For 50 bucks, you can buy yourself an armchair seat on a balcony ringing the room, from which you can peer down over the room. These, however, are always filled with older Italian men, the Unindicted Co-conspirator set, fat and inert in their little chairs, each one looking like a marshmallow stuffed into a shot glass. They spend the evening pretty much unmoved by the drama of the moment, passing assured little nods back and forth: They knew who would win all along. The lights are bright, and the crowd is less drunk and less loud than you’d expect. But they are experts.

They know, for instance, that it is no fun to watch heavyweights or lightweights fight because a heavyweight is too big for any but a world-class opponent to knock out, and all but the best of lightweights (135 pounds) don’t have enough bulk to hit hard enough to make the fight interesting. So, all the fighters are middleweights and welterweights; the first matches of the night are between the youngest and greenest, and they slowly build to the headliners. The first two bouts are brief snoozers, three-rounders between fighters just good enough to play defense but not good enough to really hit. The crowd focuses on the way the boxers shift weight, issuing idle calls of “yes, sir!” when a fighter works himself a brief opening with his feet, exhaling slowly when his fists move too slowly to take advantage of it. By the third fight, a six-rounder, the boxers can really hit; as they tire, their defenses loosen, and their heads start to snap back against the fat compress of the other guy’s fists. The mafia goons on the balcony are applauding now, and their cigars are out; the antiquated on the floor are calling out advice–left, move, left, move. When the ring card girls–third-string, fourth-decade strippers from a South Philly gentlemen’s club–come out between rounds, they are greeted for the first time now with more than an auditorium full of lazy disinterest. You realize that everyone in the room, from the old Philly goons to the homeboys and the yuppies, is invested, against all probability, in the idea that something historic might happen here tonight, that a new welterweight might emerge, that the epic is still possible in Philly. And then, for the first of two last fights before the headliner, they bring out the girls.

The girls were ugly and thick, but the crowd didn’t care, whistling and hooting for them–“Sweet Ass Angie!” junk like that. It seemed almost endearing at first. A scrawny little black girl, a north Philly local named Angie Nelsen, danced around the ring, throwing up her gloves and revving up the crowd. In the red corner, called the ring announcer, was Jessica Flaherty, a corn-rowed white girl from Amish country who couldn’t muster the same kind of flamboyance; she just looked scared. Clapping, the crowd leaned forward–here was something new. The girls shrugged off their robes–now looking young and nervous–and charged each other at the bell, wind-milling with both arms.

The worst male fighters know how to play defense, but these girls looked like they’d never been trained. They didn’t even try to protect themselves. There was no effort to dodge, no shifting of weight, no clever, calculated movement of feet. Both girls just kept charging, swinging both fists at the same time. It was like watching six-year-olds fight before they’re old enough to realize that they might be hurt: All you want to do is make it stop. The action in the middle of the ring was an inchoate tangle of limbs and fists. Thirty seconds into the whirling, Angie fell down, striking the mat violently, as if she was attacking it. Jessica waved her arms above her head chaotically–a caricatured Rocky gesture–a huge grin on her face. I thought to myself that these two must be the worst girl fighters in the world. But it turned out that six months earlier, Jessica had placed second in her weight class at the National Golden Gloves–this was as good as it got.

They never should have let Angie back in the fight, but they did. She wobbled out to the center of the ring, too hurt to lift her hands above her waist. Jessica whacked her right in the nose; Angie went down, a series of limbs hitting the canvas in a successive heap. The nervous white girl from Lancaster started dancing around, and it was “Sweet Ass Jessie” this time, her reward whistles and hooting. Angie was out for 15 minutes, white-cloaked medical personnel bending ominously over her. They revived her, and the same crowd that had cheered the sophistication of the earlier male boxers gave a perfunctory clap for Angie’s health, and then immediately started chanting for the evening’s male headliner, a fighter with the nickname “Black Gold.”

Boxing has long existed in a cultural ghetto, revelling in its corruption and violence. Women’s boxing operates in a further ghetto still. No one other than the fighters really takes it seriously–not the audience, not the referees, not the trainers. I’ve been to more than a dozen women’s fights since that first one, and nearly all were just like it, 45-second bloodfests. It’s hard to figure what appeals to the girls who fight: You get thrown in the ring with some cretin who is trying to rip your head off, you have no idea how to defend yourself, and all the while a thousand sweaty men are shouting at you, trying to be clever about your rear end. No matter how long you fight or how good you become, you’ll never be the headliner, some man will. Nobody cares enough to teach you the craft. The fights are brutal, sexualized, and uncontrollable. What’s more, there is not much money in the sport–probably the only female boxers you’ve ever heard of are the daughters of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier–because no significant television audience would ever pay to see this crap. And yet the girls keep signing up, keep coming.

