It’s not exactly a paradox, but still. The sports that offer the least to the uninitiated spectator often inspire the best writing. This is true of baseball, and it is also true of boxing. For all its gut-level thrills—smack! wham! pow!—it is an art largely hidden from its audience. Those years of gymwork on footwork and misdirection, those ring strategies, become apparent only in their results—the boxers get hit or don’t, go down or don’t. It is too fluid, too unadorned, to be easily appreciated. You get it? Boxing’s too subtle for you.
What there is to say is almost always human. Local writer and former WW columnist Katherine Dunn, in One Ring Circus (Shaffner, 248 pages, $16.95), her new collection of boxing essays, is not a living-room tactician articulating the sport’s play-by-play, its rope-a-dopes and bolo punches. What Dunn is—as in her 1989 novel Geek Love, for which she is best known—is a keenly attuned and empathetic observer of personality, and an unabashed partisan in her search for the humanity beneath the spectacle. She is also a nimble stylist, a craftswoman versed well beyond sports journalism’s usually limited toolbox. That is to say, she’s among the best boxing writers around.
These essays are mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, and a good number of them were actually first published in WW, during Portland boxing’s early-’80s heyday. So the fighters she describes are no longer active; their value is in the stories themselves, and in the telling. Thus her profiles of bad-boy druggie Johnny Tapia or the preternaturally decent Alexis Argüello are sympathetic visions of extreme humanity. Two of the best pieces feature the sport’s eternal stars in contrarian light: One offers only grudging praise of a Sugar Ray Leonard that Dunn thought to be a cheap-shot artist, and another provides vigorous defense of Tyson, America’s “boogeyman,” in the infamous Holyfield ear-biting incident.
For nonfans of boxing—count this writer among them—perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are those that provide context for the sport as a whole. Three of the essays here concern female boxing’s long-denied legitimacy; others examine boxing’s role as an upbringer of city youth, the warrior’s ritual of taping their delicate hands, and the place of the boxing gym as a haven where “men are allowed to be kind to one another.” Despite its pre-Ultimate Fighting place in the media imagination as the country’s uniquely brutal sport, Dunn (with the appropriate nod to A.J. Liebling), knows boxing as “a deliberate science, opposite of the scared, mad frenzy we associate with back-alley brawls.” Leaving aside, of course, the sprays of blood she’s had to wipe off her notebook at ringside—despite hackneyed metaphor, only the softest of heads actually think boxing is ballet.
READ: Katherine Dunn reads from One Ring Circus at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Wednesday, May 13. Free.