Tag Archives: boxing

The Fight

by Norman Mailer

It is not until page 177 that the bell rings to begin the fight of the title. But, of course, the Rumble in the Jungle was so much more than just 15 rounds of boxing. Mailer was of course a white man, writing about a predominantly black sport. “For Heavyweight boxing was almost all black, black as Bantu. So boxing had become another key to revelations of Black, one more key to black emotion, black psychology, black love.”

He also had extraordinary access to Ali, and although it is clear who he would like to see win, the reportage manages to be simultaneously very fair and impartial while also quite personal and intimate. His sometime technique of writing about the character Norman in the third person is perhaps a part of how he manages this.

We get historical context, not just in terms of boxing, of who had defeated whom in the lead-up to the bout, technique, records, weights, training camps, and all the rest, but also socio-political context, on both the American and the African sides of the Atlantic. Who in America knew where Zaire was, even, before this fight? Mailer takes us from the Belgian Congo of 1880 to present-day Kinshasa and the presidential domain of President Mobutu, and into the stadium, under which holding cells for prisoners had been filled with 300 of the worst criminals of the city, 50 of them executed to serve as an example to all, a bid to quell the wave of violence in the city. Still, it seemed an inhospitable place for two Americans, even black Americans, to come for a world championship: “Manners became so bad that American Blacks were snarling at African Blacks.”

But Ali is comfortable in this realm, and as the movie When We Were Kings showed, the people of Kinshasa loved him. He spent a good deal of time – and there was plenty of time, after the fight was postponed when Foreman was cut in sparring – out among the people.

We learn about the various circles of people who surround the boxers – their trainer, and managers, and sparring partners, and lawyers, and brothers and sisters and wives and hangers-on… A one-man sport that feels like it travels with a team, or like a rock band on tour. We learn also about Mailer’s circle, about the other writers – somewhere near 200 journalists covered the fight – and where they stay and what access they have to the fighters, and the angle they are going for.

What is Mailer’s angle? He gives enormous respect to Foreman, and we learn a great deal about him and his entourage. Still, it is Ali who he knows as a friend, and as an insider, he is permitted access unheard of for others covering the fight. Most impressive, even more impressive than access to Ali’s dressing room before and after the fight, is Mailer’s run with Ali, in the African pre-dawn, with lions roaring in the distance. How many writers – or anyone – can say they’ve done that? This is the relationship and perspective that Mailer brings to his subject.

And then there is the fight. If you’ve seen it, you know how it went. And yet Mailer’s description brings detail and nuance and yes beauty to the fight. That he is able to do this is a result of course of the luxury of retrospect and reviewing, of time spent finding the bon mot. Ringside announcing this is not. After the first round:

“How does Ali dare? A magnificent round. Norman has few vanities left, but thinks he knows something about boxing. He is ready to serve as engineer on Ali’s trip to the moon. For Ali is one artist who does not box by right counter to left hook. He fights the entirety of the other person. He lives in fields of concentration where he can detect the smallest flicker of lack of concentration. Foreman has shown himself a lack of quiver flat to the possibility of a right. Who before this had dared after all to hit Forman with a right? Of late his opponents were afraid to flick him with a jab. Fast were Foreman’s hands, but held a flat spot of complacency before the right. He was not ready for a man to come into the ring unafraid of him. That offered its beauty. But frightening. Ali cannot fight every round like this. Such a pace will kill him in five. Indeed he could be worried as he sits in the corner. It has been his round, but what a force to Forman’s punches. It is true. Foreman hits harder than other fighters. And takes a very good punch. Ali looks thoughtful.”

And thoughtful is, ultimately, one of the best ways to describe this book. A brutal sport, and a brutal fight, described in terms that return to it its humanity. Because, after all, why do we care? Why do we want to watch two men fight with their hands in a land thousands of miles away? Because of the people involved, because they are people that at some level we can see reflected in ourselves and in our cultures. The Africans of Kinshasa are people, the fighters are people, the audience are people, and for one night we leave behind all of our differences except perhaps which of the two we are rooting for, and share in some basic way our humanity.

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