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The Hungry Fighter: Does he exist?
By Joe Welsh
Historically, a correlation has been drawn between the socio-economic location of the urban environment and the production of fighters. Indeed, stereotypical images and representations of boxers conveyed by the mass media tends to characterize boxers as products of broken families suffering high degrees of economic deprivation located in areas of poor housing possessing a low level of educational attainment. Despite being socially underprivileged those who become boxers manage to fight their way out of their social environment by turning their desire for violence into multi million dollar purses.
The top boxers today are among the highest paid athletes in the world. The showdown between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao was the richest fight in history. Mayweather comes from a boxing family while Pacquiao has risen from what few would disagree is abject poverty. There can be little doubt that the pursuit of financial reward alongside enhanced social status and fame come together to attract young men to partake in boxing. As Jack Dempsey once professed: ‘when you’re fighting you’re fighting for one thing: money.’ Boxers such as, Dempsey, Marvin Hagler and Mike Tyson have all been subjected to backgrounds of restricted opportunity possessing little, if any, education and as a result have turned to boxing as perhaps the only means of effectively elevating both lifestyle and status. In this respect, there is little doubt that their success has served to make boxing appealing to others in similar conditions offering a ‘way out’ of their violent environment without the breaching of socially sanctioned rules. Indeed, it is not unusual to hear many fighters agree that without boxing a life of crime may have been inevitable.
Former heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks:
A lot of fighters have been raped by society, many brutalized physically and psychologically in their own homes. Life for them has seldom been fair. Eventually they leave school, as graduates or dropouts, and the good jobs aren’t there. To make money they can run numbers, sell drugs, work forty hours a week for minimum wage or, if physically gifted, become fighters. (Spinks cited in Hauser 1988: 13).
Such testimony not only by former boxers but promoters, sportswriters, trainers and managers has served to support the legitimacy of the ‘hungry fighter’ theory. Indeed, as a rule well- educated and economically secure ‘upper class lads’ have not ordinarily chosen the boxing path, as there is a far greater diversity of options available to such groups rather than to jump into the roughest, toughest, richest, lowest scale of professional sport. This is not to imply that sport as a possible professional is overlooked entirely, but it is more likely that well-educated young men direct their efforts into professional tennis, golf and football.
Does this mean that we must reject the ‘hungry fighter’ thesis and steer away from the collective mythology that surrounds it? I think not but we must draw a distinction between correlations’ and causalities.
Fighters are seldom a product of the most disenfranchised fractions of the ghetto sub-proletariat. Instead, they represent those fractions of the minority working class that struggle at the threshold of stable socioeconomic integration. From this perspective the key to recruitment is not one related to economics, but one linked to habits and inclinations. In short, to progress, as a fighter requires a consistency of life, a sense of discipline that it could be argued is denied to youngsters from the most disadvantaged families due to the conditions imposed on them by social and economic deprivation.
However, this is not to say that professional boxers, on the whole, do not come from economically deprived backgrounds, but rather occupy the strata slightly above the average ghetto occupant. Boxing trainer Emanuel Steward and founder of the world- famous Kronk gym in Detroit states the point thus: ‘Most of my boys, contrary to what people think, are not that poor. They come from good areas around the country.’ (Steward cited in Wacquant 1992: 223). Moreover, the view that boxing and poverty interact in a perpetuating never ending cycle fails to consider other elements that combine to sustain boxing’s subculture.
While it is true that the social space boxing occupies has historically belonged to the poorest groups, this is not true of those whose commercial interests secure the continued existence of boxing as part of the multi million pound entertainment industry. This is not a new phenomenon, as just as in the past boxing continues to be sustained by the elite of society.
However, it could be argued that the ‘exploitative nature’ of boxing remains hidden under the banner of amateurism. For example, boxing clubs rotate around a largely undeclared objective: An objective that seeks to utilize deprived areas for the training and production of professional fighters. Generally, this is done through the infrastructure of amateur boxing. Exploitation of Disadvantage within boxing is hidden and seen as commendable by the wider public by locating the boxing club in areas of urban deprivation, areas that have little else on offer for those defined by their poverty.
This self-proclaimed philosophy of those in boxing is one, which defends the sport on the grounds of social good allowing them to validate the boxing club’s targeting of the urban poor. This is a view that is so deeply entrenched within the boxing world that even the boxers themselves attest to it. The conjecture that boxing acts as a deterrent to drug abuse and criminal activity while also being capable of conveying messages of moral and social development in those it recruits is testimony to the continuing strength of such ideology.
Hauser H. (1988). The Black lights. Inside the world of professional boxing. Pub Panbooks.
Jenkins T. (1955). Changes in ethnic and racial representation among professional boxers. A study in ethnic succession. Pub The University of Chicago.
Oates J. (1988). On Boxing. Pub Pan Books.
Pacheco F. (1992). Muhammad Ali. A view from the corner. Pub Carol publishing group.
Sammons, J. T. (1988). Beyond the ring: The role of boxing in American society. Pub Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois press.
Sugden J. (1996). Boxing and society. An international analysis. Pub Manchester University press.
Wacquant J. D. (1992). “The social logic of boxing in black Chicago: Toward a sociology of pugilism.” In Sociology of sport journal Vol. 9 No 3.