By Louis Gregory –
Few people know much about the surreal world of English small-hall boxing, a world away from its professional, globalised alternative. Small-hall boxing is a staple of the British boxing circuit. The term refers to fights organised in local venues – leisure centres, town halls, hotels and beyond – that do not carry the added safety blanket of TV revenue, like most high-profile bouts. For this reason, this mode of the sport is ‘high risk, low reward’: fighters must sell their own tickets for fights, and their financial gain depend solely upon their own activity. As fighters necessarily self-promote, crowds are dominated by their friends and kin and are imbued with strong regional pride. If the fighters are the literal and physical ‘lifeblood’ of the sport, the small halls from where they begin their careers are the ‘flesh and bones’.
I attended and ethnographically analysed a small-hall event in Barnsley, a Yorkshire town nestled between Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. This blog piece takes the reader on a journey to this surreal world, interweaving ethnographic moments and critical theory in the process. But is it really as competitive as it appears? My visit shed light on the sport’s paradoxical character.
It is Friday the 25th of February 2022. The ‘local lad’ Josh Wale has challenged Lithuanian Simas Volosinas to a bout dubbed ‘The Outlaw’s Last Stand’, in homage to Wale’s hard-fought career. Electronic, hyper-sexual music, lager-fuelled chants and a heady cloud of adrenalin engulf the Barnsley Metrodome, reaching its ultimate crescendo as Josh Wale appears centre-stage. ‘Barnsley’s most decorated boxer’ dips easily under the ring’s ropes and into its heart. The audience’s collective pulse quivers at the prospect of violence.
Meanwhile, his competitor – Simas Volosinas – stands adorned in the Lithuanian flag, and in relative silence. Volosinas is a quintessential ‘journeyman’ in the world of professional boxing, with an 11-year career producing 108 bouts, 7 wins, 101 losses and a 93.5% loss rate; essentially, the journeyman is designed to travel to fights he will lose. Unlike Wade, his reception is mixed; from homoeroticism centering on his shaven head and muscular appearance, to comments of the more derogatory kind: namely, the prophetic prediction: “He’s gonna fuckin’ batter ‘im.” The bell offers welcome moments of relief, yet even his own cornermen, those supposed to support and train him, seem sceptical of victory’s attainability. Ultimately, the inevitable happens; Wale is victorious and his name – the eponymous ‘main man’ – reverberates around the ring.
By definition, boxing produces ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Yet, why is it that in the sport – often epitomised by competition in a ‘zero-sum’ state-of-affairs – some victories, like Wale’s, appear pre-ordained, and why do the sport’s ‘journeymen’, as ‘repeated losers’, seem content with defeat after defeat?
In his 1978-9 lectures, Michel Foucault discussed the appearance of a ‘Homo Oeconomicus’ figure, a neoliberal subject who is an “entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings”. Boxers may be seen as Foucauldian neoliberal ‘entrepreneurs of the self’. They compete in a zero-sum state-of-affairs, in which bodily pain and violence become marketable commodities.
However, one can make money not only through sporting success, but also through continual defeat. Next to that, small hall boxing also exposes a fundamental paradox of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is understood to involve self-interested, rational actors whose autonomy is safeguarded by the promise of non-intervention. However, it paradoxically relies upon state intervention for survival. Likewise, in contrast to hegemonic understandings of boxing as a zero-sum contest between success-orientated fighters, small scale boxing depends on journeymen, whose primary role it is to, in the words of veteran boxer Johnny Greaves, “turn up, fight, lose, get paid”. Volosinas’ role is not to win, but to challenge the favourite, thereby obscuring the artificiality of the neoliberal sporting spectacle between two supposedly success-oriented ‘entrepreneurs’. Thus, like neoliberalism more broadly, journeymen, such as Volosinas, inwardly obtain a degree of docility and uncompetitiveness, despite outwardly exposing a Foucauldian, hyper individualistic, ‘entrepreneurial’ disposition.
When the fight is over, Wales gives his concluding speech to eager and inebriated ears. He is surrounded by his children, family, and the triumphalism of Coldplay. Meanwhile, Volosinas cuts a paradoxical figure; simultaneously the night’s antagonist, capable of sabotaging the spectacle, as well as being essential to the spectacle itself – without which Wale, and countless other boxers, would be unable to sustain careers in the world of small-hall boxing.
We leave Barnsley’s Metrodome with two interesting findings related to contemporary neoliberalism. Firstly, it has taught us to broaden Foucault’s vision on neoliberal subjects: Boxers are certainly neoliberal subjects, but they are not only entrepreneurial in the narrow sense. Whereas some indeed make a career, and money, by winning, others do so by doing the opposite. Secondly, this paradox is exactly what is essential for the system working smoothly. Like neoliberalism more broadly, which depends on outside intervention to appear natural, in small-hall boxing those who make a living out of losing pretend to challenge the designated winners, so that the latter can shine like neoliberal heroes.
Louis Gregory is a third-year social anthropologist at Durham University who has an interest in political and economic anthropology, particularly as this articulates with sport.
Photo credit: Namesia Production