A Moment with James Rhodes

James Rhodes is a Simon Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Manchester, UK. He has also spent time as a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngsown State. His research interests focus on race, class, gender, and deindustrialization. He is currently working on a proposed book about the relationship between Youngstown and Kelly Pavlik. You can contact him at james.rhodes@manchester.ac.uk

Student Literary Arts Association President Chris Lettera had an opportunity to sit down with James to discuss the interplay between Youngstown culture and its boxing hero Kelly Pavlik, as well as parallels from across the pond.

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Transcript:

Chris: Boxing, like baseball, is one of those sports that enthrall writers. Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “No other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing. To write about boxing is to write about oneself – however elliptically, and unintentionally. And to write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization – what it is, or should be, to be “human.” When did you start watching boxing? How, as a writer, did the sport fascinate you?

James: Well, I first started watching boxing probably around the age of ten or eleven. So, on terrestrial TV in England – you know, on Saturday night, they used to have big fights in boxing. There were fighters like Nigel Benn, Michael Watson, and Chris Eubank who I kind of grew up with. That really sparked my interest in boxing. And then, around about 97, Ricky Hatton, who is a fighter from my hometown, started to fight regularly, so I went to see his fights and watched his fights on TV. And that was kind of where the interest . . . I kind of reengaged with boxing, because I suppose I lost interest with it for a bit, but it was through Hatton’s success that I really became fascinated with it. And in terms of the writing, I think I’d always been . . . One thing that fascinates me is the kind of stories that surround fighters. That’s such a big part of boxing. You know, it’s how fighters are marketed . . . it’s how we come to relate to them through the stories that are told about them. And again, as you said in the question, I think boxing writing is about so much more than boxing when it’s done well. So a writer like – I don’t know if you’ve heard of Thomas Hauser – he’s one of my favorite writers of anything because of the stories that he tells through boxing. You can tell such . . . it’s the history of immigration to the United States, it’s the history of class formation, and like you said in relation to Ali, it’s the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I think boxing is just a fascinating snapshot of society and social relations.

Chris: Can you describe your current project and what you’re hoping to achieve through your studies of Kelly Pavlik and the city of Youngstown?

James: Yeah. The thing I’m working on, or have been for longer than some people would have wanted me to, is about Kelly Pavlik and kind of really his relationship with Youngstown and also in particular how the media represent Kelly and Youngstown. So it’s a way of documenting the changes that Youngstown has experienced particularly since the loss of the steel industry. And obviously with Kelly’s dad being a steelworker . . . and the connection between boxing and industry as well means that Kelly can feed into that really well. You look at some of the pictures that local artists have done of Kelly like Tony Nicolas and Ray Simon and they always have a steel mill air – the mill bleeding into Kelly – and I’m really fascinated with that. What is it about him that leads to those forms of representation? And also, what was the significance of him for people in this community as well?

Chris: Burnley, England, is about thirty miles north of Manchester.

James: Yeah.

Chris: Can you talk about the parallels between Burnley and Youngstown and what drew you to Youngstown?

James: Yeah. The interest in Burnley and Youngstown is not specifically related to the Kelly and Youngstown project. That’s the other project I’m working on more broadly which looks at . . . I’ve been doing life histories of people who grew up on the Southside of Youngstown and those that still live there, looking at how the Southside has changed, again in the context of suburbanization and deindustrialization. Burnley is a very similar city to Youngstown in many ways. It was a big textile town. It’s one of the only places in England that has a currently declining population. It has similar problems like housing vacancy, lack of employment opportunities, and it has problems in terms of how outsiders see it, which again is something very similar to Youngstown. It has been kind of the butt of particularly negative portrayals like Youngstown as well. My interest in Burnely actually started when I was doing my doctoral research. A far right political party got a significant amount of support in town, so I interviewed people who had supported that party. So, that was where my interest in Burnley came from. My interest in Youngstown was purely related to Kelly Pavlik. I have to admit I had never even heard of Youngstown until I started following Kelly Pavlik (laughs).

Chris: (laughs) Yeah, not many people have. It’s really fascinating how many people discovered his story, you know, worldwide . . .

