The Fight by Norman Mailer book review.

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“Ali even motivates the dead”. (Don King)

On the 26 March 1974 in Venezuela, George Foreman defended his heavyweight title against Ken Norton. Muhammad Ali sat ringside with commentator Bob Sheridan; even as a non-combatant, Ali dominated the event. Ali greater than the sport itself, given the role he played in reviving boxing. Nevertheless, through years of exile, after his refusal to fight in South-East Asia, Ali received little thanks; the boxing establishment froze him out.  His own sense of justice always acute, as his response as a youth, living in Louisville, to the murder Emmett Till in Mississippi (1955) indicates.  A name change and subsequent religious conversion followed, built on an outlook shaped by Marcus Garvey, a philosophical interest emanating from his father, Cassius, Sr.  And it would be back in Africa, 40 years ago, that Ali would remedy a personal injustice with universal relevance. 

In discussion with Sheridan March 1974, Ali mentioned a provisional fight planned with Foreman; it would take place later that year, sponsored by the government of Zaire, for a substantial purse.  Ali appeared pessimistic it would happen; he did not believe Foreman could defeat Norton.  Ali`s predictions famously accurate but wrong this time, it was not Ken Norton`s night.  The fight in Caracas lasted two minutes into the second round. Ali located next to a microphone is heard shouting instructions, and pleading with Norton to hit Foreman with “rights!”  Norton in response to Ali`s exhortation throws a connecting right.  Ali roars, “there you go Kenny!” an inadvertently ominous exaltation.  But Ali saw something in that one-sided encounter that he could use in Zaire. Ali, the Professor of boxing, had formulated a strategy to defeat the younger, stronger and harder punching opponent.  Ali adroitly belittled his own attributes in interview with Sheridan after Foreman`s display; in which he clinically highlighted the Champs strengths, an objective appraisal, in which Ali also logically identified why he would prevail in Zaire.

The Rumble In the Jungle became a David v Goliath encounter, with Ali assuming the role of David to Foreman`s Goliath.  But the Biblical David had far more advantages than disadvantages.  The same true of Ali.  David the expert marksman had his sling and stones, which he used to destructive effect, Ali had the loose ring ropes from which he precariously kept out of range and sprung stinging like a bee, with lighting hand speed and accuracy. True, Ali tried to use the ropes in a similar fashion against Joe Frazier in their first encounter but the tactic would be perfected in Zaire.

Ali in an audacious and unorthodox approach would throw an abundance of right hand leads in Zaire at Foreman.  In doing so he made George very angry but unlike Ken Norton, Ali survived and knocked George out. How he did so, is explored among other things by Norman Mailer in `The Fight`.  No mere account of a boxing match, just as Melville’s `Moby Dick`, is not simply a treatise on deep sea fishing. Mailer`s status as a writer clearly opened doors that would otherwise have been closed to a sports journalist.  Mailer after all was the doyen of New Journalism; his early account of the 1960 Democratic convention became a template for this journalistic style/approach (there is even a cameo appearance by Hunter Thompson).

Mailer`s standing as a writer bizarrely becomes a feature of the book, the theme highlighted as Mailer interacts with the various characters that inhabit the text.  There is a good deal of Mailer evident, he references himself often, describing his various antics.  The most precarious while imbued with booze, he climbs outside his apartment on a thin ledge. He also goes for a training run with Ali, a wasted aerobic endeavour, though it produces a brilliant piece of prose.  Mailer`s ego legend; though it never outshines the protagonists (how could it?) and the access he gets assures that `The Fight` is exciting, emotional and a humorous read.

Mailer examines a breathtaking range of issues, not always linked to boxing. Unsurprisingly there is a discourse on race in the USA.  Mailer returning to a theme he explored in 1957, `The White Negro`, in which he romanticised the African-American experience.  In `The Fight` there is an examination of the Black Power Movement, a disappointing development according to Mailer.  In this text he moves away from the precepts of his 1957 thesis, though it was not always clear what Mailer was driving at.  The same true when he links the theme to Father Tempels thesis Bantu Philosophy, connections also to Janheinz Jahn`s, `Muntu, the New African Culture. ` This area of `The Fight` perhaps indicative of Mailer`s early interest in Oswald Spengler.

