Renowned Portland author Katherine Dunn (you'll be familiar with her bestselling novel Geek Love, if nothing else) has been covering boxing since the early '80s. Her new book, One Ring Circus, collects the best and most accessible of her published essays, which vibrantly capture the culture, characters, and atmosphere of the sport. Dunn also takes society to task for such boxing-related ills as its insistence that women have a diminished capacity for violence, and its assumption that Holyfield didn't have it coming from Tyson in the infamous "bite fight."
MERCURY: What was your process for selecting these essays?
KATHERINE DUNN: I chose pieces that were written for general interest publications, so they are not arcane and were meant to appeal to readers who are not boxing fans. I hope that together they serve as an invitation to take a look at an art form, and a subculture, that is often misunderstood and maligned. The book includes cogitations on the sweet friendliness of boxing gyms, the mystery of the human love for violence and risk, and the violence of women. There are rants against hysteria in the media, and idiocy in the corner. There are profiles and sketches of some remarkable people—from an obscure Portland coach named Jess Sandoval to the finest of the women boxers, Lucia Rijker, and the maddest of the multiple champions, Johnny Tapia. And there are detailed reports and ruminations on some of the most fabulous fights—big and small—of the past 30 years.
What differentiates your boxing coverage from other writers?
A lot of writers accept the Hollywood view of boxing as evil—a noir tragedy, full of shame, desperation, and exploitation. I see it as a great improvisational performance art—fundamentally good, but complicated.
What kind of response did you receive from the piece "Just as Fierce," about women boxers and their capacity for violence?
Mixed. A lot of responders were of the "Right on!" school, who often presented examples from their own experience or observation. Some were of the "Yeah, but..." school, with reservations. And others were insistent that women are fragile, precious weaklings who must be protected from the vile predations of the male.
Have you ever boxed yourself?
I've never competed in an actual match. I was in my 40s and too old to do it legally by the time I got the chance. But starting in 1993, when the federal courts decided that women should be allowed to participate as amateurs in the US, a lot of girls and women went into the gyms. I followed them, and worked with coach Ed Milberger and then with coach Chuck Lincoln to train and learn the basics of the sport for over a dozen years. I've sparred—mostly with guys who are good enough to take care of themselves and me without either of us getting hurt. Sparring with women is more dangerous, in my experience. They don't pull their punches, even with someone who could be their grandmother.