Write on the Money

By Robert Ecksel on May 18, 2011
Other champions had a presence. They offered charisma. George Foreman had silence.

“With each punch, the glove did something different, as if the fist and wrist within the glove were also speaking…”

When boxing was a writer’s sport, Norman Mailer gave writing about boxing a good name. He was never a boxing guy, per se, but his contributions to the canon, however infrequent, gave the competition a run for its money.

An early boxing essay by Mailer is included in the book “The Presidential Papers of Norman Mailer” and focuses on two iconic fights from 1962. The first was the heavyweight title bout between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. The second was the rubber match between Benny (Kid) Paret and Emile Griffith.

Mailer wrote of the enigmatic Patterson, “I had an affection for Patterson which started early. When he was bad he was unbelievably bad, he was Chaplinesque, simple, sheepish, eloquent in his clumsiness, said like a clown, his knees looked literally to droop. He would seem precisely the sort of shy, stunned, somewhat dreamy Negro kid who never knew the answer in class. But when he was good, he seemed as fast as a jungle cat.”

Patterson’s opponent was the formidable Sonny Liston: “Liston now emerged from the depths of the clubhouse and walked slowly toward us. He was wearing a dark blue sweat suit, and he moved with the languid pleasure of somebody who is getting the taste out of every step. First his heel went down, then his toe. He could not have enjoyed it more if he had been walking barefoot through a field. One could watch him picking the mood out of his fingertips and toes. His handlers separated before him. He was a Presence.”

Mailer was ringside in Madison Square Garden for the fatal duel between Bennie (Kid) Paret and Emile Griffith. Griffith won, and survived, the bout. Paret wasn’t so lucky.

“Some part of his death reached out to us,” Mailer wrote. “One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half smile of regret, as if he were saying, ‘I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,’ and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.”

If that’s not poetry in prose I don’t know what is.

Mailer’s best boxing book is “The Fight,” his first-person account of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the legendary Ali vs. Foreman in Zaire.  “The Fight” is a romp of a read, and Mailer covers all the bases.

Mailer on Don King: “How he could talk… Once when one of his lesser-known fighters hinted that a contract was unsatisfactory and King could get hurt, Don leaned forward—fond was he of telling this story—and said, ‘Let us not bullshit each other. You can leave here, make a call, and have me killed in half an hour. I can pick up the phone as you leave and have you offed in five minutes.”

Mailer on Ali: “His master’s assortment leaped forth, Jabs with a closed fist, jabs with an open fist, jabs with a twist of the glove to the right, jabs with a turn to the left, then a series of right-hand leads offered like jabs, then uppercuts and easy hooks from a stand-up position, full of speed off both hands. With each punch, the glove did something different, as if the fist and wrist within the glove were also speaking.”

Unlike Ali and King, George Foreman “lived in silence. Flanked by bodyguards to keep…handshakers away, he could stand among a hundred people in the lobby and be in touch with no one. His head was alone. Other champions had a presence larger than themselves. They offered charisma. George Foreman had silence.”

Mailer once said about himself, “I seemed to have turned into a slightly punch-drunk and ugly club fighter who can fight clean and fight dirty, but likes to fight.”

Mailer also liked to write.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Sonny Liston vs Floyd Patterson I

Emile Griffith vs. Benny Paret III (part 6 of 6)

George Foreman vs Muhammad Ali - Oct. 30, 1974 - Entire fight - Rounds 1 - 8 & Interview

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  1. Joe 04:58am, 06/01/2011

    Everybody Stop Talking Attention.  Am I the Greatest Fighter of All Time?  Was it a close fight?  Ali’s Greatest Moment

  2. ultimoshogun 03:48pm, 05/20/2011

    I strongly recommend the Griffith/Paret documentary “Ring of Fire” for those who have not yet watched it…probably the saddest documentary i’ve ever seen.

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