Mailer examines the situation in Kinshasa, Zaire providing insight into the Cult of President Mobutu Sese Seko “all powerful warrior”.   This issue recently explored by Thomas Yocum, who highlighted developments in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) post, the Foreman v Ali encounter.  Yocum describes the early policies of Mobutu, observations also found in `The Fight`.  Mailer highlights the arbitrary arrest of criminal suspects and subsequent executions in order to engender widespread fear. The book contextualises social, economic and political factors which act as the back drop to this boxing match, which was after all, designed to strengthen the Cult of Mobutu. `The Fight` confronts the ethical issue of this multi-dollar sporting/media event taking place, a thousand miles from famine.

Mailer is clearly an admirer of Ali (`The Prince of Heaven`).  Though he does indulge in waspish commentary, when analysing Ali`s poetry (`prophetic boxing doggerel – the poem as worthless as the prediction was often exact`).  A well executed and amusing critique, which is worth contrasting with the equally waspish George Plimpton (companion of Mailer in Africa and source), who makes emotional reference to Ali`s poetic prowess in the movie `When We Were Kings`.  Although Mailer concedes that Ali`s genius extended beyond the square ring, the Greatest he informs us, “could talk at the rate of 300 new words a minute.”  The most eloquent commentary (high praise indeed) on Ali comes from an erudite Don King, not a man noted for left-wing leanings, in passing he told Mailer that he learnt much from reading Karl Marx.

If Mailer was supporting Ali, he did not lack objectivity; he clearly thought Ali was going to lose. And the substantial portrayal of Foreman a sympathetic one, which highlights Foreman`s incredible power as a boxer, while encompassing his intelligence, humour and capacity for self deprecation.  He is depicted as a boxer with maximum confidence (and force) but little arrogance. Foreman was injured while training, forcing a delay in the fight.  His sparring, thus limited. Foreman famously did a good deal of training on the heavy bag, which Mailer describes in detail, “Foreman hit the heavy bag with the confidence of a man who can pick up a sledge hammer and knock down a tree.”  Foreman indeed was a dangerous opponent (an understatement, 20 years later he would cure a bout of hiccups in any heavyweight fighter).  But Ali`s `rope a dope` approach transformed him, as Mailer points out, into a reed caught by the wind, impossible to hit with a sledgehammer. George of course connected enough to easily wilt lesser men but Ali was the Greatest. As George discovered to his cost, Ali had undergone plenty of work on the heavy bag and didn’t come to dance in Zaire, as he had promised but to fight fire with fire.

The best compliment one can give Mailer is to say the book does complete justice to the fight.  His description of the bout beautifully outlined, especially his depiction of round five.  Mailer and Plimpton were with Ali`s entourage in the dressing room prior to hostilities, a very pessimistic camp according to Mailer. Everyone sad and low, except Ali.  There is an amazing account of the fighter rallying his followers for the battle ahead while falling out with Bundini over his dressing gown.  Ali proving himself a master of psychology and the double bluff; during his interaction with Doc Broadus, a close associate of Foreman, in attendance at the Ali dressing room to observe proceedings.

Prior to the fight Foreman`s camp joined together to pray.  Apparently, one of George`s trainers, Archie Moore, (Emeritus Professor of Boxing) during this moment of contemplation, said a little prayer for Ali, Moore feared the Greatest might be killed by his man in the ring that night.  Ali of course survived; in 8 rounds he experienced more life than your average mortal knows in an entire lifetime.  Like Icarus he may have flown too near the sun but his flight enhanced the lives of millions and contributed to social change in the USA. Muhammad Ali the greatest exponent of the orthodox jab was not a man of the left, as Mailer points out Ali in 1974 was a “conservative” and no doubt remains so today. But regardless of political orientation, race or creed, Muhammad Ali is a hero to me and one whose feet were never made of Clay. 

The Fight, first published by Penguin in 1975.

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