PITTSBURGH CLAIMED FIVE of the world’s eight boxing champions in the 1940s, but for half a century following this golden age, Allegheny County did not produce a single champion. In 1999, Paul “Pittsburgh Kid” Spadafora scored a decision for the vacant IBF belt and the sport experienced a notable resurgence in the once great fight town, but this hopeful wave seems to keep receding. So who are Pittsburgh’s boxers today?
“I am the father, the son, and the holy spirit,” repeats Rayco “WAR” Saunders, former NABC Cruiserweight World Champion. He watches me carefully to make sure I understand exactly what he is telling me. After spending four evenings with the pugilists of 3rd Avenue Boxing Gym and Steel City Boxing, I’m beginning to understand.
Saunders never knew his father. At age eight he saw his mother stab her boyfriend repeatedly, almost killing him, and three years later he watched her die of a drug overdose. At age fourteen he faced arrest for homicide and continued a life of crime until the age of twenty when he discovered boxing. His story had become hauntingly familiar. Of twenty-six local boxers between the ages of 14–36, seventeen (65%) came from fatherless homes — significantly more than the national average of 24% — and twenty-two (85%) identified themselves as “poor,” “low-income,” or “from the streets.” Moreover, twelve of the men (46%) told self-narratives that shared a fundamental theme and structure: a youth of struggle (involving crime, drug abuse, and/or violence), a moment of revelation, and redemption achieved through the sweet science. Of course, these are not radical insights. Boxing has long been called a poor man’s sport, but over the past five decades it has experienced a significant shift, especially in mainstream culture.
After the 1960s, boxing was gradually enveloped in a “dying sport” diatribe, and in recent years, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Neurology have argued that boxing should be banned because it is so inherently injurious to the brain. Major national publications, including The New York Times, have overwhelmingly “ignored the boxing ring.” In October 2010, ESPN commentator Patrick Hruby declared, “Over time, the game los[t] its cultural cachet. Inside the sports world, it’s become a cultish pastime held in low repute in which people with options in life watch people without options in life hurt each other for money.”
However, Pittsburgh’s boxing community seems largely deaf to mainstream criticism and condescension. “Changes” in the sport are attributed to an array of reasons by six local coaches: institutional problems, early athletic specialization, a lack of volunteer coaching which has created a dearth of quality fighters, and so on. None chalked up the sport’s present state to shifting conceptions of violence, and only one of the six coaches expressed regret or concern over the physical dangers of the sport. The boxers, 65% of whom compete in the amateur league and 73% of whom consider boxing more than a “hobby,” agreed with a quote about the importance of “danger” in professional boxing today: “Fans want to see DANGEROUS fights. HBO should be looking for competitive action-filled match-ups, preferably involving one or more vibrant personalities. When these factors are combined, stars are born.” In other words, the coaches and athletes are not ignorant to the “dangerous” nature of boxing. In fact, they are keenly aware of the important role violence plays, but none express explicit regard for it.
Why is there such discord between popular attitudes toward boxing and the conception of boxing within the community itself? What distinguishes the fighters’ experience and the subculture it forms? One answer emerged from an insight offered by Jimmy Cvetic, a retired cop, boxing maverick, and proud “Yinzer.” After he flicked off the last light, dragged his gimp leg up the stairs before me, and locked the door, Jimmy stood with me outside his humble 3rd Ave basement gym and offered his best answer to my incessant, “Why boxing?”
“It’s the lights. I bet they all told you the lights. They can’t give up them lights.”
Each of the narratives so carefully relayed to me by Pittsburgh’s sweet scientists are incredible histories of violence and suffering, self-consciously reconciled through a commitment to boxing. Perhaps the sport allows individuals to find dignity in their own experience, to master their intimate histories of violence and proudly conquer them under “them lights.” Or maybe the sport exploits their experience of suffering and subjugation, transforming their pain into an object displayed under “them lights.” Either way, boxing is alive in the ’Burgh, and it is a population worth recognizing.
Gorman, Kevin. “Don’t Call it a Comeback.” Pittsburgh Tribune 11 May 2003.
Hamill, Sean D. “Body Language.” Pittsburgh City Paper 17 Dec 2009.
Hauser, Thomas. “HBO and the State of Boxing.” Seconds Out 31 Oct 2010.
Hruby, Patrick. “Future Shock: The Death of Football.” ESPN 22 Oct 2010.
Raskin, Eric. “Pro Boxing: The ‘dying sport’ outdoing itself and bringing back the fans.” Koco Sports 28 July 2008.
Rosenthal, Elizabeth. “Rebel Neurologists Say Boxing Can Be Safe.” The New York Times 22 May 1999.
“When Fathers Don’t Father: Children Suffer Unless Absent Fathers Become Active Parents.” Children Youth and Family Background (May 2001) University of Pittsburgh Dept. of Child Development.