Boxing is “the only sport where you have two doctors on hand, a resuscitation team on standby, and an ambulance outside” (Roger, 63, retired boxing coach). It’s also being promoted as the sport that will help young men desist from violent crime. How can this violent sport help in preventing violent crime?
I come to Jump’s work via the filter of Loic Wacquant’s Body & Soul, an ethnographic research study on, as he described it in a lecture, ‘a skinny French white guy in South Chicago’s Black neighbourhood learning to box’.
Wacquant (2004:31) referred to boxing gyms as ‘islands of stability and order’, in that they ‘protect an individual from the street’ and ‘act as a buffer against the insecurity of the neighbourhood and pressures of everyday life’. Wacquant believed that boxing gyms helped to regulate men’s lives, when disorder and delinquency engulf it.
When I discovered Wacquant at university, we weren’t yet as a society at the stage of promoting boxing as the answer to social ills. As that focus has increased, however, Deborah Jump’s book The Criminology of Boxing, Violence and Desistance provides an in-depth and very specific look at the merits of it.
In Bristol, we have had the election of a mayor who has said, “Boxing was a big part of my teenage years and taught me discipline, self-control and how to overcome set-backs”. This has been almost as prominent as Banksy’s painting of the door to the Empire Fighting Club and subsequently providing them with quite a boon. The mayor has proudly brought boxing into City Hall.
He has also made the front pages of the local press by bullying a member of the media, has said that activists can expect to be ‘tackled’, and has aggressively rebutted an NHS doctor who had brought a petition to City Hall about the air quality that is killing 300 a year; so much so that councillors approached the doctor afterwards to offer their apologies for his behaviour.
While the paradox is fresh of how violence can fight violence, let’s look at how this text can help us understand boxing and its potential.
Jump, a senior lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University, a former youth worker, and a youth offender manager addresses this question. Can boxing turn men away from violent crime?
The biggest contradiction seems to be about helping men avoid violent crime in an environment that suggests violence is the answer. As she writes:
the masculine cultural values transmitted in the gym environment, especially in relation to homophobia, hyper-masculinity and the accomplishment of such through ‘masculinized vocabulary’ (Deuchar et al 2016) are not necessarily conducive to desistance from crime.
“I argue that the enclave of the gym and the majority of its
members are actually compatible with violent criminogenic attitudes,
especially those that pertain to the defence of masculine ideals. “
Jump questions common tropes that suggest boxing is a panacea for all social ills, and she unpicks the criminal justice responses to youth crime and the well-intended misgivings that boxing is the cure.
policy makers and parents, as well as criminal justice agencies, believe that the structured disciplining environment of the gym is enough to combat criminogenic attitudes and violent behaviour.
She dispels this myth.
She proposes that boxing is a convincing ‘hook for change’ (Giordano
2002), and the appeal of the gym is undoubtedly a powerful one.
However, more needs to be done to challenge the masculine discourses present within the gym environment. She does this by revealing the fragility of the narratives.
She suggests that the appeal of boxing lies in its ability to generate a “defence against male anxiety and vulnerability, and that the environment itself is tailored to the prevention of repeat victimisation.”
“In other words, the attendees are not just there to become boxers, they are there to sequester any form of male vulnerability and victimisation behind physical capital and gloved fists.”
In her 2016 article: They didn’t know whether to ” fuck me or fight me ” : An ethnographic account of North Town boxing gym, she writes: “The ‘habitus’ of the boxing gym enabled most men to view violence as an acceptable solution to a problem.” A particularly striking point is made in relation to the people she met at the boxing gym: boxing was “employed as a resource to command fear.”
Men’s identities are stripped down and examined. The intention of some seeking the boxing gym is to hide their weaknesses and to find affirmation. In relation to this, Jump writes:
Certainly, the concept of ‘hardness’ sits neatly with psychoanalytical object relation theories, whereby some men are endowed with fragile self-boundaries and a deep ambivalence towards intimacy, and will defend against this exposing vulnerability, by disguising it behind a carapace of muscle and bodily capital (Wacquant 1995b).
