Thrasher, Christopher David. Fight Sports and American Masculinity: Salvation in Violence from 1607 to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing. Pp. 300. Notes and Index. $45.00 clothback.
Reviewed by Matthew Hodler
“Ambitious” is the first word that came to mind upon reading this book’s title and preface. Christopher David Thrasher, to his credit, attempts to discuss and explain the meanings of “fight sports” spanning more than 400 years. Such ambition is both the book’s promise and its downfall. Thrasher works with multiple archives, primary, and secondary sources from across five continents, dealing with several different kinds of “fight sports” (including boxing, various forms of wrestling, martial arts, “gouging,” mixed-martial arts, etc.), and over five centuries (17th-21st).
His preface lays out the book’s argument, which is to explain “how the salvation-granting fight sports change over time” by “present[ing] a grand narrative of American history as seen from the bars, gyms, stadiums, and living rooms of the American heartland and demonstrates the agency of ordinary Americans who use their money and their bodies to determine the nation’s dominant fight sports and its masculinity” (p. 2). Furthermore, Thrasher argues that the book “shows that popular culture provides a place of cultural negotiation where Americans set boundaries of citizenship, race, and gender” (Ibid.). This broad, but worthwhile, argument reveals the book’s main issue of trying to do too much.
In his chapter in Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport, Garry Whannel (2008) points out that while “grand narratives” have lost favor in some corners of academia, they still hold power and sway in the world – for example, why else would fundamental religions still have such power and resonance in our contemporary world? So, while attempts at producing “grand narratives” need to be read with skepticism and a critical eye, they should not be dismissed. A precisely written and carefully analyzed grand narrative can possibly provide exactly what Thrasher hopes – space for seeing the productive tensions created in agency and constraint. Unfortunately, the sheer magnitude of this project did not allow Thrasher to raise the ideas he claims to raise. The scope flattened his thoughtful analysis under the weight of its own breadth.
Fight Sports is organized chronologically, beginning with an introductory chapter of a “prehistory” of global fight sports. I was a little unsure about how Thrasher uses his sources and evidence in this chapter (and throughout the book). Oftentimes, he relies upon secondary source’s analysis or reporting of activities that now might fall into the category of “fight sports” to explain that fight sports have long been apart of human life. For example, he claims “ancient Africans promoted fight sports to an unprecedented degree” (p. 14) and then supports this topic sentence with seven sentences and five separate endnotes claiming evidence of Africans promoting sports as far back as 2040 BCE. Each of these endnotes are linked to secondary sources that are writing about Africa/ns in either the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It is a pattern in this chapter, and those that follow, for Thrasher to make an interesting claim and then bury it among several endnotes without engaging with the evidence. For instance, in the example I offer, it might be interesting to contemplate why those European writers would make claims that Africans have always been violent and prone to fighting – that, in fact, Africans find enjoyment in it. Could there be a link toward a rationalization of slavery? I don’t know – and Thrasher, quite literally, does not have the space to delve into those questions – because he must move on to the next part of the narrative. There is little space for critical analysis or engagement when constructing a grand narrative.
The chapters follow the preface in chronological order. Chapter one focuses on fight sports in the Americas, from 1607-1810. The middle three chapters overlap in time frame, and center on the 19th and early 20th centuries. Chapter two is the story of how “boxing takes root in the United States, 1810-1915.” The next chapter shares this chapter’s time frame, and is about Asian martial arts first arriving to the United States, 1850-1941. The final chapter of this section returns to boxing, and is called “Boxing Reigns Supreme in the United States, 1915-1941.” The penultimate chapter returns to Asian martial arts in the US, from 1941 until 1981. The final chapter takes us into the present, and focuses on “The Birth of Mixed Martial Arts, 1981 to the Present.” The chapter titles are fairly self-explanatory in that they summarize the chapter’s aim. Thrasher constructs a story that, in the end leads up to what the chapter claims, i.e., at the beginning of Chapter two, in 1810, boxing was not very popular in the United States – it was a peripheral sport. By 1915, it becomes popular, partly due to increased immigration, and more effective regulation of the previous fight sports like the anything-goes activity of “gouging.”
