(JUNE 18) 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,
Kat Ricker is a boxing enthusiast in the Portland area. She
holds a Master’s degree in professional writing. Her articles on
weightlifting and bodybuilding have appeared in numerous
magazines, journals and websites.