Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men.
– Joyce Carol Oates
Now whoever has courage and a strong and collected spirit in her breast let her come forward, lace on the gloves and put up her hands.
– Virgil by way of Jesselyn Silva
Jesselyn Silva wrote her memoir, My Corner of the Ring, when she was twelve. Which was much more than I accomplished at that age. It arrived in 2019, two years after #MeToo burst through a longstanding wall of silence. Girls and women were finding renewed hope for equality, and Silva’s story of a young girl making her way in the male dominated world of boxing seemed perfectly of the moment.
Yet years of revelations about long-term concussion damage and CTE were leading many parents — and some athletes — to reconsider contact sports altogether. Football participation had been on the decline for a decade, and if you felt football was too violent then boxing was certainly out.
Silva acknowledges this tension throughout her book. Earning a place in a sport dominated by the opposite sex isn’t easy.
“Every time I stepped into the ring, someone was saying, ‘Be careful out there, little lady,’ or, ‘Ohh, the girl boxers are going next.’ It was like we were interrupting their fun or knocking on the door of their clubhouse or something…”
Knock she does. Silva became the first boxer from her gym, male or female, to qualify for the Junior Olympics, where she took home the bronze. Since then she’s been on track to meet her goal of competing in the 2024 Olympics.
But she’s paid with more than blood and sweat. After watching a single fight, her grandmother refused to ever attend another. Her father supports her wholeheartedly, but he’s frank about his hope that she’ll unlace the gloves at some point and move on to something less dangerous.
I have two daughters of my own. I wonder at the conflict in Silva’s father’s heart. The fervent desire to support your daughter’s dreams, whatever they may be. The ferocious need to protect her at all costs.
In The Godfather III, Michael Corleone says to his daughter: “I would burn in hell to keep you safe.”
When my oldest was learning to walk she fell constantly, as toddlers are wont to do. Each time she lay on the floor frustrated and crying, I kneeled beside her, helped her to her feet, and asked:
“What do we do when we fall?”
Tears in her eyes, she answered as I’d taught: “We get back up.”
What if she were knocked down so hard she could never get back up again?
— — —
Boxing in American literature first found respectability with Jack London, who coined the term Great White Hope. He wrote about the ring in multiple stories, articles and novels, and ever since the sweet science has drawn scribblers and filmmakers like the promise of free beer at a cheap saloon.
Hemingway took a swing at it more than once. So did Richard Wright, AJ Liebling, James Baldwin. Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates wrote whole books on the subject.
In the fantastic anthology At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, George Kimball and John Schulian include dozens of writers penning some of the finest sports literature ever written.
There’s only a single entry for women’s boxing, and this in spite of the fact that women have been boxing just as long as men.
The first women’s boxing match in the US happened in 1876. The bout was between Nell Saunders and Rose Harland. They duked it out for the grand prize of a silver butter dish.
Women’s boxing has struggled for respect ever since.
The movies haven’t been much kinder. In 1901 Thomas Edison produced The Gordon Sisters Boxing, a two-minute affair that looks more like a couple of drunk old ladies pillow-fighting than an actual boxing match. Maybe it was more sporting in person.
It took nearly 100 more years to get a decent female boxing flick. Girlfight arrived in 2000, and Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Both fantastic, but the same ten decades produced dozens of brilliant boxing movies about men: The Champ, The Harder They Fall, Rocky, The Setup, Raging Bull, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Ali, Fat City…
This lack of representation echoes through Silva’s memoir like a shout in an empty arena. People don’t write about women boxers or make movies about women boxers because society would rather imagine women boxers don’t actually exist. Try getting people to go to a women’s boxing match. The discomfort is plain on their face.
“If no one comes to watch, if no one cares to support girl boxers, then in essence, girls don’t box because no one sees them doing it,” Silva writes.
Discomfort tends to make people want to put the unfamiliar back into more acceptable boxes. When it comes to women boxers, the boxes have usually been either freak or fetish. In the 19th Century, women boxed almost exclusively with traveling circuses, performing as Strong Women sideshow acts. The circus tents have blown away, but the label of freak has stayed with us.
Worse has been the effort to demean female athletes as nothing more than spectacles of titillation. In 2010, the International Boxing Association declared female boxers had to wear skirts while fighting. This was later rescinded, but the message was clear. It wasn’t how strong your legs were that mattered. It was how good they looked in a skirt.
But while disease with women’s boxing can be partially attributed to chauvinism and pure prickishness, it’s too easy to say sexism is the only cause. If our feelings about women punching each other in the face are a messy bundle of string, at least some of those threads are woven from love and weakness.
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Andre Dubus wrote insightfully of violence and men and women. In A Father’s Story, a man covers up a car accident in which his daughter believes she may have struck and killed a man. He goes to great lengths to make it appear he was the one driving that night, thus sparing his daughter responsibility. At the end, he imagines a conversation between himself and God.
And if one of my sons had come to me that night, I would have phoned the police and told them to meet us with an ambulance at the top of the hill.
Why? Do you love them less?
I tell Him no, it is not that I love them less, but that I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my sons’ pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter, and if You had, You could not have borne her passion.
So, He says, you love her more than you love Me.
I love her more than I love truth.
Then you love in weakness, He says.
As You love me, I say, and I go with an apple or carrot out to the barn.
Dubus speaks to something central to our squeamishness in watching women’s boxing. Men view women differently. Not because they feel stronger than women, but often because they feel weak.
It’s a story I imagine Silva’s father would understand.
— — —
Why do you want to box?
Silva is asked this again and again: by family, by friends, by total strangers. You get the feeling boys aren’t asked this with the same intensity. No doubt lurking just behind it like an unwanted guest at a party is that browbeater extraordinaire: so when are you going to finally have a baby?
Silva writes: “It wasn’t that I was drawn to boxing because I liked to get hit. I hated getting hit. But I loved throwing it back. And sometimes in life, especially as a little kid, and a lot of times as a girl, they don’t let you throw back punches — not in school, not at home, not on an actual playground.”
But if the desire to hit back is what drew Silva to the ring, what has kept her there is something she didn’t expect to find: compassion and community.
“I’ve seen more compassion and sportsmanship in the ring between fighters than I have on the playground at school.”
And maybe a touch of the profound:
“…there’s something about a person taking a punch and giving a punch: I swear you see their soul. I swear it.”
Here is something unique in boxing literature. From the beginning people have focused on the violence, the mano a mano matchups, the blood and the pain and the broken bones. Silva’s memoir, however, is an ode to the strength a boxer draws from her teammates, her coaching staff and her gym. It highlights respect not only for the craft but for the opponent and the referees.
It is a vision of boxing in which combat is not the whole story.
Writing about defeating an unskilled opponent, Silva says: “Carrie went to her corner, and I think she might have been crying. I didn’t feel terribly bad about it, because I realized that it was that first sparring match with the boy where I cried that I got my strength. This first fight was helping her become a better boxer just as much as it was making me one.”
Observations like these are missing from much of boxing literature. Perhaps because that literature is written almost entirely by men. One wonders what a boxing literature written primarily by women might be like, what other observations and insights have been missed by men who focused exclusively on what interested them.
It likely would not be a better literature than the one we have now, but it would almost certainly be a deeper one, a literature with a wider view.
But for that to happen, we would need to push past our discomfort. We would need to find the courage to stand outside the ring and watch, just our as sisters and wives and daughters found the courage to step into the ring and fight.