I will focus on one specific chapter in the remainder of this short review. Chapter 3, “’With Energy of a Trip-Hammer and the Vehemence of a Sioux’: Asian Martial Arts Come to the United States, 1850-1941,” symbolizes the dual aspects of this book. Several scholars have demonstrated that sporting experiences of Asian-Americans are largely absent from our field. Therefore, I was excited to read this chapter.
In many ways the chapter delivers on the promise of centering Asian-American experiences. Thrasher also does a serviceable job of contextualizing the 19th century relationships between Asian nations and United States (he focuses primarily on China and Japan, but also works with some sources dealing with the Philippines) within the continent’s broader national histories. This notion of pan-Pacific relations between the United States and these Asian nations provides an interesting space for considering meanings of “American” and the ramifications of 19th century American colonialism, in conjunction with racialized masculinities linked to the military made necessary for the colonial expansion of this era. In essence, martial arts have long been a part of Chinese and Japanese cultures. They both provide evidence that Asian men can be “masculine” in the sense that they can be aggressive and violent, but, because martial arts are about the (Asian) body, they also provide a site for perpetuating the feminization of “smaller” Asian men.
Unfortunately, Thrasher does not contemplate broader global processes in any real way. This is most evident in his reliance upon two binaries that run throughout this chapter, “East v. West” and the already discussed binary of “Martial arts v. fight sports.” After discussing interesting ideas (to me) of some of the issues and instances leading to the creation of relations between United States and other European nations with China and Japan — a discussion that could be used to investigate the aforementioned global processes leading to in/formal cultural exchange and interaction — he repeatedly falls back into the tired “East v. West” binary. This binary sets up the United States and Asian as adversaries while also possibly perpetuating older stereotypes of the Far Orient being different than the civilized Western Worlds. The interesting questions that he raises about racial differences, national identities, and gender are only discussed fleetingly. His observations about how class and international politics influenced the different ways Chinese and Japanese men were treated in America were far too often hidden.
This chapter also has some interesting tidbits of how racialized readings of Japanese and Chinese male bodies as “feminine” worked to make it acceptable for American women to learn martial arts for their own self-defense – policewomen as well as civilians. It also contains some fascinating insights and observations about local police forces being taught various martial arts by experts from Asia, in order to help provide effective policing of Chinatowns and other Asian enclaves.
Parts of this chapter were so fruitful that I think it could provide the seeds of a longer – but focused — critical analysis of Asian Martial Arts in America’s 19th century that might go a lot further towards explaining how fight sports in America help/ed define and construct notions of American masculinities. A focused analysis on this topic could be much more effective than the shotgun approach taken in this book, which speaks to my last, broad critique of this book. Thrasher tries to do so much in this book that he obviously could have used a stronger editor, one who could help Thrasher refine his prose and revise his focus. He simply tries to do too much, and we all suffer for this because this subject matter could add much to how we understand American nationalism through a gendered frame.
Matthew Hodler is a PhD candidate in Health & Sport Studies at the University of Iowa. Some of his favorite sport films include films involving “fight sports,” like Redbelt (2008) and Warrior (2011). But, in his opinion, the best “fight sport” film is easily The Set-Up (1949) starring Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, and directed by Robert Wise. It is a real-time narrative film about 75 minutes in the life of an over-the-hill boxer. It is tight, focused, and lean – just like a good fighter (and a good book).
13 thoughts on “Review of Fight Sports and American Masculinity”
Hi Mathew great post,
I am currently in a history of sports class and the perception of masculinity in America was greatly influenced by sports. The book sounds very interesting and you are right it would be great to see him make some more critical developments to his article. So far in class we have not covered any Asian sports. I think we might still be a little early in the reading. You make an interesting argument how martial arts perpetuates the stereotype of Asian men being feminized. If you look at how refined the martial arts are in terms of self control and discipline vs. something like the gouging fights. It can be directly linked to how perceived notions of masculinity were during the time. The man was rough and tumble and that doesn’t fit into Asian martial arts.
As a side note I think that the teaching of martial arts to policemen in Asian dominated towns was a great idea it help to make sure they understand a culture and can relate.
What do you think about American sports such as baseball and basketball making there way into emerging Asian markets? I think that baseball and basketball are relatively non violent sports, they demand a skill set that is developed from self control and discipline much like many martial arts. Do you think that more violent sports such as American football will take off in Asia?
