Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Hands-On Question

The other day I gave a talk by teleconference--which is weird, because you're watching them watch TV and they're watching you watch TV--to a class studying the literature of boxing at a university in Germany.  (I think it's an unqualified good thing, by the way, that somebody's devoting a whole course to the literature of boxing.)  We had an enjoyable discussion, which they continued on their own after we broke the connection and I went about my business. Later, the professor, Christoph Ribbat, told me by email that they'd gotten into a lively debate between two evenly matched factions:  those that felt that a writer should have some hands-on experience in boxing (and were aghast that I had no interest in getting any such experience) and those who felt that hands-on experience was unnecessary, trivial, or even misleading.

My sympathies are mostly with the latter group:  as I said to the class, I want my paragraphs, not my body, to be trained down fine and filled to the brim with technique and power.  But I can see at least some merit in the argument made by the former group.  When I look over the list of those who contribute to The Boxing Standard, I see a former amateur and pro fighter, a former backyard fighter who at least until recently still trained in the gym and trained others, a dedicated weekend warrior who trains with a former heavyweight contender, a guy who's done at least some wrestling (most recently on the street, if I remember Eddie's most recent war story correctly), and a former manager and promoter who occasionally went around in the ring with his fighters (if I have that all right; I think I do).  Actually, the majority of us have some kind of hands-on experience, and on the continuum of doing and watching I represent the extreme watching end.

Of course, we all work on our writing and reporting chops and sources, and to me those are the most important things, but when I think about the variety of enjoyment afforded by the fight writing of my associates in this group I can see that it does change what you can say about boxing to speak from firsthand experience.  Sometimes, I'm convinced, a smattering of hands-on experience only gives a writer the delusion of authority that allows him to say wrong things more confidently, but experience can also give you fresh insight not available to those whose engagement with boxing is just from observation and interview.  Beyond the present company, there are writers I like to read on boxing--Robert Anasi, Rene Denfeld, Sam Sheridan, Iceman John Scully--whose hands-on experience makes them more interesting, gives them more to say, and allows them angles in on meaning that I can't pursue.  Going back to my favorite fight writers of all time, Pierce Egan seems to have had more than a casual involvement on the promotion and management end (hence his impressive command of the subject of what he called "X fights"), and even the gouty Liebling banged the bags a bit.

None of that adds up to a requirement that a writer about boxing have firsthand experience in the gym or the ring, and I still think the Mailer Effect--allowing a bit of dabbling to persuade you that you know what fighters know--is a great danger to the immodest writer, but I guess where this leaves me is with the conviction that the writing-about-boxing world needs to contain writers working all along the spectrum from former-fighter-turned-writer (I wish there were more of those) to pure writers-for-writing's-sake who never touch the stuff themselves.

How about you?  Does it make a difference?  Do you care if a fight writer has done any boxing?

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