Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Fight (1975)

This is my first time reading Norman Mailer's account of the "Rumble in the Jungle" championship boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. At the time it came out my interest in boxing was less than zero. That goes for bullfighting too, which comes up now and then here. I've always appreciated Muhammad Ali as a public figure, perhaps more for his stance on the Vietnam War but his athletic accomplishments speak for themselves. Many years after the 1974 fight and this book, the wonderful documentary When We Were Kings alerted me finally to the event and all it entailed. Now, as many years after that, I finally get to the Mailer account and find him remarkably dead-on. One of the first scenes here shows Ali training for the fight by working on taking blows while positioned on the ropes. Mailer compares the strategy to chess, and maybe so, but Ali was working on many levels, not least the brute physical. His plan to wear Foreman out was a good one, if dangerous, and it worked. Ali demonstrated that winning could also be a matter of enduring, as much as dominating. Mailer was an ardent and knowledgeable fan of boxing and he's really good on the fight itself. It was also an interesting geopolitical event, taking place in Kinshasa, the largest and capital city of what's now the Republic of the Congo. The movie is much better on some elements of the big show's ambience, especially on the music performed in connection—James Brown, Manu Dibango, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Tabu Ley Rochereau, the Spinners, Bill Withers, and many more performed. But Mailer's account is much more knowledgeable about the main event. And the movie is pretty knowledgeable. Of course, Mailer being Mailer, he has to tell us personal anecdotes like how he took a walk on the unrailed parapet outside the window of his 7th-floor hotel room (reminiscent of scenes from his 1965 novel An American Dream). Norman! Get back in here! At any rate, it's a good account and argument for Ali's place in history. Ali conducted his fights on many levels, starting long before he stepped into the ring. He was smart and very brave. And he was a great fighter. Mailer's appreciation for the aesthetics of punching is almost infectious, although, me being me, I can't help thinking about concussions, brain damage, and such. But I appreciate what's at stake here too, on a primal level: two great warriors at battle. Only one can win, and all that. The great sports moment. Mailer does a fine job here of telling the story.

In case it's not at the library.

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