Cody, thanks for reading and for the great questions!
Your class sounds great — but I do not know if you’ll get to Asian(-American) sports because there is not a whole lot of literature out there. (Maybe you can write your semester paper on that topic?). Colleagues of mine have presented fascinating conference papers on Asian masculinities and basketball (by focusing on Jeremy Linn) and baseball (by focusing on the subversive practices of “small ball”). Another has also written on racialized femininities and figure skating in the 1990s-early 2000s. But, unfortunately, those pieces haven’t been published yet.
As far as your questions: I like how you are thinking about how the practices of capitalism relate to modern sport; they are inextricably linked. Participating in any sport requires discipline and body control, right, so I don’t think that basketball and baseball are any more particularly suited for Asian nations than any others. Modern sports have been commercialized and commodified from the outset and, as such, the capitalists who benefit have always looked for new markets. For example, A.G. Spalding used “global” baseball tours so he could market & sell his sporting goods; 19th century newspapers used sports scores to drive readership so they cold sell more advertising; some early American spectator sports were rowing races that we sold as weekend packages by Railroad companies.
In a similar way, NBA (and college basketball) officials see China (and Asia) as an “untapped” market. It will be interesting to see how it plays out — will there ever be an NBA-affiliated league in China, Korea, Japan? Will there be regular season games over there? It is important for us to ask “Who benefits from these arrangements?” Do the players/workers? Fans? League/owners? Student-athletes? How and how not?
I think it is important for us to remember that baseball has been in Asia for a very long time, it isn’t just now making its way into the emerging market. According to many accounts, its been in Japan since at least the last decades of the 19th century. Some of that work has focused on baseball as a colonial project, and constructions of American “soft power.” Scholars have made similar arguments about baseball in Latin America both throughout the past and now. Those sports are also sites for resistance to the colonial project.
Asia has a lot of violent sports — many of which I have never seen & will probably never really know about. For instance, rugby is quite popular in some Asian island nations. The Afghan national sport is Buzkashi [sic], where horseback riders wrestle over and drag a goat carcass across a field. I don’t know if you’d call them martial arts (Thrasher does), but Sumo wrestling and Muy Thai are pretty violent (by most measures). Your question reveals another gap in my knowledge (and, possibly, the North American sport studies literature)!
I think American football will not really gain much popularity in any other part of the world — as anything other than a spectator sport. My feeling is that it is too rooted in notions of American Exceptionalism to be spread globally as a sport for participation — and it shares a name with the most popular sport in the world — football (or soccer). What do you think?
I have gone on way too long — and I hope I answered your great questions. If you are interested in reading about American masculinities and sport, there is some good literature out there. Jeffrey Montez de Oca just published a short book about American football and masculinity; Michael Oriard has written great cultural histories on masculinities and football. Kyle Kusz wrote a book critiquing constructions of racialized American masculinities, called Revolt of the White Athlete. Mike Messner has extensively written about it, and I would recommend his work.
Please feel free to push back on anything I wrote! I’d love to continue the conversation. Have a great week.
At the present time, I’m enrolled in a history of sport course and the book we are examining is Major Problems in American Sport History. In my opinion, the author, Steven A. Riess does an excellent job explaining the chapters, examining the topics, and referring to credible sources; moreover, he refers to documents and essays. The subject matter we have covered up until this point has been an awesome learning experience. In addition, explicit topics have been assessed such as cockfighting, rat pits, gouging, and sport in taverns. I’m thrilled for the upcoming chapters and discussions.
The book Fight Sports and American Masculinity seems intriguing and exciting to read. From what I gathered while reading your review, Thrasher (2015) discusses a widespread amount of subject matter and ergo was unable to explain profoundly some of the topics covered. Also, he didn’t quite have credible sources and evidence in most of his chapters. Lastly, it’s interesting that he was able to examine the aspect of Asian martial arts in the United States from 1850-1941; the effect it had on many Americans, and the automatic criterion that was conceived and directed during its duration is astounding to say the least. However, again Thrasher (2015) skims the surface on many critical issues involved with Asian assimilation in the United States.
I know the author failed to elaborate on many topics but did you enjoy the read and thorough examination of the book?
