I recently re-watched Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, Boxing Gym. I was lucky enough to catch it at the brilliant IFC Centre on Sixth Avenue, New York, in 2010. Like so much of Wiseman’s work it was gripping then. And it remains so.
Boxing is a sport of incomparable skill, wit and dexterity. An ability to improvise both physically and mentally, to read the tides and adapt accordingly, is something that is hard to teach. If it can be taught at all. It is a quality that separates the great from the merely “good”. But boxing is also a sport built on repetition and devotion, on a quasi-religious fidelity to routine. Only through a strict adherence to ritual solitude can fighters lay down the foundations for glory. Through the thousands of rounds, punches, dips, ducks and jumps that condition the body and purge the mind.
The ambient sounds of a boxing gym, the metronomic buzzers and bleeps, the whip of the skipping rope; the dull thud of the punch bag and medicine ball, the staccato thrup of the speedball, the exhalations and the beat of the footfalls. All create a natural cadence, a lyrical lilt, that pay homage to this habit. It is a cadence that permeates Wiseman’s wonderful film.
In truth, very little happens in Boxing Gym. But Wiseman has mined this “nothingness” to such beautiful effect that within this absence of conventional drama is wave after wave of gorgeous detail. Wiseman’s eye (and ear) for the minutiae shows a compassion for his subjects that is utterly hypnotic, for within this democratic space all men and women are equal. Fighters of every age, size, ability, ethnicity and class, both male and female, toil and sweat. And it is a toil that passes no judgement on talent. They dance, too, heel-to-toe, toe-to-heel, crouching, sliding and circling in a graceful choreographed exercise in learned behaviour. Whatever exists for each fighter beyond the sweat soaked walls, from which the peeling faces of great champions cast a watchful eye, like Greek gods – Chavez, Ali, Bowe, Duran – within this converted, ramshackle Texan warehouse nothing else matters. Only the ritual, the pursuit of perfection and a peculiar gentility.
It is no utopia – Wiseman is too smart for that. For the violence, often wicked, that must surely come when the ritual ends and the fighting begins, for those that choose to take the sport to its natural conclusion, will shatter any generous notions of perpetual harmony. Yet the boxing gym is a surprisingly courteous and touching environment. In an unspoken acknowledgement of the courage that every fighter must display simply to lace up their gloves, the gym’s members are touching in their mutual respect. From their conversations about life in the “outside world” to that most intimate, almost tender moment (maternal, even religious, again) in a boxer’s routine, the wrapping of hands, Wiseman quietly observes a group of people moving from disparate individuals to something resembling a family.
Wiseman’s film is not about the brutality and violence of boxing; but nor is it about some idealized, pacific Eden. Indeed, it is not “about” anything. Simply, it is an unobtrusive and dispassionate observation of a community and of movement and grace; of the inexhaustible beauty of the human body in motion, a commitment to physical perfection, individually and in harmony, and a pursuit of excellence that dates back to ancient Greece.
This Texan gym, quietly run, is a humble space with no delusions but Wiseman has created a towering documentary that shows it in a remarkable and charismatic light.