Review of Boxing in Philadelphia: Tales of Struggle and Survival

Oppenheim, Gabe. Boxing in Philadelphia: Tales of Struggle and Survival. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xiv+202. Notes, bibliography, index. $45 hardcover, $30 paperback.

Reviewed by Andrew R.M. Smith

Historians of sport—especially the quasi-legal ones like prize fighting—are probably accustomed to nontraditional research practices and keenly aware that a lot of dirt will be strained before any nuggets of gold appear. Gabe Oppenheim’s Boxing in Philadelphia: Tales of Struggle and Survival began as one such treasure hunt in West Philly and now in print it is a claim waiting to be staked by future researchers. Boxing in Philadelphia Cover

For this subject, Oppenheim is an outsider in every sense: he is not a fighter nor is he from Philadelphia. In pugi-lit, however, that is not just acceptable but it might actually be the norm. More outsiders write than insiders. And those who study the sport know that when an insider offers their perspective it should be interrogated even more critically, since a career in perhaps the most deceitful sport often affects the level of candor outside the ring as well. But Oppenheim is as honest as he is introspective while telling the stories—including many of his own—that comprise Boxing in Philadelphia. He recounts his own aimless wandering off the University of Pennsylvania’s campus as a suburban New York transplant just starting his college career. Searching for something to fill his column in the school newspaper he went into poor places to find rich stories. The unsolicited interviewing of someone who looked like the kind of human interest story Ivy League students might read about led to, Oppenheim tells us, a genuine friendship between an aspiring writer and a retired boxing trainer. His relationship with “Mr. Pat” (William Patterson) opened the doors into Philadelphia’s contemporary boxing community and shed light on its past as well.

That past is much too complicated to be unfurled in these 200 pages, and Oppenheim states that his purpose is “not to write a linear history” but instead “to capture the fighting city’s essence” (p. xxiv). Through eight chapters divided into two parts—“Victims of their Own Momentum” and “New Day Rising”—Oppenheim writes around themes or subjects and believes that the history will be revealed in passing. Chapter one begins with a focus on Philadelphia-native Jimmy Young, a heavyweight contender in the 1970s; in subsequent chapters there are nods toward prize fighting in Philadelphia as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, and the book concludes with coverage of specific bouts featuring Philly fighters from 2012. This stick-and-move chronology is practiced not only between but within chapters, as the focus rapidly and consistently shifts from one period and protagonist to another.

The end result is a “worm’s eye” view that stays true to the title Boxing in Philadelphia. There is no explicit attempt to broaden the collections of experiences into something “generalizable,” to place these Philadelphia stories within or against a national narrative, or weave prize fighting into the fabric of the city’s rich sporting history. Yet the focus on characters that have received less attention, like Young who actually garnered criticism during his career for not living up to the prescribed style of Philadelphia fighters, could be the basis for a historical intervention in the way Fernando Delgado wrote about Oscar De La Hoya’s career in the context of Chicano boxing culture and machismo.

However, readers seeking historiographical engagement will have to draw their own connections. Oppenheim gives proper acknowledgement to historians of boxing in Philadelphia, including Chuck Hasson and John DiSanto, but does not endeavor to interrogate their work any more than he analyzes the body of historical scholarship on boxing writ large. References to boxing in literature, from Liebling to Oates, are more frequent than discussions of historically-oriented studies, and this should give the reader an indication of the strongest influences on Boxing in Philadelphia.

Oppenheimer is at his best when describing, detailing, and in some cases recreating the spaces where Philadelphia’s boxing history was made. In Chapter five, “The Worksites,” he places many of the buildings that hosted Philly’s vibrant club scene—the environment  depicted so well in the original “Rocky” film—on its twenty-first century cityscape. Some of the clubs that are no longer in use or even in existence are resurrected by Oppenheimer’s writing, based on the memories of Quaker City “insiders” like Mr. Pat.

Memory is the cornerstone of Boxing in Philadelphia. In line with the journalistic approach, personal interviews account for virtually all the primary source material while general boxing overviews and anthologies, biographies and autobiographies of fighters, as well as broad surveys of Philadelphia history, flesh out the secondary sources in a targeted bibliography. Collecting stories from the “Mr. Pat’s” of the city as opposed to retelling those from more famous members in the boxing community, whose voices may have already been heard, is a valuable endeavor and certainly adds texture to Oppenheimer’s portrait of the fight game in Philly.

The list of interviewees is long, and includes people in and out of the ring with connections to the city’s boxing past and present. But none are more important and useful than Oppenheimer’s interviews with J. Russell Peltz. A promoter whose career is ineluctably linked to prize fighting in postwar Philadelphia, Peltz came into prominence as an energetic twenty-something jockeying with the old guard of boxing promoters in a saturated club scene. When the city sought to leverage its first hometown heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and a brand new arena to fill a power vacuum in prize fighting, Peltz was entrusted to lead the “Spectrum Fight Series.” As cable television privileged small venues over big arenas, Peltz partnered with USA Network and ESPN to broadcast fight cards out of Philadelphia clubs. Oppenheimer’s access to Peltz and the liberal use of his recollections as well as insight is where the prospectors of boxing history in the City of Brotherly Love will strike it rich with this volume.

Anyone familiar with or interested in the Philly fight game will enjoy a fast-paced read that can be picked up and put down at will. Researchers exploring the history of sport in Philadelphia or comparable urban centers may find some valuable sources or stories on any given page of Boxing in Philadelphia. For the purposes of teaching, however, it is unlikely that the book in toto or any specific chapter would be useful to an undergraduate history course considering its narrow focus and chaotic organization; yet it could find its way onto the reading list of an upper-level journalism or creative non-fiction course—at least on campuses in the Keystone State.

Even if it is not germane to a research project or adopted for a specific course, Oppenheimer’s book might resonate with college-level teachers because it is, ultimately, his own narrative—and it looks a lot like the kind we see on campus every year. His story is about a bright-eyed student away from home who takes some risks, finds new interests, and applies it to the pursuit of his desired career with an admirable passion. Many of us enjoy watching our students grow and mature from their first semester through their walk across the stage at Commencement, and many teachers probably share my particular affinity not just for the smartest or most successful ones but for those that found a real passion—and it does not matter for what—during their short time with us. Boxing in Philadelphia features Oppenheimer prominently and in fact charts his own journey as a researcher and writer, blending his Muckraker impulse with a New Journalism approach while appropriating the stylistic devices from Beats and Gonzo writers. It is not perfect. The subjects and voices change, the language gets rough, the chronology swirls and the conclusions are uncertain. But throughout there is evidence of growth, learning, and unquestionable passion. Students, researchers, and specialists might not be in Oppenheimer’s corner, but those professors who recognize some of their own students in the first-person prose may end up rooting for him nonetheless.

Dr. Andrew R.M. Smith is Chair of the Undergraduate Adult Education Program and Visiting Assistant Professor of Sport Management and History at Nichols College. He is the author of “Blood Stirs the Fight Crowd: Making and Marking Joe Frazier’s Philadelphia” in Philly Sports: Teams, Games, and Athletes from Rocky’s Town. Correspondence to andrew.smith@nichols.edu is always welcome.

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