THE FIGHT by Norman Mailer (1975)

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 “Culture's worth huge, huge risks. Without culture we're all totalitarian beasts.” - Norman Mailer


The Fight is acclaimed American journalist Norman Mailer’s account of the 1974 heavyweight boxing championship between then champion George Foreman, and former champion Muhammad Ali, which became infamous as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’.


It is so many tales in one. Naturally the focus is on the fighters, their training, the psychological warfare they employ, and of course, the fight itself. But there are other subplots: racism and redemption, colonialism and post-colonialism, nationalism, and perhaps above all, the craft of journalism.


The story begins in Zaire, Africa, with both fighters already in camp. Mailer begins with a portrait of Ali:


‘There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best…Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.’


We soon get a glimpse of Mailer’s poetic insights. Here he is on Ali’s sparring partner, Jimmy Ellis:


‘Other champions picked sparring partners who could imitate the style of their next opponent…Ali did this also, but reversed the order. For his second fight with Sonny Liston, his favourite had been Jimmy Ellis, an intricate artist who had nothing in common with Sonny. As boxers, Ellis and Liston had such different moves one could not pass a bowl of soup to the other without spilling it.’



Ali is told that Foreman is the favourite:


“They think he’s going to beat me?” Ali cried aloud… “Foreman’s nothing but a hard-push puncher”…Now Ali stood up and threw round air-pushing punches at the air. “You think that’s going to bother me?” he asked, throwing straight lefts and rights at the interviewer that filled the retina two inches short…The funk of terror was being compressed into psychic bricks. What a wall of ego Ali’s will had erected over the years.’


And that’s another curiosity of this book: Mailer refers to himself throughout in the third person. Here he is (referring to himself) finding his story:


‘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.’



There is perhaps something unsettling about a privileged white man writing about two black fighters, both from impoverished backgrounds, and fighting in an impoverished country. Mailer questions his own sincerity:


‘But his love affair with the black soul, a sentimental orgy at its worst, had been given a drubbing through the seasons of Black Power. He no longer knew whether he loved Blacks or secretly disliked them, which had to be the dirtiest secret in his American life.’


He refers to this latent racism as his ‘illness’, and as medicine, undertakes an intensive study of African philosophy. The book is as much about Mailer rediscovering and reaffirming, through the fighters, his admiration for black people.


‘For heavyweight boxing was almost all black…So boxing had become another key to revelations of Black, one more key to black emotion, black psychology, black love…Of course, to try to learn from boxers was a quintessentially comic quest. Boxers were liars. Champions were great liars. They had to be. Once you knew what they thought, you could hit them. So their personalities became masters of concealment.’


Mailer then turns his attention to Foreman:


‘He did not look like a man so much as a lion standing just as erectly as a man.’


‘Other champions had a presence larger than themselves. They offered charisma. Foreman had silence. It vibrated about him in silence…His violence was in the halo of his serenity…One did not allow violence to dissipate; one stored it. Serenity was the vessel where violence could be stored.’


Mailer gives wonderful, pages-long descriptions of Foreman sparring and hitting the heavy bag:


‘These were no ordinary swings…a hundred punches in a row without diminishing his power – he would throw five or six hundred punches in this session, and they were probably the heaviest cumulative series of punches any boxing writer had seen…The bag developed a hollow as deep as his head.’


Here is a clip of Foreman hitting the heavy bag:

Mailer goes on:

‘…the rich even luxuriant power of Foreman’s fist. 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.’


Wow! - Foreman’s power as elemental, nuclear, unstoppable.


At a press conference, Foreman is asked whether he likes being the champ:


“I think about it and I thank God, and I thank George Foreman for having true endurance.” The inevitable schizophrenia of great athletes was in his voice. Like artists, it is hard for them not to see the finished professional as a separate creature from the child that created him. The child (now grown up) still accompanies the great athlete and is wholly in love with him, and immature love, be it said.’


What a great insight: the deep-down child in awe of what he has become. Remember that next time an athlete (or in this case, the very writer!) refers to themselves in the third person.


