I anticipated a course in old boxing culture, an American lesson about a global icon, an exposure to defining moments in this country and the history of another. And, I suppose, Norman Mailer’s “The Fight” – a work about Ali v. Foreman, 1975 – delivered those things.
Mailer presented bits and pieces of the Kinshasa social and cultural canvas on which The Rumble in the Jungle was painted. He brought us into the Congo and showed President Mobutu and his power — bringing the Ali-Foreman fight to Kinshasa was described as a “victory for Mobutism” on posters.
He took us into musty boxing gyms and wrote about Muhammad, how he trained and prepared and so dearly guarded the inventory of ego and invincibility that fueled him. Mailer covered the outer calmness of Foreman and the inner brashness of Ali’s camp and the loudness and hustle of a young Don King.
Oh, Mailer did a lot more with those subjects, and he wrote about them so exhaustively that if you want “The Fight” to be a boxing book, well, then it is a boxing book. I came away with a little bit of that, the boxing.
But, ultimately, this isn’t about two powerful men circling each other, threatening to make the other a little less powerful. The overwhelming feeling that I got reading “The Fight” was that Mailer intended to show not what people do, but what motivates them. I’m sure there are thousands of other books that achieve this, but I’ve never felt so deep inside the mind of a character than I did while reading “The Fight.” Turning the pages, in which Mailer goes on intently observing and dissecting his subjects, felt like an exercise in trespassing. It felt intrusive.
In ‘Carnal Indifference,’ the opening chapter, Mailer spends 16 pages observing Ali work out, examining his skills and reading his expressions and drawing conclusions from his body language. In the second paragraph of the book, you get this:
When he is depressed, however, his pale skin turns the color of coffee with milky water, no cream. There is the sickly green of a depressed morning in the muddy washes of the flesh. He looks not quite well.
The whole damn book is like that, Mailer looking over a man, not particularly interested in the act he’s performing, but what he thinks and believes as he performs it. Because I believe this is the essence of “The Fight,” I’m not going to spoil the narrative in some de facto review. Instead, I’ll rank the five “characters” who intrigued me the most.
1. Muhammad Ali
Obvious choice here. For those of my generation, Ali is more legend and mystifying god than professional athlete. I never saw Ali fight in his prime, or at any time. By the time I came to know who Ali was, his health had declined and his career and life had long been fed through the machines of American marketing. But this book brings a young and exuberant Ali to life, his arrogance and confidence and kindness and intelligence.
My two favorite Ali moments: After the workout in the first chapter, Ali meets with reporters and reveals the depth of his intellectual curiosity. He tells reporters he has “serious poetry I’m applying my mind to.” From memory, he recites: The words of truth are touching/The voice of truth is deep/The law of truth is simple/On your soul you reap. I got a kick out of this.
Secondly, there’s a moment when Ali’s boxing history is being compared to Foreman’s, and this, of course, makes Ali laugh and sneer. Ali tells reporters about all the great fighters he faced before Foreman’s career began, and then he asks Angelo Dundee, his trainer, to read off who Foreman has fought. And so Angelo does, and Ali responds to each one.
Don Waldheim. “A nobody.” Fred Askew. “A nobody.” Sylvester Dullaire. “A nobody.” Chuck Wepner. “Nobody.” John Carroll. “Nobody.” …
This went on and on. It was beautiful. It was Ali.
2. Norman Mailer
To me, one of the most interesting pieces of the book is the decision Mailer makes to not relieve his writer self from the story, but rather to thrust himself into the middle of it, as a central character who is exposed to all of the elements the others are. Mailer observes the power and frailty of his own persona just as he does with the fighters and their cornermen, offering assumptions about his own motivations and ego, hiding nothing. It’s striking for a couple reasons.
