Into the ring: boxing and social mobility in cinema

Filmmaking has a habit of fetishising that most adaptable and metamorphic of sportsperson’s bodies: the boxer’s. The promise of Southpaw is that its star Jake Gyllenhaal – who was perhaps unfairly snubbed when he didn’t get an Academy nomination for his creepy, gaunt turn in Nightcrawler last year – will now inflate his muscles and muck up his bone structure with all the prosthetic tricks, personal training and protein powder conceivably available to him; and that, in doing so, his ripped musculature, offered up for the battering, will court the prestige that his malnourished musculature sadly didn’t quite manage. 

Whether or not Southpaw ultimately does him justice, the career move is understandable: an elastic body, as seen in everyone from Matthew McConaughey to Christian Bale, is usually a shortcut to critical acclaim. And no sport is as dependent on a fluctuating silhouette as a boxer’s. 

But what’s an actor to a boxer? Well, they’re not usually close company, at least not in the sense that the average Hollywood star’s lifestyle bears any resemblance to that of the usual upcoming semi-pro. Despite the legions of notable performers who have biographied the sport and its practitioners – from Robert De Niro to Will Smith to Sylvester Stallone – boxing, with the exception of figures like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, does not generally produce glamorous men (it’s nearly always men, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned; so, kudos to Clint Eastwood). It produces, well, fighters. Onscreen, that translates into a mechanism for representing the kind of man who fights: the outsider. The underclassman. The lower-class man. 

The boxing ring is cinema’s favourite arena in which to play out issues of social class as operatically as possible. And that makes sense: a boxing ring – rope-fenced, typically more square than circular, an enclaved performative space that ultimately exists for the pleasure of the audience – isn’t a far cry from a theatre. Boxing is pure melodrama, and a lot of boxing movies are not dissimilar in terms of catalyst and trajectory to the great domestic or ‘kitchen sink’ theatre of the mid-20th century. Boxing champs are never usually privileged folk taking a dip into a fun hobby which turns professional, so the implication is that you don’t box unless, circumstantially, you need to. It’s an economically-motivated, upwardly-mobile thing. It chimes with the redemptive theme that runs through reportage of every new ‘inner-city initiative’ for troubled youth. Boxers may become kings torn down by hubris, but they don’t usually start out that way. From Terry Malloy to Jake LaMotta to Ali himself, the screen’s choice of tragic hero (because there are nearly always tragic overtones in a boxing film) is usually more Miller or Osborne than Shakespeare in style. 

Southpaw’s name gives away its intentions: the title references a boxing move – leading with the left, an underdog metaphor if ever there was one. Gyllenhaal’s Hope is not rooted in the same dusty dockyard heritage as Brando’s Malloy. But he’s an orphan, an outsider to any caste system. And a movie boxer doesn’t have to be ‘working class’ to be under-class: he just has to know what it is to exist in the tensions of a social world that aspires to a bit of upward social mobility.

Yes, it’s problematic – Miguel Gomez’s antagonistic contender, Escobar, has to play the unfortunate reiteration of a stereotype which consistently frames Latin Americans as violent offenders. It does, however, also return to what’s all too familiar to the audience well versed in boxing movies: violence in the ring spills out elsewhere, social mobility’s verticality is endemic and fatal, and the boxing gym is at once the means of moving upwards and the lubricant that allows even those who’ve never been there before to slide down into the gutter.  

The perennial On the Waterfront narrative only carries you so far into understanding the real-life psycho-geography of the ring: being inside it, and being on its outskirts. If you were to go to a real scrapyard dogfight tonight, there would be no rousing string section to egg your emotions into a particular corner of the ring, no Eminem furiously training you into picking your favourite. There would likely be no humdrum gutter-raised backstory, except one sold to you through hearsay and the occasional column inch. Rooting for the real boxer in the ring is a process, sometimes, of preconceived bias —maybe you know them, maybe you’ve read their directory stats —but it is also likely to be a bias of chance. You chose your allegiances on the rush of spectator’s adrenaline. Replay any of last week’s heats, see what happens: there’s no narrative-driven rationale motivating who you root for, not really. It is brutality of the most vicious and visceral (and most intoxicating) kind, where desire to see the most circumstantially-deserving win can often be eclipsed by something much darker: by the desire to see the weakest’s blood splatter the canvas. 

In the end, the discomfort of watching an actor’s face getting pummelled to smithereens on the silver screen isn’t washed away when the credits roll. It is enhanced by it. Actors transcend the ugliness of the ring: you might see them on the Graham Norton Show tomorrow, safely redressed in their usual press-friendly handsomeness. But the real boxers live the glory differently. They wear their injuries with victor’s pride, until they’re killed or defeated by them, or they get out. And as any boxer will tell you, “getting out” is never a truly psychologically-viable option.

A boxer, it seems, stakes the world on a punch, not because there is nothing to lose but because there is everything to lose. For the actor, it is invariably the role of a lifetime: to perform a violent body is to perform life itself, and to perform it well is to remind the audience of the physical and social demands that life makes, discriminately, on human beings. It’s the stuff awards and cultural prestige are made of. It’s why, right now, Gyllenhaal has every opportunity, but the young lad in the scatty gymnasium at the end of the road may only have a tenuous 50/50 at best. After all, what’s acting if not the ultimate chance to be a contender, to be a somebody?