Boxing gets a bad press, and there’s probably many in the oh-so-sensitive arts world who find it a barbaric practice that should be banned. But for many it’s a way of life, and for centuries, it has been its own form of theatre. At this year’s Fringe, boxing subculture makes its way onto the Pleasance stage in the form of Smoke and Oakum Theatre‘s Cornermen, the story of those behind-the-scenes lynchpins of boxing life. We talked to writer (and amateur boxer) Oli Forsyth about the play…
What does a cornerman do?
Cornermen work in their boxer’s corner during a fight. In between rounds it’s their job to keep a fighter going. This includes everything from giving them water to sealing cuts. Usually you’ll be using ice packs and cold objects to reduce swelling, applying Vaseline to make sure blows glance off their face and giving them advice on how to get ahead in a fight. Seeing as you only get one minute each round to do all that it can feel a bit like a human pit stop!
Can you tell us what it is like on the bottom rungs of the boxing ladder?
For most people at the lower end, boxing is a very demanding and tough job with little in the way of reward. Usually the public only hears about the champions and contenders, the cream of the crop, but there’s a sea of men and women who put food on the table through boxing.
What would you say to those who have ethical issues with boxing and call for a ban?
There’s no denying that boxing can be responsible for ruining people’s mental state and putting their families through a very difficult time later on in life. That said, there are millions of people who take up boxing, love the sport and, sometimes, end up making a good living out of it. To take that away because of the more tragic cases would deny a lot of people something they really love so I don’t think banning it is the way to go.
What do you think about how boxing is usually portrayed on stage and screen?
I reckon we’ve been given a very skewed version of how boxers and their team operate. Anyone watching Rocky or The Fighter leaves with an incredibly macho, romaniticised version of what it’s like to live in that world. What I wanted to show with Cornermen was the strange relationship between boxer and trainer. How the same person who massages your shoulders, and knows what you had for dinner last night will also order you back into the ring when you don’t want to go, and book you fights that might pay well, but that you have a slim chance of winning. They tread a fine line between father figure and agent, responsible for your well-being but also being paid through your fights. Ultimately, they have to decide when you’ve had enough and the slightly tragic nature of boxing would suggest this is a decision they often get wrong.