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).