One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing

Strong ringmaster commands boxing arena in One Ring Circus

First appeared at WBAN

One Ring Circus is a collection of previously published articles by author and journalist Katherine Dunn, who has covered boxing for thirty years. It is a moving tribute to the world of boxing and a rare cohesive sampling of boxing journalism.

The structure of the book takes a little getting used to. It’s unusual to find a collection of journalism articles in book format, so as you become engrossed in the book reading experience, it can be jarring to find dated information, such as speculation of what will happen with a fighter in 1985.

So think of it as a collection of short stories, because that’s really what it is. There are pieces introducing fighters such as Andy Minsker and Alexis Arguello; blow-by-blow accounts of title fights such as Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvelous Marvin Hagler; an overview of the rise of women’s boxing; and explorations of controversy, like Mike Tyson biting the ears of Evander Holyfield.

Each piece belies the depth of thought that is borne of years of meticulous attention and intelligent analysis. Dunn is raring to tackle your misgivings about the sweet science, and even if you have none, her carefully developed perspectives are bound to introduce some insights you hadn’t considered before.

Dunn’s style is prosaic journalism, to coin a term. It’s tight and factual, yet smothered in tone and bravado for a richness that makes it read like fiction, and not just any fiction – stylized fiction from the 1940’s gangster underworld. Think “gritty”… “snot-nosed”… “sleazy.” Open this book and you walk into a blue-collar neighborhood boxing club, where the coaches are hard as James Cagney, and their hearts as big as Vegas. Her voice is at once anachronistic and original.

The whole book is a send-up to the sport. The language is over-the-top in order to set the stage; the characters are larger than life. Every fighter is the stuff of legend. Where there’s spit, it’s flying; where there’s blood, it’s spewing; when boxers fight, they collide. It’s a super-saturated image that will imprint onto your brain. It’s all atmosphere.

And it works. To read this book is to be transported into a specialized world, and that’s what a good book does. Although the style is heavy, at times cloying in its gyrations to keep her voice swaggering, Dunn succeeds in each colorful turn-of-phrase. She’s a skilled writer.

A curious part of reading this, for me, was figuring out who she was writing to. The subject matter is specialized enough – boxer profiles, fight reports – that the audience would likely be reading her work because they are boxing fans. Surely this is the case by the time it’s in a dedicated collection, at least. Yet Dunn is constantly explaining the boxing world at an introductory level, like the tour guide cheerfully demonstrating her familiarity with the natives.

I can answer that in part myself. As a fan of women’s boxing, I recognized her profile piece exalting Lucia Rijker, which ran in Women’s Sports and Fitness magazine in 1998. Most of that magazine’s readers would not necessarily be erudite boxing fans, so she at once was charged with introducing the sport as well as the fighter. These articles are from various projects, newspapers and magazines, from Sports Illustrated Women to Mother Jones, so with each one, Dunn would face the same charge.

Therefore, when you’re reading these articles one after the other, you’re not only reading about the fighters in each piece, you’re digesting the body of work that is the Dunn school of boxing philosophy. She patiently, and with originality every time, rolls out her basics: boxing is a tough, beautiful sport full of love, but it suffers from a bad image imparted to the masses by the general media that misunderstands it.

The personalities are huge, the fights epic clashes, the world pure theater. And every step of the way, she lavishes love on the boxing world and holds up the very best parts to make sure you see them.

But it’s not all idealization. Dunn delivers as a journalist by laying to light the mistakes, swindling, and flaws that permeate this pugilistic world as well. One excellent aspect of the book is the order in which the pieces are arranged. The introduction and epilogue help unify the collection. The early chapters amount to an introduction to boxing that pops, dances, and draws you in. The middle steadies the rhythm with sustained portraiture of faces and moments, and the last third of the book – called The Big Risk – is a powerful close. By that point, I wanted to see more of the dark underbelly of the sport. The glorification was getting to me a bit, like needing a break from a refrain in a song. Then Dunn unfolded the story of boxer Johnny Tapia. Tapia’s story is dramatic enough that it needs no embellishment –aptly, Dunn tones down her creativity and punches it out with taut journalism. Tapia’s tragic personality and how it affects his family is sobering and heavy. This piece is the ballad of the opera, and completes it.

Oregonians will be proud to see a body of work highlight the Portland boxing community, with names of local fighters, places, and papers such as Willamette Week, the tabloid that launched Dunn as a boxing journalist.

While the fans and managers are quick to remember the names of fighters, they don’t always recognize the literary lovers of the sport who use their writing skills and talent to bind it together. Dunn provides this literary glue for the Rose City’s boxing crowd, for both men and women boxers at large, and for the entire population of the boxing world. This book is testament that she has been slugging it out in her writing world right alongside the boxers, and demonstrates that she’s a champ, too.

Interested in more books on boxing? Check this out.

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