Norman Mailer and 'The Fight'

By James Forster - 'The Fight' is the late writer Norman Mailer's classic account of the 1974 World Heavyweight Championship bout between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire. The contest, the personalities, the preparation, the mental games, the entourages, the intrigue, 'Bantu' philosophy, and the extraordinary experience of being in Africa for such a spectacular and unique event..

'There is always a shock in seeing him again,' writes Mailer at the start of the book. '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. 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 book begins in the location of Deer Lake, Ali's famous training camp. Ali is down and not quite himself and Mailer picks up on this. He spends time considering Ali's performance in the gym and his choice of sparring partners. He writes about how Ali is using the sparring partners, who include future heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, to refine intricate techniques that seem obtuse or invisible to those who haven't learnt to read Ali. Mailer paints a picture of lethargy but the nonconformist in Ali perks up when he hears some odds for the fight. Foreman is a very heavy betting favourite. He's just destroyed Joe Frazier and Ken Norton ('One whole horrendous nightmare' is Mailer's description of the Foreman/Norton fight) and is considered unstoppable. An even more monstrous version of Sonny Liston. In fact, a lot of people think Ali could be seriously hurt in this fight. Mailer sets up the titanic event with this chapter. The Prince is back to reclaim his throne but he's older now and facing a mission that most think is beyond him.

'The funk of terror was being compressed into psychic bricks. What a wall of ego Ali's will had erected over the years.'

'Taken directly,' the author writes, by way of introduction to Ali's opponent. 'Foreman was no small representative of vital force. He appeared sleepy but in the way of a lion digesting a carcass.' Foreman apologizes to Mailer for not shaking hands, explaining that he's keeping them in his pockets. 'Of course!' reflects Mailer.'If they were in pockets, how could he remove them? As soon ask a poet in the middle of writing a line whether coffee is taken with milk or cream. They were his instrument and he kept them in his pockets the way a hunter lays his rifle back into its velvet case.'

If there was one thing that Mailer loved more than boxing it was probably writing about himself. Though gently mocked for his ego, Mailer, who I suspect had a very keen sense of mischief, tackles this issue head on and turns it into a sort of joke. '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 narcissism. Such criticisms did not hurt too much. He had already had a love affair with himself, and it used up a good deal of love.' Mailer knowingly refers to himself as 'Norman' through the book as we draw closer to the contest.

Favourite bit in The Fight for me? Mailer, a modest and occasional jogger, arranges to join Ali on one of his training runs at three in the morning. Instead of having an early night and grabbing a few hours sleep Mailer can't resist a trip to the casino instead where he, somewhat foolishly, indulges in steak, fish chowder, ice cream and several alcoholic drinks. In the still African night a groggy Mailer, Ali, and Ali's bodyguard, begin the training run. Mailer, the contents of his stomach repeating on him in a most unpleasant manner, sticks it out for as long as he can but eventually drops out in the middle of nowhere for fear of slowing down Ali and hampering his careful preparation for this seemingly impossible fight. Alone in the dark, Mailer is shocked to hear the roar of a nearby Lion! Later, Ali laughs when Mailer is reminded that he had simply wandered past the local Zoo!

Other memorable passages include Mailer experiencing mild but unexpected doubts about the champion. The source? Foreman is being thrashed at table-tennis by his famous old trainer Archie Moore! 'The thought ocurred that Ali would play ping-pong better,' writes Mailer, noting Foreman's terrible hand to eye co-ordination and lack of speed. On a similar note, Ali watches video tapes of Foreman knocking numerous opponents out. Far from terrifying him, as it would any normal person, Ali seems happy. He has noticed something about Foreman that no mere mortal can see.

Mailer also writes warmly about Archie Moore in the book, Moore being one of Mailer's heroes decades before. 'Moore was to boxing what Nimozovitch had been to chess.' I love Mailer's updated description of "The Mongoose"; 'These days Moore looked like an orotund professor who played saxaphone on weekends. His gray mustache curved down on each side of his mouth in a benign Fu Manchu and his sideburns grew like mutton chops.'

Mailer also includes an interesting description of a vocal debate between Foreman's chief sparring partner Elmo Henderson and Ali's famous entourage cheerleader Drew 'Bundini' Brown as they both heckle one another. Mailer always seems genuinely interested in 'Bundini' and details some interesting late night conversations about religion the pair had and reflects on their history and past encounters. Other interesting characters who feature in the book include (of course) Don King, who Mailer is intrigued by, King's act being relatively new back then and not so tarnished, plus Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee, Foreman camp members Dick and Sandy Sadler, and Mailer's friend and fellow writer George Plimpton. Hunter S Thompson is also there to cover the fight and is described by Mailer as 'So strung out that he squeaked if you poked a finger near his belly. He was a set of nerves balanced on another set of nerves traveling on squeaky roller skates.'

Ali's (then) wife Belinda, who is six-foot tall, Muslim and a karate black-belt, is described by Mailer as looking like a 'Greek Statue' but turns out to have a good sense of fun, joking with her husband about how he might have to take lessons in falling on 'his ass' for this fight!

Mailer's account of the actual fight is a classic piece of writing with an enjoyable aftermath and wrap-up. He describes Ali's unorthodox 'rope a dope' as 'a man in the rigging' and takes us inside Ali's dressing room just prior to the contest; 'It was a grim dressing room. Perhaps it looked like a comfort station in the Moscow Subway.' Everybody fears the worst.

All except one man.

'Nothing to be scared about,' says the challenger. 'Just another day in the dramatic life of Muhammad Ali.'

The Fight is a remarkably inventive and intelligent book and is highly recommended for boxing fans.

Article posted on 30.01.2009

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