What comes to mind when you think of boxing? A savage sport in which two people try to beat each other into submission? A bloodthirsty sport that promotes violence? Well, you might need to read Norman Mailer’s epic story of the fight between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, 1974, to get a better perspective of the sport. No, we are not saying The Fight will make you love boxing. It will just make you understand what is at stake sometimes in a sporting encounter, in a wonderfully crafted 250 pages.
On paper, this was a battle between the existing champion George Foreman and the former champion, Muhammad Ali (formerly known as Cassius Clay). But in reality, it was much more than that. Foreman represented the establishment, which had stripped Ali of his title years ago when he refused to go and fight in Vietnam. Not too many gave an older, slower Ali a chance against Foreman who was known for punching with near murderous power. But Ali himself felt he had a chance, not least because the fight was being hosted not in an American city, but in the heart of Africa, in Zaire.
The Fight is the story of the bout. Well, partly the bout. For, Norman Mailer was not a sports writer. He was a celebrated fiction writer, known for books like The Naked and The Dead. And yet, there he was, witnessing what promised to be a great event. Most sports writers would have focused on the boxers and their preparation and the fight itself. Mailer does that, but what he also does is talk of the country and its people, he speaks to common people, discusses politics and even talks to a witch doctor about fixing the result of a fight. Oh, and he goes jogging with Muhammad Ali and predictably is not able to keep up with him. There are conversations with members of the entourage of both boxers, other media people and of course, with the boxers themselves. With each page that passes, the significance of the fight looms larger. And of course, the final chapters are about the fight itself, right from an argument in the dressing room where Ali slaps one of his friends, to the end, when one of the fighters faints in the ring.
It is sports writing at its best. Simply because it goes beyond sport and embraces the people around it. You do not need to like, or even know, boxing to love The Fight. It is a beautifully written book (the language is easy, relax!) about an important event, and the people involved in it, and the people around them, and the people around those people…Mailer shows us that sport is not about technique or stars. It is about people. There is some beautiful writing here. Writing you will come back to again and again. To quote. To share. And sometimes just to read. To find out how much there is to a sport.
Easily the greatest book on sport ever written.
(Want to see the bout the book covers? You can see the entire Ali vs Foreman fight on YouTube here. Want some Hollywood? Well, here is the way the fight was shown in “Ali,” the film in which Will Smith starred as Muhammad Ali.)