A match is arranged between two boxers as part of the funeral celebrations of a prominent boxing coach in central Accra, Ghana. On arriving at the venue and learning of the match the two boxers are visibly concerned. They have a brief conversation before disappearing into the gathering funerary crowd. Later, they tell me they cannot possibly box in an exhibition match, citing their similar skill level and career trajectory as future ‘opponents’ in a potentially lucrative bout as the reasons why – factors which seemingly make the match suitable. As ‘opponents’ they say they cannot maintain the tempered, performative violence which an exhibition bout demands. Instead they would box competitively, risking their health and devaluing a future bout for little gain – they will not be paid for the exhibition at the funeral and (as with all exhibitions) there will be no official winner. Ultimately, they refuse to box despite recognizing the bout’s importance as a tribute to the deceased.
This scene, summarised from p. 99 of my thesis, highlights the simultaneous violence and dependence of boxers’ relationships. The two ‘opponents’ (to borrow their term) recognize their futures and subjectivities as inextricably intertwined and emerging only when they act together in the mutual violence and attrition of a competitive bout. The tempered violence of an unpaid exhibition bout would undermine both men’s subjectivities as aspiring contenders and their shared vision of the future.
Building on an understanding of boxers as dependent and relational subjects, the first three chapters of my thesis (including page 99) explore how relationships are sustained through the violence of professional boxing. Responding to work which sees the ‘ordinary’ as a space for re-establishing subjectivity in the wake of violent encounters (Das 2007), I examine how the violence and attrition of training and competition forms the fabric of the ordinary for boxers in Accra. Their everyday lives and relational subjectivities are built through (rather than in spite of) this violence. Consequently, boxers understand their work in the sport through the logics of care and dependence yet recognize that acts of care in the ring are often necessarily violent and damaging. Boxers’ logics reflect accounts of care as mutually affirming (Pettersen 2008), and thus challenge the often-implied juxtaposition between violence and care. The vignette on p. 99 is contrasted with boxers’ accounts of tempered violence and physical care in the ring when boxing a ‘journeyman’ – a knowingly overmatched opponent – upon whom successful boxers depend to build records with more wins than losses. Both this tempered, performative violence and the attrition of a bout between ‘competitors’ are understood as acts of care. Consequently, I argue that good care in the gyms and rings of Accra is unavoidably physical, at times painful, always relational, and often risks harm to both carers and the cared-for.
Thinking about dependent relationships in the context of boxing challenges the often-assumed juxtaposition between care and violence, and reveals a counterintuitive space in which subjectivities are mutually affirmed in violent encounters.
Das, V., 2007. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Univ of California Press
Pettersen, T., 2008. Comprehending care: Problems and possibilities in the ethics of care. Rowman & Littlefield
Leo Hopkinson, 2019. Hit and Move: Boxing and Belonging in Accra, Ghana. Edinburgh University, Phd. thesis.
Leo Hopkinson completed PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh in 2019. He is currently an LSE Fellow in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org