Jump’s text starts with a history of boxing, and its masculine traditions, starting from its Spartan usage to train men in between battles, and ending up in the use of it as a sport with a particular appeal in relation to class. She then provides ethnographic case studies of boxers she was able to approach and interview as part of her research.
The ethnographic chapters provide insight and a lens through which we can hear the boxers speak for themselves. Jump highlights her own effect in the interviews while simultaneously drawing out the messages from her case studies. We learn about the roles of the gym members and particularly the influential position of the trainer at the gym.
Her conclusions are useful to note. “Not every sport provides the same outcomes in terms of pro-social development, and desistance from crime.” There is also an argument to be made that “sports – particularly violent, combative ones – reinforce a sense of hegemony and promote attitudes favourable to violence, especially when concepts of status or winning become threatened.”
In boxing, violence is specifically linked with winning and this is imperative in “maintaining valued identities and status-forming attributes” such as respect, honour and status through violence. This mentality fostered through such sports, normalises violence as an everyday occurrence.
How does that help individual growth and change, however? One suggestion is that change can’t come without a ‘redemption script’ (Maruna 2001).
This is a process where previous behaviour becomes acknowledged and worked through, and subsequently ‘knifed off’ as a part of oneself no longer valued.
In boxing, however, violence and physical status are valued so it is difficult to cut off this identity because as Jump puts it, “young men often draw upon the social capital that violence can offer, regardless of whether or not they take it ‘out of the ring’.”
There are three detailed case studies of interviews Jump has with Frank, Eric, and Leroy. Their families, histories and experiences at the gym are approached and used as context for how they see boxing. Jump sets out the theories and approaches she will be using in the first chapters of the book, and then examines them in relation to people she has interviewed.
Reality comes up against theory.
The reality is that boxing is appealing for men, as cited in this text, and the way it is used to gain respect and promote fear. Physical toughness and bravery are noted as boxers revel in being perceived as fighters. Not only does it come with a sense of “satisfaction and pride for those who participate, but also adds to the element of danger and masculine prestige contained in the image.”
Winning is associated with violence, and preparation comes from the establishment of physical capital — one’s body.
The preening and manly display, coupled with the psychological realisation of physical capital, was carnivalesque at times – and, in some respects, grotesque, as some men would approach their bodies with a dysmorphic lens. Put simply, the investment in the body as a structure was extreme. Some men would push their desire for bodily perfection to bizarre lengths, sometimes culminating in vomiting after workout sessions or, as with the case of Eric, starving oneself to “make weight”.
In the gym as well, there was a hierarchy based on physicality and the “Bouncers and professional boxers were at the top of the hierarchy,” which seemed to be determined by the “participants’ capacity for violence”. Those with the most physical capital had the most power.
The main premise of Jump’s book is examining the notion that boxing can help men desist in violent crime. While there are female boxers, Jump herself notes that her ability to participate in the boxing environment was limited by being a woman.
Her text raises some important questions about ‘how’ boxing is meant to help with violent crime, and the limitations of just funnelling violence into a specific environment without the ability to transform it.
When you are taught that winning is important and that violence and physical capital are the primary methods of winning, then how can you go from that to cooperation and change?
Jump’s ideas on boxing being part of “boys’ socialisation through sport, competition and success, bodies, emotions and pain, domination of women, and aggression and violence” are important to note.
There are female boxers and the London 2012 Olympic Games were the first to feature women’s boxing. Jane Crouch, the first officially licensed British female boxer in 1998, who has won numerous world titles lives in Bristol and has just had autobiography optioned into a movie. Bristol is also known for its female pugilists who used to fight at the side of the Hatchet and inspired the novel The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman.
It feels there is more to be explored about boxing but Jump does a great job of focusing on only her remit. She doesn’t get distracted and she answers the questions that need answering.
Boxing can help provide a source of belonging, loyalty and support, and is helpful in breaking down barriers in segregated communities. The strenuous exercise also provides rewards and benefits to self-esteem. However, it is not possible to separate the benefits of the sport with the masculine discourses and physical risk.
When advocating boxing as a solution, it is also important to understand the underlying cultural messages transmitted in hyper-masculine arenas and to provide young men with positive role models who they can identify with.
The Criminology of Boxing Violence and Desistance by Deborah Jump is published by Bristol University Press.
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