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Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Fight

After the death of Muhammad Ali, I read an article in the New York Times listing the best books about Ali. One of them was The Fight, by Norman Mailer, which I had never heard of before. I was aware that Mailer covered the 1974 championship fight, Ali vs. Foreman, the "Rumble in the Jungle," by his appearance in the wonderful documentary When We Were Kings. I am a Mailer fan, despite his tendency for being too in love with his own writing, so I read it and loved it.

Reading Mailer's journalism, as I have with Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, is to be aware that much of it will be about Norman Mailer. He was an egomaniac--he was a great writer and he knew it. So it is with The Fight, in which Mailer refers to himself in the third person (mostly as "Norman") and is unabashedly an Ali fan: "There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their
lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous."

The fight was held in Kinshasa in what was then Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) and there are all sorts of layers of meaning in Mailer's discussion of African politics, Bantu philosophy, and n'golo, a word meaning power. The fight was in 1974, not exactly post-racial America, and Mailer is respectful of Blacks (he capitalizes the word) but is not, as we might say today, down with all of black culture.

The match certainly was a media circus, even taking place halfway around the world from Madison Square Garden, where most heavyweight championship fights were held. Not just Mailer but George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson were there, Mailer discusses them (Thompson's reply to everything was "bad Genet") as well as the various trainers, managers, and hangers-on, especially Drew Bundini Brown, Ali's assistant trainer who maintained that he could not read nor write. And, of course, Don King: "King wore diamonds and pleated shirts, dashikis with gold pendants, powder-blue tuxedos and suits of lipstick-red; the cummerbunds of a sultan were about his waist, and the pearls of the Orient in the cloth he wore. How he could talk. He was the kuntu of full dialogue, and no verbal situation could be foreign to him."

Mailer does pay Foreman his respect. "He did not just hit hard, he hit in such a way that the nucleus of his opponent’s will was reached. Fission began. Consciousness exploded. The head smote the spine with a lightning bolt and the legs came apart like falling walls. On the night Foreman took his championship, who could forget the film of Frazier’s urgent legs staggering around the ring, looking for their lost leader?" The great paradox of Foreman is that at that time Ali called him "The Mummy," mostly because he didn't speak much. Years later, those who are only young enough to remember him for his loquaciousness in his grill commercials may find that hard to believe.

Mailer inserts some amusing anecdotes, such as going on a pre-dawn jog with Ali. He managed to make it two and a half miles, and walks back alone. He hears a lion roaring, and imagines the headlines of his death, and how it would been a more appropriate death of Hemingway. Later he is told that it was a lion from a nearby zoo.

Finally the fight. Mailer either took copious notes, watched a film of it, or had a fantastic memory, because he recounts it almost punch by punch. He notes that Ali used right leads, a dangerous tactic since it left him open for retaliation. We hear about Ali's rope strategy, he lay back and let Foreman punch himself out. It's thrilling writing: "Again they moved through invisible reaches of attraction and repulsion, darting forward, sliding to the side, cocking their heads, each trying to strike an itch to panic in the other, two big men fast as pumas, charged as tigers — unseen sparks came off their moves." Then he writes of the champion, thought to be unbeatable, as he fell: "He looked like a drunk, or rather a somnambulist, in a dance marathon."

For a few moments,  after the fight, Mailer found himself the only reporter in Ali's dressing room. "The only sign he had been in a fight is that he moved with an extra subtlety of anticipation like a man who has been in a wreck and does not know where pains will yet disclose themselves."

The fight was forty-two years ago, and I didn't see it live (it aired at four o'clock in the morning local time, presumably to be able to show it live in the U.S.) but I was certainly aware of it. No one thought Ali would win, except those who really knew their boxing, and the heart of Ali. The Fight has got to be the best chronicle of that great sporting event, and is a must for both fans of boxing and Mailer, one of the America's greatest writers.

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