The CBZ Newswire

The CBZ Reviews One Ring Circus by K. Dunne

by on Apr.29, 2009, under David Gionfriddo, Reviews

one_ring_circus_cvrONE RING CIRCUS:

Dispatches from the World of Boxing

By Katherine Dunne

Reviewed by:

David Gionfriddo, CBZ Staff Writer

Buy the Book: One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing

A few years back, I had the opportunity to attend an amateur boxing event in a Portland, Oregon school gymnasium with author/journalist/fight fan/friend Katherine Dunn.  As an admirer of her imaginative and nuanced fiction, I seized a quiet moment between fights to pose the ultimate sophisto-smartass query:  How did some one who excelled in the delicate art of storytelling reconcile her love of boxing with the violence inflicted on its participants?


She sized me up with the calm, generous gaze of a teacher enlightening an eager, but remedial, student.  She had obviously spent years considering and shaping her answer.

“Because people’s lives are never cleaner or purer than when they are chasing the dream.”

One Ring Circus, a collection culled from 20+ years of Dunn’s boxing-themed pieces, chronicles the sweat-soaked legs of that chase, and dissects the components of that elusive dream.

What sets Dunn’s book apart from the other tomes on the “Boxing” shelf is its unique and welcome voice.  Fans are familiar with the full cast of usual suspects:  the grizzled veteran reporter adept at cataloguing the sport’s crime s and misdemeanors; the academic who views every jab as signifier of social upheaval; and the cheerleader who rhapsodizes about every KO as a triumph of the human spirit.  Dunn’s vision reaches into the crannies of rundown neighborhood gyms to examine the sport’s most elemental and profound human interactions, and to extract truths far too basic for the more vainglorious fight-mob scribes.

Readers who have never thrown a punch in anger, and whose preconceptions of gym life come straight from 1930s movie scripts, will be surprised at what really transpires between teacher and student, fighter and opponent.  “The flat fact,” Dunn writes in “School of Hard Knocks,” her essay on the dynamics of training, “is that a boxing gym is a place where men are allowed to be kind to one another.”  In a milieu dominated by macho clichés and trash talk, it probably takes a woman and a damn fine observer to utter such a bare and jarring home truth.

One Ring Circus abounds with truths like these, and such truths comprise a lens that renders clear much of the confusing, hazy and contrary world of the Hurting Business.  The most basic preparations, the crudest triage, are acts of love and expressions of craft and pride.  But the reality of combat and its perils are always waiting to intrude.  Few who read the story of the undercard fighter and his earnest but inept handlers, watching a fight slip away in a stream of un-coagulated blood, will ever look at cut men the same way again.

Dunn’s vision ranges all the way from the trainer gently wrapping the hands of a novice to notorious front-page bouts fought in extravagant settings before crowds of stars and high-rollers.  And her often-contrarian views can make for bracing reading.  The Tyson who bit Evander Holyfield is transformed from back-alley thug to desperate victim of rough tactics.  Drug addict and serial felon Johnny Tapia reveals a secret life spent battling youthful traumas and re-establishing loving family ties.  Dunn reads the papers, but rarely hews to the conventional wisdom.  In her own way, this prospector for human warmth, who nervily offered to spar with knockout artist Lucia Rijker, is every bit as scrappy and game as the smalltown longshots she writes about.

Every Dunn essay is a polished blend of empathy, artistry and informed opinion.  But One Ring Circus really kicks into gear when she adds to the mix her formidable research skills and her gift for persuasive rhetoric.  “The Vice and Virtue of Boxing” plumbs the empirical data to support a powerful defense of the sport and a stern rebuttal to boxing abolitionists.  “Just As Fierce,” originally published in Mother Jones more than a dozen years ago, tears down age-old prejudices against female participation in combat sports.  When Dunn spars with the Consensus, the results are never less than compelling.  She has so much more than a mere puncher’s chance…

One Ring Circus is no weighty doorstop of an anthology, and the one real criticism of the book is that it could have been more inclusive.  But while it may leave you wanting more, like a phone booth war stopped on an accidental head butt, Dunn’s collection is a great addition to your boxing library that illuminates and glorifies this misunderstood and maddening sport, one of those rigorous disciplines that “offer us greatness and hurl us deeper into life by their drama and beauty.”

A game fringed with bagmen and bloviators, shysters and showoffs, has finally got the wise, lucid spokesman it needs and deserves.

Buy the Book:

One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing

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