Belle of the Brawl
The Boxer between Sensationalism and Sport
In 1926 Bertolt Brecht began outlining the story of a man who reinvented himself through boxing and amassed a tidy fortune in the process. A longtime fan of the fights, Brecht nevertheless did not wish to write about the action inside the ring. Instead, as his notes for this nevercompleted novel indicate, Brecht wanted “to see how a man earns fame and fortune through boxing and how he begins to translate that fame into even more money—in short, how a man ‘makes himself.’”1 Under the working title The Renown, Brecht’s completed fragments explore the life of a prizefighter who went by the nickname “Gorgeous George,” a good-looking man who modeled part time for a hat company and so enflamed female passions that women pursued him “like a pack of bloodthirsty hounds.”2
Brecht sought to explain how and why the male boxer had become an iconic figure in the Weimar Republic and the standard of postwar masculinity.3 In the aftermath of what many Germans saw as an emasculating military defeat and in the midst of economic and social transformations that seemed to render men increasingly redundant, the pugilist represented something essentially male: the genuine “hard guy.” He could dish out a bruising, and he could take one, too. His sinewy body, stripped of fat through disciplined training, functioned like an anatomical suit of armor. The boxer established an ideal for the Weimar man who had grown soft, and even decadent, in the modern metropolis.
At the same time, the prizefighter flourished in precisely that decadent metropolis. He marketed his carefully crafted persona and body without inhibition, and he thrived on the patronage of the leading commercial and cultural elites of Weimar society. Brecht understood the boxer’s ambiguous relationship to modernity, as both antidote and exemplar, from close-hand observation. He claimed to have modeled his protagonist on his friend, the German prizefighter Paul Samson-Körner, but he certainly had the French light heavyweight Georges Carpentier in