Illustration by John Garrison 

Step into the Ring with Boxing Superfan Jenny Lewis

We talked to the singer about how a head injury led her to develop an obsession with boxing.

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Mar 4 2019, 4:00pm

Illustration by John Garrison 

Get a Life pairs artists with writers who share the same hobby.

I’ve spent the last decade-plus writing about boxing. I’ve spent even more time as a fan of Jenny Lewis’ music. In 2012, I was attending a fight almost every weekend. To kill time during lulls in the action, I would scroll through Twitter on my phone and, to my surprise, I’d find the singer weighing in on them. Boxing became a regular theme in Lewis’ social media presence. Even when she performed with the Postal Service at Coachella in 2013, she watched a Canelo fight in her trailer before taking the stage. It was like I was George Costanza and my worlds were colliding.

Years later, I bumped into Lewis in person a couple of times and our conversations always drifted towards boxing. I first met her at Willie Nelson’s Ranch at 2016’s SXSW. Our entire 20-minute conversation revolved around the sport, as a few days earlier she had attended a low-level fight at a Marriott in the Valley. Late last year it was on the rooftop of the Fonda Theatre after a Phoenix show, and we were both headed to The Forum the next night for a fight. Her seats ended up being next to mine, and I offered her some insight into the stories behind each fighter. After that, we stayed in touch and I actually brought her along to a Manny Pacquiao public workout before his fight with Adrien Broner in January, a fight for which she flew solo to Las Vegas.

The Pacquiao workout took place at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, located in a dingy strip mall on Vine Street. Lewis attended just one day after her 43rd birthday and got a photo with Pacquiao, later saying it was a great birthday present. She wore a Wild Card Boxing Club t-shirt, becoming one of those fans who wears the band’s shirt to their concert. At a press conference for the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury heavyweight title fight a month earlier, Lewis had reacted to meeting Freddie Roach the way some of her superfans probably react when meeting her. They traded stories about Aimee Mann, another massive boxing fan with whom Roach had a very close relationship.

Lewis is a very studious boxing fan when she’s watching the fights ringside. She wants to know the backstories of each fighter, enamored by what it must take to send someone down a career path where they get punched in the face for a living. She doesn’t look down at her phone while the fight is taking place. She might dig into her purse for some snacks—at the Pacquiao fight it was a share-sized bag of peanut M&Ms—but otherwise it’s all business.

Though she’ll be the first to tell you she isn’t an expert, make no mistake: Jenny Lewis is a die-hard boxing fan. She goes to low-level club fights in the Valley when she can, something that most self-proclaimed boxing fans won’t do. She’ll be touring in support of her first solo album in five years, On The Line, for much of the spring, but you can call it a happy accident that the tour has a break when fellow redhead Canelo Alvarez fights Danny Jacobs on Cinco de Mayo weekend in one of the biggest fights of the year.

I spoke to Jenny Lewis about what made her a boxing fan and how she even slipped a boxing reference into her latest single “Heads Gonna Roll.”

Noisey: How did you first get interested in boxing?
Jenny Lewis: I'm later to sports in general than most people. Growing up, my mom had a younger boyfriend who was into boxing. He would watch the Tyson fights and I wasn't interested in the sport but found the theater of it really interesting, even as an eight-year-old.

So my interest as an adult came about in 2012. I had a head injury that I got on New Year’s Eve 2011 where I passed out after a combination of wine, weed, and a really tight belt. And I had to get nine staples in the back of my head. Six or eight weeks after the head injury I started experiencing severe insomnia and I didn't know what was happening to me, and it was really one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I was unable to sleep more than 30-minute increments. I watched the entire Sopranos series. I also started watching the [Arturo] Gatti-[Micky] Ward trilogy. And I think I had seen The Fighter. I just started spiraling out on YouTube boxing. Then, after that, I got a subscription to HBO and started watching the HBO 24/7 series. I don't know if that's a gateway for normal people to get into boxing, but after the first episode I was hooked.

For me, as a kid, I was always around boxing, but the thing that sort of thrust me into being a die-hard was this HBO series called Legendary Nights about old fights they had on HBO before my time. It talked about fights in such a theatrical way, it hooked me.
The theater of it all is really what appealed to me initially and the element of triumph over adversity. Going through a really difficult period, I didn't know what was going on, I couldn't fucking sleep. Just this idea that you can fight your way out of any circumstance. The first fight I went to was the [Julio Cesar] Chavez [Jr.] vs. [Sergio] Martinez fight at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas in September, 2012. That particular 24/7 was the classic tale—the rich kid versus the poor kid. I just remember fucking hating Chavez Jr., thinking this fucking shit was not training properly. He's so privileged, he has these opportunities and I kind of went into the fight with a bias. But being in the arena—first of all, the feeling in the arena during a fight is unlike any other feeling in the world. I haven't been to a lot of sporting events aside from my third-grade soccer matches in Van Nuys.

I just knew the vibe in the room was electric and I was really... the fight was really fun to watch. And by the end of it, I was like, “OK, Chavez. I feel you, bro.” He knocked Martinez down in the 12th round and I was really impressed, and I kind of accepted him and accepted the theater of the sport. You gotta have a protagonist, you have to have an antagonist or a super villain in order to get people to watch.

For that fight, your sister came along with you. What was that experience like?
That was our first fight and we went together. I had been staying with her on and off, and we had never really gone to an event together outside of one of my concerts or her shows—she plays in a cover band in the Valley on Saturdays. So this was a big deal for us, a big bonding moment. My sister has always really been into sports. We drove out there together and it was a really great experience for us. She couldn't believe the vibe in the room and, at one point, I looked back and she was being carried off by like five giant men singing the Mexican national anthem. I was like, “Come back! Don't leave me here alone!” But we had a fucking blast. I think the fight culture, just for both of us talking to people in Las Vegas—which is our hometown—about boxing, is just like a built-in community. And people are so willing to share their knowledge with you.