First: thanks for reading and these great comments!
I have not read that book by Riess, but I read City Games (1991). From City Games, I saw that Riess is a very good scholar and is a solid writer — and I’ve heard similar positives about the book you are reading.
You seem to be getting the gist of my review — I think that Thrasher tries to do too much and the book suffers from that. The chapter on Asian Martial Arts coming to America was by far my favorite.
To answer your question: this book’s writing and approach toward historical work was not the kind that I generally enjoy. I enjoy work that is more cultural history than social history, like Dan Nathan’s Saying It’s So (2005), or Jaime Schultz’s Qualifying Times (2014).
Thrasher’s writing was oftentimes imprecise and too vague for my liking — which, to be fair, is partially a result of such an ambitious attempt. I am writing my dissertation right now, so I have an understanding of the difficulties and challenges of a big project. Past drafts have demonstrated to me the importance of a tight, focused approach. But, I am very impressed with the sheer amount of work that Thrasher did in order to write this book. I think — I really wish he would’ve explicitly discussed his archival work in his introduction — he visited several archives and read numerous different English-language periodicals from across the nation and the world, and then collected them into a sprawling narrative that tried to answer the important question of how masculinity and American national identity was seen (performed? constructed? developed? *this unclear verb choice is an example of his imprecision) in fight sports.
From the outset, focusing on over 400 years of the past while dealing with “masculinity” (rather than “masculinities”) is setting oneself up for a difficult task. His style felt like an approach to writing a history that is “one damn think after another,” which, I think, limits a thorough and critical analysis. If we write histories in chronological order we can sometimes unwittingly create causality through our writing process — and we can ignore broader power relations that shape past events and their interpretations.
For instance, in the chapter on Asian Martial Arts — as part of a way to illustrate how Asian martial arts were introduced to Americans — Thrasher wrote a bit about how some black American soldiers were successfully recruited by Filipino resistance fighters to desert during America’s war in/on the Philippines after the Spanish-American War officially ended. Part of this discussion centered on the seemingly contradictory idea that many black American soldiers refused to desert — despite the racism they felt both in the military and at home. But, he did not go much further than that. He had to move on.
I thought that this would have been a fascinating site to develop a discussion of the complexities of racialized (and gendered) American national identity during that time (circa turn of 20th century). We had isolationists fighting with folks in favor of building American into a new sort of colonial power, and we had Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet; we also had a growing international labor movement that questioned the very need for Nations. This was also shortly after Turner’s Frontier Thesis (~1893).
Also, this could have been a great time for Thrasher to explicitly engage with the sport studies/history literature because several scholars have written about the role of sport in constructing an American identity during that time — Mark Dyreson’s Making the American Team (1998) comes to mind, but so does Susan Brownwell’s 2008 edited book about the 1904 Anthropology Days during the St. Louis World’s Fair and Olympics. Unfortunately, (partially) because he had set himself up for such a broad project, this fascinating historical tidbit went under-explored rather than being used as an entry point for a more thorough and focused analysis that may have actually been a better way to answer his research questions.
This was an interesting read for me. A bit wordy in places, but overall pretty informative on this book. I am very interested in the history of early boxing, rough and tumble, and gouging, although I can barely stomach to read about most of the accounts. It is really interesting to see how far that particular branch of fight sports has progressed. I like how you explained where boxing’s popularity increased with the increase of regulations. I like to think this is due to the sport becoming more socially acceptable and enjoyable to a wider range of spectators with less possibility of such severe gore. The other point of focus you wrote about that really piqued my interest was the introduction and incorporation of Asian martial arts to American sporting culture. I wasn’t aware that it was introduced so late compared to the development of these other fight sports. There were a couple times you talked about questions by Thrasher’s writing, but you didn’t always explain what exactly the questions were or where you felt he fell short in explaining. I feel if I were to read the book, your view would become more clear to me, but as you were my link to the information provided in the book, I am left a bit confused in some areas. Overall, it was a good read. Thank you for your account on this book.
Please refer to my later post as this post is incomplete. Thank you.
