As she made her way to her corner to descend from the raised ring, a photographer rushed up an aisle to the ring apron and called out to her. She turned to give him a traditional dukes-up pose: hands still taped, chin tucked in, eyes meeting the camera, a cool smile that both disdained this regrettably necessary game of publicity and promised another butt-whipping to whoever messed with her next. I followed the line of her gaze through the cameraman and into the crowd, where it transfixed a guy one row ahead of me and a few seats over. He had come to my attention earlier because he knew two tricks he thought worth repeating over and over: one was holding up a dollar bill and yelling, "Come get your money, baby" when the loveliest ring girl did her turn with the round card; the other was loudly heckling another ring girl whom he found insufficiently appealing. Now he was standing, openmouthed but silent, looking up at McGonigal. It was hard to tell from my vantage point-or perhaps from any-whether the look on his face was one of awe or rage.
This little triangular encounter, occurring at the junction of many tangled lines of social force and historical circumstance that linked the young fighters and their audience to the mill cities of Pennsylvania, made me wonder how it came to pass that women in the ring had moved the crowd so powerfully on that April evening in Bethlehem. I wanted to find out how a woman becomes a fighter and pursues her craft in places where skilled labor and rough sport-two ways of being good with one's hands-have been traditionally yoked as manly body work. A New York Times reporter, writing an elegiac piece about "life after steel" in Bethlehem, captured the conventional wisdom about factory work and manhood in a nutshell when he observed that the steel industry and other heavy manufacturing work have traditionally provided jobs that not only pay well but also have special added value in the calculus of American masculinity: "It is also gloriously proud and male work." This calculus is especially ingrained in regional culture: "Bethlehem and steel have long been intertwined, much as Kentucky and bourbon, Wisconsin and cheese, Winston-Salem and cigarettes," and one can extend the local relationship between Bethlehem and steel to embrace Pennsylvania and heavy industry in general. The contraction of heavy industrial work and the expansion of service work in the latter part of this century-the complex, layered process condensed into the word "postindustrial"-have been intertwined with changes in what it means for men and women to work and play. Boxing is the sport farthest from play and closest to work, especially body work. Women in the ring, good with their hands, inspire in fight crowds powerful reactions that seem to be both about the isolated sphere of boxing and about a set of related matters-among them the character of work, the value of skilled aggression, definitions of manhood and womanhood-that frame boxing within a larger social world. I wanted to understand the encounter of female fighters and their audience within the specialized confines of the fight world, which has grown increasingly alien to Americans as boxing has taken on the air of an esoteric throwback practice. But I also wanted to understand female fighters, their audiences, and the fight world in relation to a social landscape that was changing around them.
I went to Erie to see where Liz McGonigal came from. It takes six hours to drive from Easton (where I lived) to Erie on the interstates, straight west almost all the way across Pennsylvania and then up to the lakeshore.
Excerpted from Good with Their Hands by Carlo Rotella Copyright © 2004 by Carlo Rotella. Excerpted by permission.
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