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June 7, 2012

Stanford research reveals the intimate side of boxing

"Closeness in Boxing," a collaboration between humanities scholars and the East Palo Alto Boxing Club, reveals the intimate side of violence in the ring.

By Lisa Ann Villarreal

Graduate student Friederike Knuepling spars with Mike Francois at the East Palo Alto Boxing Club. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

An unlikely collaboration between the East Palo Alto Boxing Club and Stanford humanities researchers has revealed that the combination of physical intimacy and trust between boxers cultivates unexpected interpersonal connections.

After coming to Stanford for graduate school, Friederike Knüpling, a doctoral candidate in German studies, continued her boxing hobby at the East Palo Alto Boxing Club.

It was there that Knüpling, a German native, got more interested in how the constant closeness of the sport allowed the boxers to relate to one another in a uniquely non-verbal medium.

Boxing, Knüpling said, allows her to feel a sense of "at-homeness" with people from different cultural backgrounds. "As a foreigner, it was interesting for me to interact and get closely involved with people in a way that was completely separate from language."

Knüpling frequently trained at the gym with the young boxers who took part in its nonprofit program, which focuses on providing a safe, healthy space for youths as well as hobbyists and amateur boxers.

She noticed the close-knit community among the athletes. "When boxers step into the ring, they make themselves vulnerable. In this exposed state they must quickly intuit their opponent's fighting style and emotional frame of mind."

Knüpling, whose research centers on Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), a writer who was fascinated by the hyper-vigilance of fighters engaged in violent combat, became interested in "how the seemingly hostile act of boxing calls for and enables specific types of closeness."

After approaching the gym's founder and director, Johnnie C. Gray (three-time Golden Glove Middleweight Champion), about a research collaboration, Knüpling teamed up with Tom Winterbottom, a doctoral candidate in Iberian and Latin American cultures at Stanford, who had also been training at the gym.

The two of them then met with Vincent Barletta, associate professor of Iberian and Latin American cultures at Stanford. Barletta had learned of the gym through his wife, Laura Méndez-Barletta, an artist who has been shooting a photographic series on boxing.

Through discussion of major texts and films about boxing, Knüpling planned to engage the athletes and coaches in a reflection process that would encourage discussion about the vulnerability of the boxer and the boxers' own biographies. "The idea was to not only invite both the boxers and interested scholars from the Stanford community to enter a humanistic conversation, but also to contribute to humanities research by putting a concept onto the agenda that seems to be particularly interesting at our cultural time and place: closeness."

The phenomenon of closeness at work in boxing reveals something about the complex relationship between proximity and feelings of intimacy and connectedness, which is also important for understanding how we develop bonds of community.

At a time when many of our interactions are virtual, Barletta said, "so much of our life is nonetheless still about physical closeness." The research project would "offer a humanistic account of the ways in which we continue to experience direct closeness with one another and our world, even as new technologies offer other, more mediated options."

Knüpling has worked closely with Gray to document the experiences of the young boxers. The graduate student met regularly with the fighters to interview them, provide boxing literature and facilitate group discussions.

"Boxing forces one to call attention to closeness, because if you're not responsive to the person right in front of you, you're going to get hit, you're going to get hurt. … You have to pay attention," Barletta said.

That this had been the experience for the boxers at the East Palo Alto Boxing Club was made clear at a recent event held at the Stanford Humanities Center. The evening's program featured images and sounds of boxing, as well as a live boxing exhibition performed by the East Palo Alto fighters.

The fighters spoke about in-fighting, a technique by which a boxer will move into extremely close proximity to limit the opponent's mobility. According to the fighters, these can be moments of vulnerability, but are often intimate moments of temporary quietude, in which both fighters use the semi-embrace to rest and re-center themselves.

One of the fighters, Steven Scano, pointed out that the apparent violence between sparring partners actually constitutes a supportive emotional bond between fighters.

"To have someone in your community who is willing to train with you, and is willing to get hit by you … that takes a lot from a person, to be able do that and to still have a conversation afterward. Somebody who understands that is a real friend," Scano said.

Barletta, who along with his wife is involved in fundraising efforts to develop the gym into a larger East Palo Alto youth center, has emphasized that for many of these youths, boxing teaches them discipline and control that they can use in other aspects of their life. He hopes that the "Closeness in Boxing" project will raise the public profile of the gym and help to attract funding.

"We'd like there to be greater 'closeness' between Stanford and East Palo Alto," Barletta said. "The Bay Area has a lot to teach Stanford, even as Stanford has a lot to teach in return."

This research will be the basis of a team-taught humanities seminar on the question of closeness Barletta is developing with Knüpling and Winterbottom for the 2013-14 academic year.

Barletta, Knüpling and Winterbottom ultimately envision an expanding project that will encompass the study of multiple forms and loci of closeness, such as health care delivery, prayer and commuting.

"Closeness in Boxing" received a Stanford Community Engagement Grant. Additional support was provided by the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages Performance Focal Group, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the Stanford Humanities Center.

Lisa Ann Villarreal is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,


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