by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
After my father died, and my mother gave up trying to run the HJB, their mom and pop grocery, we moved in with my grandmother, Perl. Her home was the last white owned one in a neighborhood that had become all black. I started second grade at the local school, the only white student in my classroom, and as a talkative kid, the teacher’s pet of the all-white female faculty. Understandably, I was also the target of after-school bullying by my darker-complected classmates.
That unhappy circumstance was counter-balanced by the warmth with which many of the neighbors received me as I roamed the streets, searching for parental substitutes. This was 1939, and Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, was in the midst of his bum-a month campaign. I shared the emotional intensity of black neighbors as they clustered around the radio, listening to the champ’s fights.
I have a vivid memory of the night when, early in the fight, Two-ton Tony Galento, sent the champ to the canvas. I shared the shock and dismay evoked in the radio audience, giddily replaced by joy when Louis quickly resumed the fight, going on to dispatch his foe.
By a kind of contagion, the memories of those evenings, clustered around a radio, listening to the radio, sparked my lifelong interest in the boxing ring, an odd contrast for a bookish intellectual. It also explains my investment in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa series, and its latest entry, Creed III, the first one in which Stallone himself does not appear.
Adonis Creed is the son of Rocky Balboa’s opponent in the fight which propelled Rocky to the championship. Adonis has himself gone on to win the title, and, retiring, become engaged in coaching a new champion. A highly anticipated title defense is cancelled because of an injury to the challenger—an echo of the circumstances surrounding the first Balboa/Creed fight.
Adonis’s homie, Damien Anderson, released after a lengthy term in jail for the killing during an escapade in which Adonis was also involved, finds Adonis and shames him for abandoning his best friend. He argues that Adonis owes him the underdog opportunity to face the current champion—another parallel to the first movie. Adonis reluctantly agrees, and Damien wins the title, but begins to mock Adonis for his initial abandonment. Damien’s public harangues require Adonis to challenge Damien to come out of retirement for a grudge match, the centerpiece of the new film.
Perhaps as paradoxical as my interest in boxing is the circumstance that the best contemporary account of fighting is Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing. In what may reveal a sexist stereotype on my part, I confess to being surprised by her understanding of the unique fascination of boxing’s brutality—you play basketball, or football or baseball, but you don’t play boxing— Oates gets that the fascination is buried deeply in a recognition of our mortality. This film, like its predecessors, highlights the centrality of bearing pain for this non-sport. For preparing for it, for engaging in it. Boxing can be seen as a recognition of the degree to which life and pain are linked, thus constituting a celebration of courage and persistence.