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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Tiny Tiger Lecture Series: Episode Two

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog! Last week I shared my presentation from the Martial Arts Studies conference in Orange, CA. If you did't get a chance to view that, check it out!

The conference was INCREDIBLE! I've truly never been to a gathering of academics where I felt so at home and in my element. Everyone I met was so interesting, kind, knowledgeable, generous, and genuine. A big thank you to Andrea Molle for organizing a conference in the United States because, otherwise, I'd never really know how truly delightful this scholarly community is. And another huge thank you to Paul Bowman for not only organizing this group of people into an ever-growing interdisciplinary field, but for showing me how to do Venice Beach right! Maybe next week I'll do a more complete breakdown of what I learned at the conference, who I met, and the kinds of escrima techniques demonstrated on me after the bars closed down for the evening...

This week, I'm still in California and wrapping up my trip to Yosemite. But I didn't want to deprive my adoring fans (all three of you!) of another wonderful video lecture! This next installment of the Tiny Tiger Lecture Series focuses specifically on American boxing as a martial art with major rhetorical actors as athletes. As always, I'll include the full transcript at the end of this post along with any image and video citations.

Please be sure to like, share, subscribe, and leave comments on the Youtube video if you have any suggestions or request for further content. I hope you enjoy :)

As always, thanks for reading/watching.

Next week I'll be grinding away reading AP English exams so, we'll see just exactly what I can post. Who knows, maybe I'll just share some beautiful California pictures?


Transcript with Source Links

Welcome to the Taekwondo Tiny Lecture Series, a compact collection of martial arts studies research brought to you by

Last time we discussed the fundamental ways in which martial arts can be described as rhetorical. Today, we’ll look at three American boxing icons as examples for how martial arts can produce rhetorical effects on audiences.

In his 1945 book A Rhetoric of Motives, Kenneth Burke noted that one of the foundational concepts underlying rhetoric is “identification.” Essentially, if you understand a speaker to be similar to yourself or something familiar, you are more likely to be hospitable to a discussion or exchange of ideas. Of course, if you cannot identify with that speaker or their chosen means of communication, you might react quite negatively to the argument proposed.

Take the example of Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight title, as an example of what happens when a rhetorical actor fails to facilitate the kind of identification Burke describes. Fighting for the belt in 1908, a time when science and law supported a political system which declared him genetically inferior to whites, Johnson found difficulty in even getting a shot at the title. It took Johnson nearly two years of public taunting and stalking champion Tommy Burns across the globe before he was finally accepted as a challenger. Johnson unequivocally destroyed Burns in one-sided contest, but the final moments of the fight were never recorded because police feared the public outcry.

The thought of a white champion losing to a negro boxer was a fearful idea, one The New York Times summed up by saying "If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."

This quote demonstrates how black Americans, those who could identify with Johnson, held him up as a hero. But most whites, those who rejected his career and life choices as what Geoffery C. Ward called “unforgivable blackness” in the Jim Crow era, saw him only as a source of rage. This was made clear after Johnson’s 1910 victory over Jim Jeffries, the former champion billed as the “Great White Hope”. After his defeat, race riots broke out across the country, killing dozens and injuring hundreds.

Because of this backlash from white America, it would be thirty years before the world saw another black American heavyweight champion in Joe Louis, but this was, in part, because of Louis’s strict rules for inside and outside of the ring designed to separate him from the shadow of Jack Johnson. These so-called “good negro” rules included never taking a picture or fraternizing with a white woman (something that ultimately resulted in Johnson serving a prison sentence) and never gloating over an opponent in a fight. Ultimately though, Louis would never be able to have a white audience identify with him in terms of race, so he crafted an image around national pride. This was no more evident than in the 1938 bout between Louis and Max Schmelling, a fighter billed as the German champion of Aryan superiority. Before the fight, President Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt elevated the severity of this contest by reportedly telling Louis, “joe, we need big muscles like yours to defeat the Germans.” And defeat them he did. Lasting only 2 minutes and 4 seconds, the fight was over before Schmelling could throw more than three punches, and boxing fans black and white rallied around Louis as a champion of the free world. It turns out that Americans didn’t care about the color of the fist, so long as it was punching a Nazi in the face.

But there’s a problem with this moralistic narrative, of course. Joe Louis wasn’t a real life Captain America any more than Schmelling was a cartoon Hitler. Not only did Schmelling refuse to call his defeat the result of a foul as the German propaganda machine encouraged him to, but he later housed Jewish refugees during Crystalnacht at the risk of his own life.

It’s important to remember that these fighters are real people and participants in multifaceted complex arguments about race, politics, and society, not the kind of predictable tropes we’d find in a Rocky movie.

On the one hand, fighters often naturally invite rhetorical identification or rejection from viewers as we’ve seen with Jack Johnson. On the other hand, managers, promoters, announcers, and other media outlets construct artificial narratives about fighters for ulterior motives as with the propaganda surrounding Joe Louis.

But no single fighter resisted either of these rhetorical strategies more than the most iconic heavyweight in boxing history: a man who won his title as Cassius Clay, but his fame and notoriety as Muhammad Ali.

Neither a saint nor a devil but a strong-willed free thinking man, Ali took back the platform of the fighting ring as a rhetorical space for athletes and refused to let outside audiences craft narratives about race or religion for him, a sentiment we will explore next time as we look at examples of martial arts rhetoric in Asia.

If you enjoyed the video, please like and subscribe, or head over to for more content. Thanks for watching and check back soon for new videos--kamsahamnida!

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