Lynn Darling, 32, whose story on heavyweight boxer Gerrie Coetzee of South Africa begins on page 64, spent most of the last eight years writing features for The Washington Post Style section on a variety of subjects, including Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Cher, Erica Jong, a beauty pageant for little girls, a young woman in Florida who had amnesia, a steel town in West Virginia and the Rainbow People, a cult of aging flower children who meet every year in the woods for "fellowship, nudity and healing rites."
But until 1981, Darling drew no sports assignments. Then she got her feet wet with pieces on Moses Malone and Notre Dame's athletic program and in 1983 wrote a two-part profile of heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.
"I'd never wanted to watch boxing, let alone write about it. I had a very squeamish attitude toward the sport," she says. "But I became fascinated by the strange braggadocio that comes over fighters, and the Runyonesque world they run around in. I found that athletes live on the edge of their egos. They are driven in a special way. They make an agreement with themselves—what they need, what they want, what they're willing to do to get it—unlike anybody else."
When Darling moved to New York City last October to pursue a career as a free-lancer and was assigned to the Coetzee story, she found herself in places familiar and foreign—Las Vegas and Johannesburg.
"Gerrie picked me up at the airport," Darling says, "and the next day, a Johannesburg paper had a story with the headline GERRIE NOW U.S. HOT NEWS HAS BIOGRAPHER GUEST."
They went to some boxing matches one night, and she visited a private game preserve several hundred miles north of Johannesburg, at dawn and again at dusk. "The sounds of lions feeding," she says, "make a fight crowd seem absolutely tame."
But one of the odder incidents Darling recalls from her Coetzee research took place in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace last November after the Holmes-Marvis Frazier bout.
"Coetzee went to visit Muhammad Ali, whom he absolutely idolizes," she says. "We went to Ali's suite, and after we got past 18 retainers, we were told Ali was asleep. Somebody told Coetzee to go wake him. He blushed five shades of red at the thought of waking his hero and told his manager to come into the bedroom in a while, because he was so petrified that he'd run out of things to say to Ali.
"Then they sent for me. I walked in, and Ali, who was lying in bed with the sheet pulled up to his waist, said in a very slow, quiet voice, 'She can't be a reporter. She looks like Miss America.' And somebody said, 'Ali, Miss America is black.' "
DARLING: LIFE IN A RUNYONESQUE WORLD