This was an interesting read for me. A bit wordy in places, but overall pretty informative on this book. I am very interested in the history of early boxing, rough and tumble, and gouging, although I can barely stomach to read about most of the accounts. It is really interesting to see how far that particular branch of fight sports has progressed. I like how you explained where boxing’s popularity increased with the increase of regulations. I like to think this is due to the sport becoming more socially acceptable and enjoyable to a wider range of spectators with less possibility of such severe gore. The other point of focus you wrote about that really piqued my interest was the introduction and incorporation of Asian martial arts to American sporting culture. I wasn’t aware that it was introduced so late compared to the development of these other fight sports. Do you think that the mixed martial arts would’ve became as popular as it has today if Asian martial arts were introduced any later than what they were? There were a couple times you talked about questions by Thrasher’s writing, but you didn’t always explain what exactly the questions were or where you felt he fell short in explaining. I feel if I were to read the book, your view would become more clear to me, but as you were my link to the information provided in the book, I am left a bit confused in some areas. Where do you think Thrasher could’ve expanded more and what do you wish he would’ve cut out to be able to give more detail to the aspects of higher importance? Overall, it was a good read. Thank you for your account on this book.
Thanks for reading. I think my replies to other comments have answered your questions. His chapters on Asian martial arts were the most interesting to me as well — that’s why I used so much of my space on that chapter.
Thrasher discusses MMA in his final chapter and connects the rise of MMA in the late 20th century to the already established popularity of martial arts. It makes sense that the popularity of MMA is related to the popularity of Asian martial arts — I don’t know if we can call it a causal relationship. But, to be honest, that’s not as interesting to me. What’s of interest to me is the kinds of masculinity that are celebrated and/or performed in mediated representations of MMA and what those kinds of masculinity might tell us about American national identities over time.
I really enjoyed your post. I am also in a history of sports class and in one of the chapters we read about, masculinity in sports was actually a topic. Masculinity was almost like intelligence, something that you have but was always up to be tested! You see this more often in males then females obviously, being the alpha was more wanted whereas being the beta wasn’t. It was a sign of respect! In the blog you talked about how “European writers would make claims that Africans have always been violent and prone to fighting”. In our class readings we learned about boxing during slavery times. The reading, “Slave Boxers on the Antebellum Plantation” discussed how slave owners would find their best fit slave and fight them against another owners slave to see who had the most powerful and or physical property. Just slavery itself is immoral but to make someone fight under they’re own will wasn’t right. It also was said in the reading that slaves would organize they’re own bouts and sometime it would be to resolve conflict. My question for you is, do you think that the Slave boxing led to the increasing numbers of African American boxers today?
Thanks for reading. It seems like all of y’all asked questions at the same time. Was this some sort of class assignment?
I am not familiar with the readings that you are citing — and I had no luck when I tried a google scholar search on the title — so I cannot speak to the specifics. However, I’ll try to respond to your comments.
As I noted in a previous response, masculinity and sport is a major area of research — there are a lot of great scholars who have written about the role of sport in the performance and construction of our ideas of masculinity. In my opinion, Thrasher might have been better served to have engaged with them a little more explicitly.
I cannot tell if you think that “Masculinity is like intelligence in that it always has to be tested,” or if that is what the reading argued. Either way, I feel like that is a problematic notion of gender. It assumes that gender is something greater than a performance, that there is a real/true gender. Most scholars — at least ones that I’ve read — argue that gender is something that we do, not something that we have. (It’s a very complicated idea that I cannot explain in this space, but you should check out Mike Messner if you want to learn more about this.)
My statement that “European writers claimed that Africans were prone to violence” was a summary of an un-interrogated claim that Thrasher makes in his book. What I was trying to point out was that Thrasher needed to investigate why Europeans would make such claims. Wouldn’t it behoove people who believed in slavery to make these claims? I am not saying it is untrue, but I am saying that those claims — and the interests behind the claims — cannot be taken at face value.
I’ve read some work on sports on plantations, and I understand that some slaves participated in sport and other kinds of physical activity because they may have wanted to do so. Although moments of singing and dancing or boxing could have very well been moments of resistance and/or fleeting feelings of freedom for slaves, we must be careful to remember the broader power relations that shaped their daily lives. They were treated and viewed as property — as Frederick Douglass points out, when he ran away from his plantation, he stole himself from the owner. I think your question is: did slave boxing lead to large numbers of contemporary African-American boxers? First, are we sure that there are a lot of African-American boxers now? Or, do we just assume this is the case because of the disproportionate number of African-American boxers who get media attention?
