Boxing with identities

Cross-posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power – Blog post by John Harris, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK

The use of identity markers in sport has received considerable attention from scholars in a number of disciplines over a number of decades. This has been looked at in a variety of different sports and includes insightful studies published in Identities such as the works of Paul Campbell and Daniel Burdsey on football and Constancio Arnaldo on boxing.

In our Identities article, ‘Pretty fly for a white guy: The politics of race, nation and difference in professional boxing’, we look at the ways in which race and nation are (re)presented within the coverage of one particular fight. Boxing is a sport that relies heavily on binary divisions. In his book Boxing and Society, the sociologist John Sugden noted how success in the ring could ‘symbolise not only individual achievement, but also racial and national superiority’. For the promotion of many championship bouts the hype around the fight is constructed around binary oppositions. This paper looks at the bout between Joe Calzaghe (a white boxer from Wales) and Bernard Hopkins (a black boxer from the USA) as a case study to explore the representation of identities. In attempting to tease out some of the key themes to emerge in the intersection of race and nation, we tried to understand how identities are portrayed within boxing. This work also highlighted further differences around the understanding of social class and core/periphery relations within a particular sport.

Calzaghe was described as Welsh, British and European in the media narratives. The different ways in which each of these (and the descriptor English) were used is important to note. We found that these identities were not fixed or static but fluid, contingent and relatively unfixed. Calzaghe’s identity as ‘The Pride of Wales’ has been important in promoting that small country on an international stage. His surname and family ties to Sardinia are also important to note, where the descriptor of Calzaghe as ‘The Italian Dragon’ refers to both the symbol on the Welsh flag and a figure in Sardinian folklore. In exploring the relationship between race and nation, we suggest why Calzaghe may represent an acceptable ‘other’ in US media narratives on account of his flexible and fluid (supra)national identities. The overlap of different identity markers is also important to recognise here and the intersections between race and nation shows that difference in boxing is often about more than a single binary distinction.

Hyperbole and controversial talk are customary features of the sport and boxers may embark upon a strategy of being deliberately provocative and/or controversial to gain attention for upcoming fights. It is clear that this was an approach used by Hopkins who stated that ‘I would never let a white boy beat me’. Calzaghe seemed to consciously steer away from any discussion of race or nation in the build-up to the fight. In locating this around the published literature and broader discussions of race in sport more broadly, and in relation to boxing specifically, our analysis considers the ways in which difference may be accentuated through various media discourse and looks at how national identities are often marginalised. Calzaghe noted that if he had said that he would never lose to a black guy then he would be considered a racist and that ‘there’d be a f***** outcry’. Would there have been more said about the comments Hopkins made if he was up against another American fighter? There is no simple answer to this question, but it is important that we continue to examine at the ways in which identities are (re)presented within different sporting contexts.

Whilst there is a vibrant and expanding scholarship on the subjects of national identities in sport, and on race and sport, greater consideration needs to be paid to the role of the nation in the construction of racialised identities in an increasingly globalised sports world.

Image credit: Photo by Bogdan Yukhymchuk on Unsplash

Read the Identities article:
Harris, John & Chaplin, David. Pretty fly for a white guy: the politics of race, nation and difference in professional boxingIdentities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2021.1970980

Explore other relevant Identities articles:

Fighting with race: complex solidarities & constrained sameness

‘That black boy’s different class!’: a historical sociology of the black middle-classes, boundary-work and local football in the British East-Midlands c.1970−2010

‘Undisputed’ racialised masculinities: boxing fandom, identity, and the cultural politics of masculinity

Black Millwall: Memories of football and neighbourhood in South London