One, because it seems like a near impossible task to simultaneously lie on the couch and sit in the chair, the psychologist and the patient. Two, because it speaks to a form of literature and writing that has been squeezed from our pages and screens today. A preeminent writer penning a third-person piece or book about one of the country’s iconic sporting events? I haven’t seen that. Here’s Mailer describing his point of view:
Now our man of wisdom had a vice. He wrote about himself. Not only would he describe the events he saw, but his own small effect on events. This irritated critics. They spoke of ego trips and the unattractive dimensions of his narcissism. Such criticism did not hurt too much. He had already had a love affair with himself, and it used up a good deal of love. …
It would hardly be congenial to follow a long piece of prose if the narrator appeared only as an abstraction: The Writer, The Traveler, The Interviewer. That is unhappy in much the way one would not wish to live with a woman for years and think of her as The Wife. Nonetheless, Norman was certainly feeling modest on his return to New York and thought he might as well use his first name – everybody in the fight game did.
3. George Foreman
Foreman appealed to me because he was the antithesis to Ali, in both the physical tone of his fighting and the conservative measures he lived by outside of the ring. While Ali would prance on the canvas and bounce of the ropes, a ballerina in a brute’s body, Foreman was stubborn, believing in the sheer force of strength and the notion it could overcome a fighter who competed with his mind as much as his clenched fists.
Foreman was much more modern in the way he conducted himself with the media. He would walk through the hotel lobby with an expressionless face and politely bypass questions. If he did speak, he was polite but direct. He didn’t have nearly the gravitas of the mouth that Ali did, and didn’t seem to care for the showmanship of boxing, the selling of the sport. George Foreman just wanted to step in the ring and hit you. That’s it. That was the pleasure in it for him.
And, of course, there was the weapons Foreman attacked you with – his fists. He protected those fists, understanding their power and importance to his well-being. He would move around with his hands in his pockets, not removing them to even shake a hand. This fascinated Mailer. Not since Norman worked for a summer in a mental hospital had he been near anyone who could stand so long without moving, hands in pockets, vaults of silence for his private chamber.
In a weird way, Ali was almost too open for my liking. There was little left to imagine about Ali. Everything about him just squashed curiosity, because he gave all. With Foreman, I always had this image – and, I admit, this is weird – of him standing against a wall, hands in his pockets, peering out of a window into the distance of Kinshasa, counting the days and hours and minutes in his mind until he’d strike Ali. It’s a riveting image that kept me engaged throughout the entire book. I always wanted to know more about Foreman.
Perhaps the best line of the book: [Foreman’s hands] were his instrument, and he kept them in his pockets the way a hunter lays his rifle back into its velvet case.
4. Bantu philsophy
Bantu philosphy isn’t a “character” like a person is, but it’s such a driving theme of Mailer’s narrative that it slithers through the plot in the most alive, blooded kind of way.
“Bantu Philosophy” is a book written by Father Tempels, a Dutch priest, that Mailer reads, and it becomes the guiding light by which Mailer views his subjects and crafts his prose. The essence of the philosophy, from the book: Bantu philosophy saw humans as forces, not beings … By such logic, men or women were more than parts of themselves.
It can be an elusive concept at times, but its effect on how Mailer tells the story is substantial, and you find yourself reading through the lens of the philosophy, viewing Ali and Foreman as something more than great fighters. You begin to buy into the ethos of the story that Mailer is trying to get at.
Dundee is more acclaimed in history – and also known for allegedly loosening the ropes on the ring so Ali could perform his famous rope-a-dope tactic against Foreman — but assistant trainer Drew Bundini Brown made for a much more interesting book character. Bundini was the pump behind Ali’s endless flow of egotistical blathering. Bundini was louder than Ali, harsher than Ali. When Ali ranted, you got the sense that he was a showman at work, a competitor satisfying his soul’s desire to be reassured before entering a fight. That likely was just Ali’s charisma.
With Bundini, his rants felt like vicious attempts to confirm his placement in an operation that could move on without him. I don’t know, specifically, how large of an effect Bundini had on Ali, and I don’t know, specifically, what Ali would have been like, as a fighter or a public figure, if Bundini wasn’t part of his inner circle. But I’m fairly certain Ali would have made due, one way or another.
Bundini? I was always at odds with his character while reading. His verbal wars with Foreman’s camp didn’t seem to serve a purpose for me. I never really understood why Ali didn’t muzzle him. He sort of did in the dressing room before the fight, when he refused to wear the robe Bundini had brought for him, but by this time it didn’t matter. There wasn’t any more time to talk anyway. The fight had arrived.
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