James: Yeah! And that said, when I started reading up on Kelly, Youngstown was always . . . I think that’s the other fascinating thing about Kelly is that Youngstown is so much of the story with him, and more so than any other fighter, I think. You know, any other current fighter . . . fighters have always been held up to some extent as representative of the place they’re from. You know, they’re always hailed as the fighting pride of New Jersey, or etc., but I think the link with Kelly is so central to his story, more so I think than probably any other fighter. Which again is interesting, and it’s about this ongoing fascination that the national media has with Youngstown, really, that’s gone on for the last sort of half a century.

Chris: Yeah, I think Sherry said it best in Steeltown. Sherry and John both when they said that Youngstown’s story is America’s story.

James: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Chris: John Russo said, “We watched how immediately,” referring to your work, “he did not go to the library. He went to the trenches and to the bars to begin talking to these people. He wasn’t going to study from afar.” As a writer, what advantages do you take from this approach? Can you talk about where you’ve been in the city and who you’ve spoken with?

James: I suppose the benefit of that approach is when you’ve come to somewhere . . . you know, you haven’t grown up here and you don’t know it and you want to know it the best you can, the best way to do that is talking to people and going to the places where people go to. That was always central to my approach, and also, it’s kind of that tradition of ethnography within sociology that you study subjects from close up. And again, even just personally, I enjoy that more than the library. It’s nice getting out and talking to people, seeing things.

Chris: It’s fun.

James: Yeah, very much so. And I’ve been lucky in that I’ve met some really great people who were happy to take me into various places. I’ve been lucky enough to go into a whole array of bars all across Youngstown. Primarily African-American bars, primarily white bars, members-only bars. And even things I perhaps won’t directly draw upon in my research . . . I got to go on a ride-along with the SWAT team for a drug raid last summer. Although I won’t directly use it, it’s interesting again in that it’s another way in which you gain a sort of sense of perhaps a part of the community and a part of Youngstown’s story that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to access. I think the English accent helps. I think in many ways it’s a kind of passport into certain places. It definitely helps in that way.

Chris: Absolutely. It seems inevitable when writing about boxing to write avoid writing about class, about race. In what ways are class, race and boxing related here in Youngstown?

James: Very much so. The history of boxing is tied to that history of ethnic succession. As various groups have come into the workforce and into the working class, they’ve been often drawn into boxing. So, if you look back to the fifties in Youngstown, to the forties and fifties, you had so many Italian American fighters like Tony Genarro, Joey Carkido, and African-American fighters like Tommy Bell. But then as the decades have gone on, kind of the number of white fighters, to some degree, has declined. But that’s reflected in the sport nationally. So, in recent decades there’s been more African American and Hispanic fighters that tend to kind of dominate the sport. The relationship between boxing, race, and class . . . the three are inseparable, really. It’s such an entwined story. And I think that’s one of the things that make it kind of hard to write about in a way, but that also make it so fascinating.

Chris: You mentioned Thomas Hauser earlier. What are some of your favorite writings on boxing?

James: I love virtually everything he’s written. Every year, he tends to release an anthology of all his reporting. I don’t know if you’ve seen these. They’re amazing. I just love how he does . . . he tends to go into the dressing room before the fight. Just the way he sketches the characters . . . I think he has such an empathy with the fighters. Also, he’s very aware of the context in which the fights are happening. He’s very quick to relate these things to broader sort of societal changes. He’s just an incredible, incredible writer. He’s definitely head and shoulders I feel above most other contemporary boxing journalists. And as I said, in terms of fiction, there’s a writer called Tom Jones, an American writer who’s writings on boxing – whose short stories – I’ve really enjoyed as well. And I like things like the Mailer book about the Ali fight, which is a great book.

Chris: It’s interesting how, when we were talking earlier, you mentioned how writers themselves aren’t even responsible for the creation of narratives in boxing. You mentioned that with the Hopkins fight, how when promoting it they passed out hardhats . . .

