Author and Professor of English at Boston College Carlo Rotella ’86 writes about how people get good at things. He focuses on forms of art and athletics that reflect the culture of neighborhoods, such as boxing, blues, and country music. After becoming a regular observer at former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes’ gym, he wrote “Cut Time: An Education at the Fights” (2003), a book that examines boxing matches in technical detail and as sociological microcosms.
His more recent work discusses the loss of industrial jobs and other sources of demographic change across American cities. For instance, “The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood” (2019) traces the evolution of South Shore, the Chicago neighborhood he grew up in.
Rotella also considers what it really means to be skilled. As a reader and viewer, he often thinks technique is more compelling than creativity, although his collaborators disagree in a Post Road Magazine folio, “Do It Right/Make It New” (2020). The Argus sat down with Rotella to learn more about boxing mismatches, interview technique, and how the culture of Wesleyan’s own neighborhood has changed.
A: “Cut Time” discusses how people are managing their energy, responding to being hurt. It seems like boxing is a unique arena to throw that into relief. Do you feel like boxing provides something distinctive among sports?
CR: Well, it’s not really a sport, right? It’s a blood sport, which is a distinct category. As fight people say, you don’t “play boxing.” You do keep score, although that is sort of a dubious and hazy category—what judges say is happening—and is related to how the money’s flowing around the fight and other things.
So in some ways, boxing is distinctive. Part of it is just the very high, even ultimate, stakes. What drew me to boxing is watching people try to solve problems while they’re hotly engaged, at a level that could be life-changing at any moment.
A: What changes have people seen in boxing?
CR: The big one is that before World War II, boxing and baseball were the biggest sports in America. Horse racing would probably be third. And boxing was then eclipsed by the school-based ball games after World War II, as universal[ly] required high school became the norm.
Boxing has gone from being a practice that’s deeply embedded in the fabric of all kinds of neighborhoods all over the country—there were many neighborhoods that had the saloon and the church and the boxing gym and the union hall—to being this very esoteric, mostly electronic spectacle that only a few people know anything about.
You have to work much harder to get to the fight world than you used to. And that’s also true of fighters. Women boxers used to have to work very hard to get to boxing; now there’s more boxing-as-fitness stuff. But take a male heavyweight boxer: Football tends to snap up those big guys who like to hit and don’t mind being hit (may even secretly like it). So it’s a rare big American who manages to avoid football, which is the path of least resistance, and find their way to the fights.
Yet [boxing] has this deep imprint in the culture and in literature. People have been writing about the fights for 3,000 years. There’s a mismatch in “The Iliad” that everybody knows is a mismatch—they find somebody to lose the fight because they need to have a fight.
A: I thought of mismatches as a product of needing people to come and pay money. That’s interesting that [these fights] can be for other reasons.
CR: It often is [about selling tickets]. I just got a promotional email from a Massachusetts promoter, and [the event is] essentially a bunch of local fighters who are beating a bunch of people who are just brought in to lose to them, who are either professional opponents who know how to lose and give a good account of themselves, or who just got out of prison. They’re all mismatches, basically, except sometimes the main event might not be a mismatch.
But the mismatch in “The Iliad” is quite a complicated one. There’s a guy in the Greek army who says, “I’m not a great soldier, but I will beat the shit out of anybody you put up against me.” And all the aristocrats in the army know it. None of them wants to fight him. And they find this guy, Euryalus, who’s an aristocrat, but not that bright, and very brave. They all sort of pat him on the back and say, “It’s great that you’re gonna fight Epeus.” And Epeus knocks him out with one punch. It’s a mismatch because it’s the funeral games for Patroclus, and they need things to go well. They need an ass-whipping.
What’s interesting about that exchange is, when [Epeus] gets up to say that he’s the best boxer in the army, he says something which has been translated in many different ways over the centuries, but after the rise of Muhammad Ali is now translated as “I am the greatest.” So it’s a case of a dead poet being influenced by a living (and now dead) boxer who comes along thousands of years later.
A: I wonder if people think the influence went the other way.
CR: Well, I called Robert Fagles, who was the first person to [translate “The Iliad”] in the sort of American style, and he said, “No, I was thinking of Ali.”
A: Did you ever get into actually boxing?
CR: Never. Boxing is not something to dabble at, and I am not built for it. I am built to run away and climb a tree and hurl insults and small objects down on whoever’s at the bottom of the tree. Let the record show that I’m making a ring [around my wrist] with my thumb and my pinky, and I’m halfway up my forearm and they still touch. If you can do that, you shouldn’t even throw a punch correctly, let alone make the mistake of throwing one incorrectly. I’m a narrow human, and I should not be hitting things.
A: In “Cut Time,” you seem to know Larry Holmes pretty well. How do you become someone who knows a lot about someone else’s life?
CR: Holmes is pretty suspicious and paranoid—in a good way—and has every right to be. I mean, the guy was in business with Don King for a long time. He used to do his morning run with a gun. He survived doing business with Don King and actually kept his money, which makes him a black swan among heavyweights of that period. Don King got everybody’s money except for Larry Holmes’.
So with someone like him, you just need to put in the time. I used to hang out at the gym a lot. I used to bring my papers down and grade them there. So people got used to me being there and decided I wasn’t a cop. One guy told me after like six months, “I thought you were a cop.”
In other cases, there’s a lot of authority that comes with a green light from a magazine. It’s important to be able to say, as they say in Chicago politics, “I’m somebody somebody sent.”
