Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Samantha N. Sheppard reviews The Boxing Film

Travis Vogan. The Boxing Film: A Cultural and Transmedia History. New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 2021. 208 pp.

Review by Samantha N. Sheppard

24 November 2021

Travis Vogan’s The Boxing Film: A Cultural and Transmedia History examines one of the most popular and enduring sports-film subgenres. Boxing’s sporting and cinematic appeal has attracted celebrated directors—including Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Oscar Micheaux, and Clint Eastwood—to make films about prizefighting, which is “commonly depicted as an activity that allows the disadvantaged, even when faced with unfair and corrupt circumstances, to improve their social station” (p. 2). In this sharp and engrossing survey of the subgenre, Vogan details not only the storytelling tropes of boxing films, which frequently circulate myths about identity and the American dream, but he also unpacks the symbiotic histories of boxing and media that mutually shape the sport and the cinematic subgenre’s ideological narratives, reception, and development from the late nineteenth century to the present day.

This sports study is also a study of motion-picture history, and the first chapter charts the intersections between boxing and early cinema’s aesthetics, industrial norms, and representational politics. However, Vogan’s transmedia analysis moves us beyond film to consider popular-media culture more broadly. He argues that while film has decidedly shaped the perception of the boxer, boxing has been foundational to cinema, radio, network and cable television, and digital streaming. According to Vogan, “boxing films helped to establish and maintain the sport’s status as a commercial attraction that budding media platforms could reliably employ to gather an audience” (p. 3). He explores this reciprocal relationship, for example, in his chapter on HBO Sports, which details how HBO used boxing in the 1970s to enhance the pay cable network’s prestige, build its subscribership, and stress to viewers the network’s authority on the sport.

The book’s subtitle—A Cultural and Transmedia History—underscores Vogan’s interdisciplinary approach to the boxing film. Building off a range of scholars including Leger Grindon, Dan Streible, and Aaron Baker as well as his own impressive body of work that blends cultural studies and sports-media industry studies—including ABC Sports: The Rise and Fall of Network Sports Television (2018), ESPN: The Making of the Sports Media Empire (2015), and Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media (2014)—Vogan combines critical and historical approaches to the subgenre, weaving textual analysis with social, cultural, industrial, and technological context. For example, his third and fourth chapters consider boxing’s televisual rise during the 1950s as the medium gained a domestic foothold. As boxing films dissipated in the late 1950s, television—indie productions, documentaries, teleplays, made-for-TV movies, and closed-circuit exhibitions—became lucrative ventures for the sport and media networks. To this point, Vogan’s analysis of Woroner Productions’ 1970 Super Fight, an experimental televisual program that pitted the recently suspended Muhammad Ali against Rocky Marciano in a simulated fight, is attuned to the fraught racial politics that shaped the sporting production and its cultural significance and ramifications.

While this is a study of boxing and media, The Boxing Film is also about racial and sporting discourses on- and off-screen. Vogan’s book distinctly and distinguishingly centers how racial conflicts broadly and African American boxers specifically—including Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Ali, and Mike Tyson—impacted the sport and sports films from early cinema’s fight pictures to contemporary works such as Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015). And, of course, no boxing-film book would be complete without addressing Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 commercial and critical hit Rocky (dir. John G. Avildsen, 1976), and Vogan’s chapter pivots beyond the well-trodden analysis of the film to consider how “the revival of boxing films during the 1970s was guided by dual efforts to capitalize on Ali’s polarizing image and negotiate the cultural hierarchies it upset” (p. 93). In a similar move to build on extant scholarship, Vogan extends his study of the boxing film beyond traditional prizefighting pictures to consider the emergence of mixed martial arts (MMA), using MMA as the sports setting for boxing-inspired narratives while boxing films attempted to delegitimize MMA. Complete with an extensive filmography, The Boxing Film thoroughly locates and traces how the sport and media intersect, interlace, and are interdependent. This incisive and accessible book takes seriously sports and sports media, which Vogan rightly argues has occupied the margins of media scholarship despite the centrality and significance of sport as a site of cultural production.