A movie (and, it now seems, Oscar favorite) out from Paramount since Christmas, called Million Dollar Baby, traces the pathologies of this sport with a mostly deft touch and only the occasional off-putting bout of fantasy. The storyline is simple: A poor girl from the Ozarks with the ethnically-precise name of Maggie Fitzgerald, moves to Los Angeles. She is 31 and has been a diner waitress since 13, picking half-finished steaks off her customers’ plates for her own dinner. She believes she will be a champion women’s boxer–why she wants to fight is never fully explained, though Maggie, who is played by Hilary Swank, seems to think it’s the only thing she has ever been good at. Maggie seizes upon a respected, older blue-collar trainer named Frankie Dunn and begs him to make her a champion. He balks. (Because Clint Eastwood plays Dunn, there is also a lot of soulful squinting.) She demonstrates her will, perseverance, brains, and determination. After a lot of gruff I-don’t-train-girls talk, Dunn takes her on and Maggie proves to be an outstanding student. Dunn teaches her the pure mechanics of the sport in a long training sequence that is the best explanatory document of boxing I’ve ever seen or read, Malcolm Gladwell assigned to the ring. To pivot to the left, you press down on your right big toe. Boxing is counter-intuitive, about opposites.

To the surprise of no one except the movie’s characters, Maggie makes it. Dunn teaches her how to bait younger, stronger girls; he gets her championship fights, and she starts to win. This was the moment when I became nervous–it seemed like the story was drifting into fantasy. The crowds Maggie fought in front of were supportive, paternal, interested in the tactics of her fight and not in the rough pornography of watching two women pound one another. She fought in clean, well-lit places. She fought expertly, against expert opponents, and for this mastery of craft she made millions of dollars. This was Rocky, with a second X chromosome. This was the full narrative thrust that the critics had described, and so I went in expecting to be disappointed by a fraud of a movie.

But there’s an awkward convention that persists among movie critics. They never mention the end of any film, the moment when the director’s judgment on all the film’s events and themes is finally consummated. It’s in some ways a ridiculous stand, like assessing Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War without considering anything that happened after Antietam. And in the case of Million Dollar Baby, it’s particularly absurd because the fantasy that has built up dissolves in a ring scene of sickening brutality, and the movie’s last 30 minutes (though they feel like a dramatic fraud) end up showing the guilt and tumult that develops in those who back a fighter who has been left near death, and a girl fighter at that. In this, the film doesn’t cheat.

Women’s boxing inherits its audience, and therefore its pathologies, from the men’s side of the sport. Boxing was always pornography of some kind; it’s no accident that the two great novels of black male experience, Invisible Man and Black Boy, both have extended boxing scenes in which muscular, scared black kids fight for the pleasure of fat, white crowds. But things have gotten worse since Ellison and Wright’s time. Men’s boxing has spent the last half century in decline; what was once one of the country’s most popular sports has descended into a subculture that is now wholly dangerous and corrupt; few middle-class people, outside of slummers like me, ever go to fights anymore. Boxing itself is responsible for part of this, with its corrupt regulatory bodies and its decision to relegate the sport to pay-per-view. And it doesn’t help that American tastes have dandified; this is a middle-class country now, and boxing simply isn’t a middle-class sport. And so for the older gentlemen in the Blue Horizon’s balcony, the very presence of women fighting in front of them marks a comedown in the world; what their fathers watched as art is now inescapably exploitation, a catfight.

Women’s boxing seems to be barely not worth worrying about, another freak show, except that for all the indignities and the lack of reward, the fighters keep coming. There’s no shortage of working class girls out there who, when all else fails, rely on their physical selves and swing away, hoping to steal a little celebrity on the side. The fighters themselves seem unable to explain their motivations; when pressed by interviewers, they say only that they should be able to box if boys do. Million Dollar Baby can feel similarly unsatisfying. It takes Maggie’s assertion that boxing is the only thing she could ever be famous at, accepts–as movie people tend to–that every human being has an inner yearning to become a celebrity and leaves it there.

Or maybe it doesn’t, quite. Maggie’s career, after all, traces the arc of the sport: What began as a few day-dreamy women in gyms, believing they could punch back as hard and as fast as some of the guys, has devolved into something very ugly, very violent. It documents the cheat run on working-class girls who think they might find liberation in the ring, like Rocky did, like all the guys can.