The thing to remember is, people who get interviewed a lot tend to get asked the same questions all the time. So before you interview them, you go read every interview with them. It’s like, “Okay, these are the six questions they always get, so I’m not gonna ask any of those.” Often, the person is so relieved not to be bored with the same old stuff that they get into it.
In the case of Holmes, there’s a scene in the book where we were talking about something, and he was being kind of defensive, and then I hit upon asking him how he would fight the all-time greats. How he would fight Joe Louis, how he would fight Rocky Marciano. And he got out of his desk chair and was playing both characters and demonstrating. For some reason, nobody had asked him that. And he was sort of dying to show how he would beat Joe Louis, you know?
A: From your folio “Do It Right/Make It New”—are you guided by one or both of those principles in your work?
CR: As a magazine writer, I lean towards doing it right. I like the magazine profile as a form, and I’m happy to do it right in the way that I’d be happy to play a blues shuffle or a barroom weeper correctly. But on the book level, I feel an urge to do something new or make it weird or somehow move outside the expectation.
A: We are told in school that writing about sports and drawing life lessons from it is a cliché. Have you tried to fight that in your work?
CR: Well, “life lessons”—you’re already setting yourself up for cliché. When you’re looking into the ring, it takes a lot of work just to get it right, to understand spacing and leverage. But in order to truly understand what’s happening, you need to see through the ring, into the world that contains the ring.
So, on the inside layer: How’s the money flowing around this fight? Who’s the visiting fighter? Who’s supposed to win? Is it a mismatch? But then as you go further out: How did these two people get good at what they do? Is it the old angry father scenario? Some pampered upper-middle-class kid who just had an appetite for hitting? What is this fighter’s idea of being a man or a woman? You start getting into what could be construed as life lessons, but what I would think more is what’s actually happening in the ring.
It doesn’t really bother me when something’s a cliché, because the fact that it’s been done a million times in a boring, rote way doesn’t mean there isn’t another way to do it that’s interesting. Describing somebody getting knocked down on a boxing mat—people have been doing that for 3,000 years, but there’s always a fresh way to describe it.
A: The new book, “The World Is Always Coming to an End”—you’re playing with format a bit, right?
CR: There are these very short, more memoir-y chapters, and then these longer, more journalistic social scientific chapters, in which I interview people and talk about the history of the neighborhood.
I was looking for a rhythm that would allow me to say something new about neighborhood and how neighborhood works. One of the things that makes a neighborhood a neighborhood is there are all these voices, talking to and across each other. The structure of the chapters allowed that to happen.
Another thing is, a neighborhood shapes the sensibilities of the people who live in it. I wanted to show, in those more memoir chapters, how the neighborhood shaped my sensibility, and say, “This is the sensibility that’s in the longer chapters.”
There is a much more standard way to write that book. You pick three characters, introduce them in the first chapter, and novelistically follow them to the end. And I was not at all interested in writing that book.
A: With the title, do you think ethnographic studies necessarily involve the description of an end?
CR: A neighborhood is always forming and coming apart [at] any given moment. One order is always receding or declining, and another is always emerging through it. It’s a lot easier to see a declining order because you’re familiar with it. It’s harder to recognize the outlines of an emerging order.
The title is somewhat ironic. The guy who said, “the world’s always coming to an end” said it dismissively when he owned a lot of businesses on the main commercial street in the neighborhood. He was saying to his tenant, “Stop panicking just because it’s becoming a Black neighborhood. You know, Black people’s money spends just as well as white people’s money.”
And he was reminding them, when the English lived in this neighborhood and the Irish came, the English said the world was coming to an end. And then when the Jews came, the Irish said the world was coming to an end, and now it’s happening again. That all sounds very enlightened, except then he sold off all his property and left. So the title is both ironic and not.
A: Did you see industrial change in Middletown at the time you were there?
CR: It felt to me like Middletown’s industrial era had ended, and it hadn’t quite figured out what to do with itself, but its Main Street was more active and vital than in other places. For instance, I lived in Easton, Pennsylvania when I taught at Lafayette College, and that was a town that really had not figured out what to do with itself since the factories had closed. Its Main Street was desolate and depopulated in a way that Middletown’s Main Street, at least when I was a student, was not. I went down there a lot. It had a lot of diners.
A: Did Wesleyan have a sense of itself? I think nowadays people like to think of it as a very alternative, activist school.
CR: It didn’t feel as much like the distinctive identity or brand of the institution as it has become. I arrived in ’82, and that is a lot closer to the elapsed order that had preceded it: people who had gone to the usual prep schools and had gone on to the usual thing. It had become the school you describe within living memory, in the last 20 years. Alternative, left, activist Wesleyan was a much younger order when I was there.
A: What have you seen recently that was done right? And what have you seen that was made new?
CR: I just watched a great Japanese fighter, [Naoya] Inoue, win a fight, online. I don’t know if more than 200 people in America have ever heard of him, but he’s as good as you can be. To say the sentence makes me sound like a terrible person, but it was just beautiful to watch him cut off the ring and deal with the other guy’s speed and show the other guy that his speed wasn’t going to work.
I might need to diversify my reading and watching and listening, because I don’t know that I’ve heard anything made new recently. I have phases where I go back to my old familiar stuff and kind of renew, and phases in which I seek new stuff. I must be in a renewal phase.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anne Kiely can be reached at email@example.com.