James: Definitely. With Bob Arum, Kelly’s promoter . . . if you read back into it he’s very much taken with that relationship between race and class. He’s very much played up that Kelly is the white blue-collar warrior, as he’s called. And that’s been central to the way they’ve marketed Kelly. And it’s interesting because a few writers have said that the demise of boxing as a spectator sport and the rise of something like MMA (mixed martial arts) has to do with the prevalence of white fighters in the upper echelons of MMA in comparison to boxing. And I think there’s definitely something in that. I mean, you look at Ricky Hatton and Kelly and the actual crowds they were able to draw in comparison to fighters like Mayweather . . . it’s pretty incredible the pull those fighters had.

Chris: Going off of that . . . what makes a city blue collar? What makes a fighter blue collar? When we were talking earlier, you mentioned that most boxing narratives – especially in film, which is a more visible medium – you have movies like “The Fighter,” “Cinderella Man,” going back as far as “Rocky,” that examine stories of white fighters. But then there are wonderful films like “Ali” and documentaries like “When We Were Kings.” Why do audiences seem to be attracted to one narrative or favor one narrative or another?

James: Go back to, say, Jack Sullivan. He was seen as kind of the first national sporting hero. And again, that’s so tied in with notions of the American dream and with individualism in society like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and overcoming the odds to become world champion in this instance. The thing is, that’s a very American story about hard work, dedication individualism, the importance of competition, and also, just overcoming the odds by sort of sweat and sweat equity. And in terms of blue collar, I think you’re right . . . I think “blue collar” is used so much more frequently in relation to white fighters than it is in relation to African American or Hispanic fighters. And it’s also inherently tied up with the immigrant experience. The European immigrant experience is so central to that idea, both to the American Dream and for the idea of being blue collar. It’s interesting. I was looking recently at an article about the closing of Youngstown steel mills, and when it was discussing the kind of groups affected by the closures, it mentioned all these different ethnic white groups. It didn’t mention African-Americans within the story at all. And you also have that dominant kind of industrial history of America which kind of privileges the white male. I don’t know if you’ve seen Bob Barker, and that pictoral history of Youngstown. And you look at how white and how male that picture is and the figures within it. It’s very interesting when you have Kelly at the end of that picture and then John Young in the beginning, then the steelworker.

Chris: What worries me is that the dominant narrative is often perceived as the only narrative.

James: Yeah.

Chris: As creative writers, many of the students at Youngstown State have discussed parallels between Pavlik’s narrative and that of the city. As a writer, and as someone who perceives narrative in the every-day, how do you feel Pavlik’s story has shaped the city? When he took the middleweight belts from Jermain Taylor, there this overwhelming sense of pride in the city, particularly among young men. We saw almost a new culture forming what with everyone wearing Affliction shirts, and with a local spike in interest for boxing. Youngstown is a city, but in many ways, it’s a small town. In what ways do its residents live or die by a local hero?

James: That’s a good question. That’s one of the things I’m looking at is trying to put Kelly . . . cause a few people have asked, you know, “What is it about Kelly?” And quite a few people have said it was timing. You have the 2010 plan and the election of Jay Williams. I think there was a groundswell of optimism, obviously not amongst everyone, but I think there was an emergent group, especially among younger people who were much more positive about the city. They weren’t necessarily tied into the city’s past in the same way. They saw it as a place of opportunity and a place for creating a kind of new story for Youngstown. And you saw that with Mayor Jay Williams. I remember when Kelly won, he said – he basically said – that Kelly Pavlik’s story is Youngstown’s story. And it was a story about perseverance but also revival. And I think that’s important for a community that’s been subjected to so many negative media portrayals. Even still while Kelly’s been successful, you know, the Forbes thing . . . “One of America’s Fastest Dying Cities,” the Rolling Stone article. So I think it’s really important for communities such as Youngstown that there is something. The other thing about the appeal of Kelly is that it was seen as something coming from the ground up. He was this guy that was from kind of a regular neighborhood on the South side of the city.

Chris: Someone who goes down in the second round and comes back to win the fight.

James: Yeah, exactly. So that even the way the fight . . . that kind of metaphor was so powerful for the city. I even read an article in the mid-90s saying . . . it was comparing Youngstown to Ray Mancini and it was saying even when Ray Mancini won, he often looked like he hadn’t, and it was saying, you know, how Youngstown had been banged around the head so much.