If that assumption is true and there are large numbers of African-American boxers in this country today, then the reason boxers are disproportionately Afircan-American is a complex one. It is NOT because of some inherent love for boxing or because of some sort of natural selection. If we wanted to attempt to answer that question we’d have to remember that centuries ago, white Europeans plundered and stole black African bodies from Africa and made them slaves here on this continent. They were stripped of much of their humanity and forced to work until they died, never able to benefit from their labor.
So, the vast majority of black Americans with African descent live here because of slavery — and some of them are boxers. We’d then have to consider the multiple reasons that any person participates in any sport. First, they have to be introduced to it — usually by a friend or a family member. Second, they have to have access to the sport — a place to participate, the ability to participate, etc. Third, they have to continue participating, which is influenced by a variety of things: like what that person wants out of sport participation, if that person has success (whatever that means to them), if that person has a person positively or negatively influencing their experiences, if the access to the sport changes in anyway (like, if a high school boy wants to play volleyball in Iowa, access is usually difficult because there are few HS boys teams in the state), etc.
I write all these in hopes of demonstrating that we cannot make a simple causal link between slavery and contemporary participation in any sport. We have to, as historian Peter Bailey says, “keep it complex” because our lived experiences are shaped and informed by complex and interacting social, political, cultural, and historical processes .
The idea of covering the entire history of fight sports in America seems like a very interesting idea and as the chapters suggest, there is a very extreme progression from early American fight sports, to what it is now. With masculinity being such an important aspect of fighting it is interesting that martial arts were given the classification of feminine. As you mention, Thrasher explains that because martial arts were violent, they were a way Asian men could be considered masculine, but at the same time were considered feminine because of how Americans viewed the body of smaller Asian men. It seems like martial arts were reluctantly popularized in the United States, does Thrasher give an explanation of why martial arts became popular despite its feminine connotations? Was it simply Americans having exposure to this new fight sport?
I believe your review of “Fight Sports and American Masculinity” perfectly encompassed how I felt after reading the title and overview of the book. The title of your review immediately stood out to me. Violent sports and the roles they played toward validating masculinity in American culture is a topic covered in the American sport history class I’m taking. Prior to reading your review I read the book’s overview and small passages I found online to better understand what you choose to highlight in your review.
I must agree that Thrasher’s desire to analysis and discuss the significance of “fight sports” covering a time span of over four hundred years left many unanswered questions. While the idea as you stated was “ambitious” the outcome was unimpressive in my opinion. Attempting to cover such an abundant amount of information in a 300 page book leaves little to no room for explanations. Thus leaving the readers partially informed and disappointed. You highlighted several passages that sounded interesting; ancient Africans promoting fight sports, Asian martial arts comes to the United States and the birth of mixed martial arts.
If you decided to do in-depth research for the purpose of writing a thorough analysis what topic introduced by Thrasher would you choose? From your review and the sections I read from the book, Thrasher’s method of introducing a “grand narrative” failed to meet the expectations of readers. If you were his editor what suggestions would you give him about focusing on a narrower content? I noticed you mentioned his excessive use of secondary sources. What advice would you give Thrasher relating to finishing passages efficiently? Lastly what method of sourcing do you think would be most beneficial when writing a historical narrative such as Thrasher’s?
I honestly enjoyed your review it was well put together, opinionated yet not harsh. I liked that you didn’t focus solely on the passages that included unsubstantiated information without offering a solution for improvement. In my opinion you found a positive aspect in his attempt to cover such a broad spectrum of sports history.
Overall great review.
Great Post Matthew!
I have not read this book but through your book review I could see how Thrasher could have put more information into the book. I think that the African Americans were forced to fight from their owners. Why did Thrasher leave out critical information throughout the book which you claimed?
I know you did not focus on the African Americans and chose to focus on Asians, but why were the Asians feminization? I would like to know if the book ever talked about fighting and how they fought. I do understand that Asians did bring over martial arts to American, but when did they start teaching it to women since they had no rights in the beginning. My last question is what did Thrasher mean by East vs West? Was there more than one type of martial arts in the United States?