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Original Issue

The Pugilist at Rest

Boxing's champion Norman Mailer never stood in a neutral corner

EARLY IN The Fight, Norman Mailer's exquisite book about the 1974 Muhammad Ali--George Foreman prizefight in Zaire, Mailer goes for a 3 a.m. run with Ali. "At five feet eight inches and one hundred and seventy pounds Norman was simply too heavy to enjoy running," Mailer wrote, referring to himself in the third person. Still, huffing mightily, he stayed with Ali's generously slow pace for a mile and a half before turning back. On his return, walking along the banks of the Congo, Mailer hears the roar of a lion and imagines being eaten by it, the beast gaining posthumous revenge upon a man Mailer viewed as his progenitor: big-game hunter Ernest Hemingway.

The Fight displays some vintage Mailer—it's a thoughtful, sometimes winking book, wrought with gorgeous sentences; when Foreman, who has emerged as a sort of unwitting Horatio to Ali's Hamlet in the book, gets knocked down, Mailer writes, "He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news."

Mailer, who died last Saturday at 84, worked in an age when many of the country's literary kings—George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Gay Talese—wrote about sports not only because of its metaphorical usefulness but also because they viewed sports as having real social and political heft. Mailer's game was boxing; he became a de facto spokesman for the sport, championing its primal essences and seeing in it symbolism that he readily translated to the human condition. "Boxing," he once wrote in Esquire, "is not like other tests in sport ... it arouses two of the deepest anxieties we contain. There is not only the fear of getting hurt, which is profound in more men than will admit to it, but there is the opposite panic, equally unadmitted, of hurting others." Mailer then extrapolated, musing on the phenomenon of soldiers in first-time combat being unable to bring themselves to fire their rifles.

That Mailer also wrote so well on the technical aspects of boxing was in part because he was no dilettante. He sparred regularly and earnestly for years, often under the tutelage of José Torres, the light heavyweight champion of the world. "It was like boxing a puma," Mailer said of Torres.

Covering Sonny Liston's 1962 knockout of Floyd Patterson, Mailer described boxing as "a murderous and sensitive religion that mocks the effort of understanding to approach it." That hardly stopped him from trying. He embraced boxing with characteristically voluminous passion, writing about Emile Griffith and Bernie Paret, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson and, of course, Ali, with whom he seemed to feel a spiritual kinship. And while Mailer famously possessed a healthy sense of self—after the Liston-Patterson fight he sat in Liston's chair at the press conference and refused to get up when the champ came out—he held great boxers in unique awe. In his 1971 essay Ego, reprinted in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, Mailer observed that "what separates the noble ego of the prizefighter and the lesser ego of the writer is that the fighter goes through experiences in the ring which are occasionally immense, incommunicable except to fighters who have been as good."

Mailer's career began with his celebrated 1948 war novel, The Naked and the Dead, and included two Pulitzer Prize--winning nonfiction books, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song, but it would be a terrible mistake, even while remembering the varied subjects he tackled—the CIA, ancient Egypt, Vietnam—to overlook his work on boxing, perhaps his greatest love as a subject.

Mailer—who at nearly 80 began learning German to help him in writing The Castle in the Forest, a novel about Hitler that came out this year—waged an ongoing battle to harness words and with them give voice to his prodigious stream of giant, original and sometimes aggressively controversial ideas. In his writer's chair, his home for better than 60 years, Norman Mailer was, to the end, a fighter.



RULES OF ENGAGEMENT Mailer called Ali (with him in 1965) "the first psychologist of the body."



TAKING RISKS Mailer (on The Dick Cavett Show in 1973) often sparred with light heavyweight champ Torres.