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"Bruising" by Mischa Merz: A Review
by Bernie McCoy
July 20, 2009


(JULY 20)  The first and primary commandment for those who put words on a page is: "Write what you know." Mischa Merz knows boxing; she knows it from inside the ropes, she knows it as an astute journalistic observer outside the ring and she knows it as a woman who has undergone an almost Homeric odyssey through the hurdles imposed by the amateur boxing world of Australia, while pursuing the siren song of a sport to which Merz admits she has become "addicted."

"Bruising" published in 2000, is Merz's chronicle of a woman whose first thoughts, when, indeed, she gave thought at all to boxing, was the impression of barely organized violence. She subsequently, over the course of several years, underwent a virtual metamorphosis, beginning with the recognition of the difference between fighting and boxing, evolving to varied conclusions concerning athletes, women and herself and finally arriving at a juncture in her life when she fully embraced a sport that, she realized, had in turn, embraced her. It is a layered piece of writing, combining the basic elements of the most primal of sport and the unique obstacles faced by females within that sport. "Bruising" has recently been reissued in paperback and new material includes Merz's travels outside her native Australia, into the world of Gleasons Gym in New York City, a sojourn, of sorts, into the Sweet Science and the women who now proliferate the sport, an experience, for both the author and her readers, markedly different from the recounting of Merz's experiences in her home country during the last half of the previous decade. This new material serves to make a good book better.

Mischa Merz's baptism into boxing begins as the result of a "turbulent encounter" not in the sport, but in the realm of real life. Following this incident, Merz migrates towards the boxing ring and as she progresses from a novitiate stage, she quickly learns an ancient sports truth: "the further you go, the more skilled you become, the more you need to learn." It is true of every sport and is never more true than in individual sports. And Merz, the unschooled neophyte athlete, Merz, the novice boxer, and Merz, the amateur fighter, learns there is no sport more individual than going forward, within a confined space, and throwing punches at someone who is intent on doing the same thing to you. Along that path, while Merz, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes reluctantly, heads towards "soloing" in the ring, she receives varied assistance outside the ropes: her soon to be husband, Peter, a boxing coach in Melbourne; a female professional boxer, Amanda Buchanan, renowned in Australia for well developed ring skills and someone who transitions Merz from the rudiments of boxing to the verge of "answering the bell;" Keith Ellis, ostensibly a trainer/promoter, but one who will be recognized, by boxing fans, almost immediately, as a boxing "lifer," a term of endearment to some, derision from others. All these supporting players and others, to a lesser extent, are, at various stages of Merz's development, integral stepping stones, each offering a different pallet of encouragement, instruction and expertise as the author moves out of a figurative corner and into the literal center of a boxing ring.

As she recounts her learning and progress through the sport, Merz lays waste to some of the sacred tracts propagated by those who, instinctively, shun women boxing. She specifically deconstructs the myth that it is abhorrent "to watch two women punch each other." Merz also offers several other interesting, thought starter observations about the manner in which women athletes are viewed from both a clinical and mass market purview. It is during a couple of these dissertations, that the author's reliance on references and direct quotes from varied academics and authors on the subject of females, athletes, aggression and specific reference to the sport of boxing seem to spin the book slightly off kilter. It is not that these references are irrelevant or off topic, it is simply that they tend to distract from Merz's basic story arc, while, simultaneously, detracting from Merz's strong writing on a subject she has lived and a subject which she has proven, countless times in the book, she has the ability to provide insight far exceeding that of any removed academic or social scientist. It is a minor grievance.

One of the pluses of the paperback edition is that the first quarter of the book recounts the author's time spent, this year, in Gleasons Gym in New York City. As with her entree into the sport, Merz's first figurative steps into Gleasons are of the "toe in the water" variety. But Merz is now much more confident around the sport and in the ring. Nonetheless, from her first moment in this Brooklyn landmark she quickly realizes that she has advanced to a different plateau within the skill sets of professional women boxers. The Gleason's talent ceiling is not, solely, women who can be, legitimately, called professional boxers, but rather female athletes who have succeeded to the top rung of professional boxing. As with her own experience in the ring, Merz captures, spot on, the cultural, hierarchal and sense of community feel of a big time boxing gym, in the rings, in the "changing rooms" and in the hopes and dreams of some the women who are, at this point in time, an integral part of one of the most integral locations in the sport of boxing. Possibly, because it is current and up-to-date, I found the Gleasons portion of the book somewhat more interesting and would have preferred this segment be offered in chronological sequence at the back of the book, rather than in the first fifty pages, if for no other reason than satisfying a long-standing boxing dictum: finish strong. Again, a very minor complaint.

Mischa Merz knows well that first commandment of writers and she follows it, closely, with a book about a sport she knows intimately; a sport, even to this day, she continues to practice with skill; a sport she writes about with a combination of been there, done that authority. It is an unvarnished look at an unvarnished sport done in highly polished prose and is an unanimous decision winner.

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