Chris: (laughs)

James: The analogies of boxing have also been used to talk about Youngstown being down and out. So, there was a certain synergy in that particular moment in team. Kelly was seen as part of this renaissance. I spoke to Phil Kidd about this and he said that the difference with Ray Mancini was that he was there right when the steel mills were closing and he was kind of the one thing Youngstown could hold on. He thought Kelly was one of many thoughts. It was about being part of a broader sort of revival of the city.

Chris: Like you said, it having a lot to do with timing . . .

James: Yeah, definitely. And they hadn’t had a boxing world champion for fifteen years so there was a sense that . . . I consider Maurice Clarett and there was the thought that maybe he could have been held up as a kind of hero for the community but then obviously it didn’t go perhaps as people had planned. And then the YSU team hadn’t been successful since the late nineties, so I think people were also keen for any kind of success be it in sport or beyond.

Chris: And very, very hungry for a narrative of success – ground up success – that they can mirror in their own lives, or work to mirror.

James: Definitely. But it’s interesting as you see Kelly’s career has kind of faltered somewhat . . . there’s a kind of distancing going on. It’s like, “Well, we don’t need Kelly. We’re fine and back and reviving all on our own.” The way its shifted has been fascinating.

Chris: In 2011, what is the American Dream as you see it? And as a writer, and citizen of the world, what do you think can be done to shape that dream for the better?

James: That’s a very good question. That’s the thing I suppose I’m also interested in. If you look at Kelly and you go down to the boxing gym every day . . . I was down there yesterday with probably twenty-five, twenty kids in there . . . some of them professionals, some of them amateurs hoping to become professionals. And for every Kelly there’s probably however many thousand – tens of thousands – of kids that don’t have that. If you take away Kelly’s boxing success and you look at what the future is for someone in Youngstown that lacks a college education . . . it’s difficult, isn’t it? The American Dream is becoming more and more restrictive. As students at YSU are finding now, even with a college degree, there’s no guarantee that you are going to have a better lifestyle than that which your parents had. And that was very much what the American Dream was founded on, that doing better than the previous generation . . .

Chris: Where a degree was seen as a ticket or a guarantee, a gateway.

James: Yeah. And another important thing about Kelly’s story is, admittedly, he lives out in Canfield now, but the fact that he stayed in the area . . . cause for so long, success – not just in Youngstown, but across America – was not just about kind of economic mobility. It was about spatial mobility and moving out of places like Youngstown. Unfortunately, when we look at the last census, Youngstown has lost eighteen percent of its population. But I also hope it can be . . . Youngstown can also be a place of opportunity. You look at things that have happened such as with Jacob and the Lemon Grove, and you look at what’s happening with the neighborhood groups across the city . . . I think there’s a real sense that people are trying to work together and trying to sort of take control of certain issues within their neighborhoods while putting pressure on administration to deal better with some of the things their neighborhoods have been experiencing.

Chris: There’s so many people in the neighborhood – like Jacob at the Lemon Grove, like Phil Kidd – who are hungry for narratives of success but really work to create them and to gather people together to create them. What role can art play in the revival of a place. What role can literature play in such a revival?

James: I think it can play a massive role. I was there last summer when they were doing the mural at the Idora Park Neighborhood. Even for that kind of fostering of a sense of community, that improving of landscape in which people live . . . And also in terms of literature, in terms of education, the better that people can understand what goes on in their community, whatever means that might be . . . You know, a short story can do that, or a well-written news report or an academic text. All of these things can change the way we look at things or issues. Getting back to the American Dream, I hope that any vision, especially for Youngstown’s future . . . it needs to be inclusionary. It can’t just be a white ethnic version, or a middle class version. It has to be . . . it’s the same in the metropolitan area, as they’re coming to realize. Their prosperity relies on a healthy region with Youngstown at the center of it. So I’d like to think that what might come out of this current turbulence and turmoil is a revised sense of the urban and how we measure success. It’s interesting to me as an outside when you have Mayor Jay Williams and how widely he’s been touted among the Obama administration, but then you speak to people in the neighborhood’s about the legacy of his regime and there’s very mixed feelings about, well, “Ok. We can see a lot of improvement downtown, but . . .” For a lot of people in many neighborhoods, there’s been very little improvement. And it brings into question how we measure and conceive of success these days.

 

 

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