Compare Foreman’s subdued press conferences to Ali’s:


‘The ring apron in Nsele was six feet above the floor…Ali sat on the apron, his legs dangling, and Bundini {Ali’s manager] stood in front. It looked like Ali was sitting on his shoulders…While he spoke, Ali put his hands on Bundini’s head, as if a crystal ball (a black crystal ball!) were in his palms; each time he would pat Bundini’s bald spot for emphasis, Bundini would glare at the reporters like a witch doctor in stocks.’


Mailer decides to accompany Ali on one of his 3 A.M. runs. In complete contrast to Ali, Mailer spends the night before eating and drinking and gambling. But, against his own good sense and despite his best efforts at self-sabotage, he shows up for the run. Accompanying them is Ali’s personal bodyguard Pat Patterson…’a Chicago cop no darker than Ali, with the solemn even stolid expression of a man who has gone through a number of doors in his life without the absolute certainty that he would walk out again. By day, he always carried a pistol; by night – what a pity not to remember if he strapped a holster over his running gear.’



Mailer sums up the whole story arc in half a page:


‘…two fighters would each receive five million dollars, while one thousand miles away on the edge of the world-famine Blacks would die of starvation.’ A Black Muslim revolutionary [Ali] ‘fighting a defender of the capitalist system’ [Foreman].


What Mailer is trying to capture is the magic that surrounds a big fight: the rituals, the superstitions, the whole game. We still see it today with the UFC. It’s the story which gets built around the fighters and their entourage and the varied characters which the fight attracts. The question then becomes: why do we need to create a narrative? Why can’t the actual fight speak for itself? Maybe because many times it doesn’t. But this time, as everyone knows, it did.



Rumble in the Jungle


Finally, we come to the fight. Mailer offers a luxurious forty-page description, which I won’t paraphrase too much because there are so many brilliant metaphors and observations. But I will give you one example. It’s long, but worth it. Pay attention to how subtly Mailer ramps up the pace and type of words he is using – short, sharp, percussive - to match the relentless onslaught of Foreman:


‘They sparred inconclusively for the first half-minute. Then the barrage began. With Ali braced on the ropes, as far back on the ropes as a deep-sea fisherman is braced back in his chair when setting the hook on a big strike, so Ali got ready and Foreman came in to blast him out. A shelling reminiscent of artillery battles in World War I began…Foreman threw punches in barrages of four and six and eight and nine, heavy maniacal slamming punches, heavy as the boom of oaken doors, bombs to the body, bolts to the head, punching until he could not breathe…and come in again, bomb again, blast again, drive and stream and slam the torso in front of him, wreck him in the arms, break through those arms, get to his ribs, dig him out, put the dynamite in the earth, lift him, punch him up to heaven, take him out, stagger him – great earthmover he must have sobbed to himself, kill this mad and bouncing goat.’


Enough has been said on Ali. Deservedly so. But Foreman’s life is just as interesting: poor southern upbringing, Olympic gold medallist, Heavyweight World Champion, bankrupt, preacher, successful entrepreneur. I’ll give him the last word:


“We fought in 1974 - that was a long time ago. After 1981, we became the best of friends. By 1984, we loved each other. I am not closer to anyone else in this life than I am to Muhammad Ali. Why? We were forged by that first fight in Zaire, and our lives are indelibly linked by memories and photographs, as young men and old men”.



“What's not realized about good novelists is that they're as competitive as good athletes. They study each other - where the other person is good and where the person is less good. Writers are like that but don't admit it.” - Norman Mailer


Norman Mailer (1923 – 2007) was an American novelist and journalist who became associated with the genre of creative nonfiction. Despite being a liberal political activist, he was infamous for his aggressive personality. He was married six times.


"[his] relentless machismo seemed out of place in a man who was actually quite small – though perhaps that was where the aggression originated."

- from Mailer’s obituary



When We Were Kings is the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary which documents the events surrounding the Rumble in the Jungle. Obviously, Ali is magnetic and worth a view just for him, but it also extensively features (an older) Mailer.



Interview with Norman Mailer


Joel Ingles

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