You said the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury heavyweight title fight, which took place at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles in December, was your favorite thing you did last year. What made that the case?
The fight itself. I had never seen a heavyweight fight. I've been to Valley Fight Night a couple of times. So to roll to a heavyweight title fight, it was so exciting and felt like an event from the past. And I brought my friend Jessica, who had never seen a fight before, knows nothing of the sport, and grew up orthodox Jewish, and was asking all these basic questions. Like, “Why would these men hit each other like this? Aren't there other opportunities to get out of the ghettos than fighting? Aren't there other sports? What about tennis?” Just to have this juxtaposition with my friend who is new to the sport and asking all these really cool entry-level questions. The fight itself was just incredible to watch. And the vibe in the crowd with all the Brits—I've never seen such a wasted audience. Everyone was really fucking drunk, it was crazy.

And the story learning about Fury, I don't know a lot about British boxers. I've sort of been more interested in Mexican fighters and American fighters, but learning about what he went through [Fury returned from a three-year hiatus after dealing with depression and drug and alcohol addiction] and seeing his transformation was really inspiring. To go and see this physical manifestation of this transformation in person was pretty great.

One thing you said after the fight when we were talking that really stuck out to me, was when the two guys hugged each other at the final bell. You said, “Wow, it must be a super intimate experience to go through that with someone, almost like having sex.” I also thought it must be as intimate as writing a song with someone. Is that a fair comparison?
Sure. I think any collaboration is heated and intense, and songwriting can often result in verbal blows. [Laughs] But with Wilder and Fury, it seemed really sincere, their connection at the end of the fight. Whereas with Floyd Mayweather it's so money-focused. He's so amazing to watch but you realize his whole thing is about money. But this was about the struggle and the triumph and the intimacy of that moment. Just the idea that it's two men standing up there with their entire past. Their histories, their traumas, their triumphs, wherever they come from, and you bring all of that with you into the ring.

That's gotta be pretty similar to songwriting, right? You bring all of that stuff into what you do and it's such a personal and raw way to make a living.
Yeah, you're toe-to-toe with your demons. I keep having this dream about fighting myself in the ring. It's pretty cliché and a pretty obvious Psych 101 thing, but where you're truly battling it out with yourself.

One thing you touched on earlier—these fighters' backgrounds. It's basically a lot of their way out of whatever difficult upbringing or tough surroundings. You come from this child actor background where you were the provider from a really young age. I feel like there's a kinship between you and fighters in that regard.
I remember from that initial HBO 24/7, an interview with Martinez about growing up in Argentina and how he explained growing up in poverty. They didn't always have enough to eat. That resonated with me. I was the breadwinner from the time I was three or four years old. And my family we are working-class, showbiz folks. My grandfather was on vaudeville. He didn't succeed. He was actually a Golden Gloves fighter as far as the story goes. But he started out as a singer and that didn't work out. He was a fighter, he was a gangster, ended up in jail.

I feel like my people have fought their way out of poverty. My grandmother was a dancer. Showbiz was really the only way out without an education or money to get an education. My mom grew up very poor in Echo Park and singing was her only way out of the hood. She was married at 15 to a Mexican gangster. She went to Vegas with a dream of getting out where she met my father, who was a kid on the road from the time he was 12 or 13 with this vaudeville harmonica group. They met and hustled in Vegas and got a gig playing the lounges in all the hotels where they were paid in cash and got to live in the hotel rooms and they'd go down and work and leave me and my sister in the room with the do not disturb sign on until my sister was old enough to join the group. So it really is a hustle to survive.

Manny Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach is one of your favorite people. And I feel like you might be the Freddie Roach of indie rock. In your touring bands, you've had people like a young Danielle Haim, Natalie Prass, Tristen, all these people that have gone on to success after leaving your live band. You always take on these young talented rockers. I wonder if you ever saw that role for yourself?
Well, first of all, that's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, so thank you. I'm always looking for great talent. I've always reached out to women to help me with my music, but also I've found myself in this mentor position. Which isn't necessarily intentional from the jump.

With Danielle, it was her first tour ever. She was still keeping kosher and I had to meet with her parents before she came out on the road with me. And then her sister Este joined my band for a show. Then at one point we talked about Alana also joining the band. I talked to the Haim patriarch "Moti" and he was like, "Well, next time all three of them!" And then they blew up on their own. I'm always happy to provide a safe environment for women in my band and hopefully they've all had positive experiences. But I've also had not just women. Blake Mills was in my band, Jonathan Wilson. I've been really lucky in my career to collaborate with some of the best musicians around.

Have you ever thought about if you were a fighter what your walk-out song would be?
Wow, I have not. Let me think about that one because that's a great question. But there's a song on my new record called "Heads Gonna Roll" which is a boxing reference. I don't know if people are gonna catch onto that but in the first verse: "I'm gonna keep on dancing until I hear that ringing bell.” It's a Mayweather reference.

I always thought the Rilo Kiley song "Moneymaker" would have been a great boxing walkout song. Even though that song is about sex workers, it would have fit. "You've got the moneymaker, this is your chance to make it out of here..."
I think that's the one. Can we get that song to Floyd?

Is there anything else you want to say to the Jenny Lewis or boxing fans that will read this?
I wanted to give one shout out to my favorite boxing podcast. It's called Beating The Odds with Beeb.

This interview has been edited for length.

Mark Ortega is on Twitter.