Ringside comes into being whenever the hitting starts and both combatants know how to do it. There is almost always a place on the margins of a fight for interested observers; most fights, even those between drunks in the street, would not happen without them. In the narrow sense, though, ringside requires a ring. Inside a ring, fighting can come under the shaping influence of the rules, traditions, and institutions of boxing. The fight world is grounded in relatively few pieces of real estate — the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, for instance, or the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia — but it also floats across the landscape, touching down and coalescing in material form when a casino puts up a ring for a night of boxing, or when a trainer rents a storefront and fills it with punching bags and a couple of duct-taped situp mats and a ring for sparring. When the gym loses its lease or when the casino has to clear its hall the next day for a Legends of Doo-Wop concert, the fight world packs up and moves on, traveling light. A ring is just a medium-sized truckful of metal struts, plywood flooring, foam padding, canvas, ropes, cables, and miscellaneous parts; it takes only a couple of hours for a competent crew to assemble it or break it down. While the ring is set up it creates ringside — and the possibility of learning something.
There are lessons to be learned at ringside. Close to but apart from both the action and the paying audience watching it, you see in two directions at once: into the cleared fighting space inside the ropes, and outward at the wide world spreading messily outside the ropes. You must learn specialized boxing knowledge to make sense of what you see in the ring, but the consequences of those lessons extend far beyond boxing. The deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such lessons — about the virtues and limits of craft, about the need to impart meaning to hard facts by enfolding them in stories and spectacle, about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy, and especially about education itself: boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.
A serious education in boxing, for an observer as well as a fighter, entails regular visits to the gym, where the showbiz distractions of fight night recede and matters of craft take precedence. Gyms are places of repetition and permutation. A fighter refines a punch by throwing it over and over in the mirror and then at a bag and then at an opponent. A short guy and a tall guy in the sparring ring work out their own solutions to the ancient problem of fighting somebody taller or shorter than oneself. Everybody there, no matter how deeply caught up in his own business, remains alert to the instructive value of other people’s labors. My first and best boxing school has been the Larry Holmes Training Center, a long, low, shedlike building facing the railroad tracks and the river on Canal Street in Easton, Pennsylvania. Holmes, the gym’s owner and principal pugilist, was the best heavyweight in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he had an extended run as undisputed champion. He has been retiring and unretiring since then, fighting on through his forties and past fifty. His afternoon training sessions at the gym have allowed younger fighters to work alongside a master, and interested observers to watch.
Holmes, the last of the twentieth century’s great heavyweight stylists, practices the manly art of self-defense as it used to be taught. A big, prickly fellow with a no-nonsense workingman’s body and an oddly planed head that seems to deflect incoming shots like a tank’s turret, he has prospered through diligent application of the principle of defense with bad intentions. He puts technique before musculature, good sense before crowd-pleasing drama, perseverance before rage. Boxing is unnatural: instinct does not teach you to move toward a hard hitter, rather than away from him, to cut down his leverage; you do not instinctively bring your hand back to blocking position after you punch with it; almost nobody feels a natural urge to stay on his feet when badly hurt by a blow, or to get up within ten seconds of having been knocked down. Even after a lifetime of fighting, a boxer has to reinforce and relearn good habits in training. Sitting on one of the banged-up folding chairs arranged at ringside in Holmes’s gym, you could pick up some of those habits — or at least an appreciatttttion of them — by watching him at work.
My education as a ringsider probably began at the first school I ever attended, the Ancona Montessori School. I spent the better part of two years there banging a green plastic Tyrannosaurus rex into a blue plastic Triceratops (and then putting them away where they belonged, which is what Montessori schools and well-run gyms are all about), absorbing the widely applicable groundline truth that styles make fights. The gangly T. rex had to risk being gored in order to bite; the squatty Triceratops had to risk being bitten in order to gore; and T. rex had to force the action like a challenger, rather than the undisputed champion among dinosaurs he was supposed to be: he needed meat, while Triceratops could get by on shrubs. Among nonextinct fighters, I knew who Muhammad Ali was, but he was mostly a face and a voice, like Fred Flintstone. The first boxer I recognized as a boxer was Larry Holmes, who was sizing up and solving one contender after another, some- times on television, when I was in high school. Holmes, part T. rex and part Triceratops, had the first boxing style I could see as such. Circling and jabbing, he wore through the other man’s fight like a toxic solvent. A little more than a decade after leaving high school — having gone on to college and graduate school and a first teaching job at Lafayette College, which overlooks Easton from the steep remove of College Hill — I went for a walk to explore the town and found my way down Canal Street to Holmes’s classroom.
I am not saying, as Ishmael says of a whale ship in Moby-Dick, that a boxing gym was my Yale College and my Harvard. I go there to watch, not to train. I’m inclined by temperament to look blankly at a potential fistfighting opponent until he gets bored and goes away, and I’m built physically to flee predators with bounding strides and sudden shifts of direction. Yale and Harvard and other schools like them have, in fact, been my Yale College and my Harvard. You can get an education at ringside, but you also bring your own education to ringside.
I’m currently in something like the thirtieth grade of a formal education that began at the Ancona Montessori School, and somewhere along the way I picked up the habit of research. Visits to ringside and conversations with fight people inspire visits to the archive to pursue context and understanding. The archive of boxing includes a library of edifying and sometimes elegant writing that reaches from the latest typo-riddled issue of Boxing Digest all the way back to a one-punch KO in book 23 of the Iliad, but it also includes many thousands of fights on film and videotape. Seeing a bout from ringside sends me to the VCR with a stack of tapes to study the styles and stories of the combatants, or to consider analogous fights informed by a similar principle:...