Think you don’t have time for books? The Short Read is a Pi Arts & Culture Column celebrating ‘novellas’ and ‘nonellas’: pocket-sized great works of fiction and non-fiction. In this article, Bruno Reynell discusses The Fight by Norman Mailer (207 pages).
Muhammad Ali. Of course I had heard of him before I read this book – almost everyone with even the slightest interest in sport has. A legendary figure who transcended boxing, and known simply as ‘The Greatest’. What I didn’t quite understand, however, was why he was this celebrated. 56 wins and 5 losses is pretty good, but by no means the best, and although I had heard the famous sound bites he produced, what did a bit of extra charisma do to elevate him above the outstanding fighters in the sport?
The Fight, then, seemed to me an opportunity to learn more about this most revered of boxers. In the book, novelist-cum-journalist Norman Mailer recounts his experience of covering Ali’s most legendary bout: The Rumble in the Jungle. Oft described as one of the greatest sporting events of the twentieth century, this was the world heavyweight championship fight between Ali and George Foreman that took place in Kinshasa in 1974.
The event took place on 30th October, but Mailer begins his account far before that in the training camps of the fighters. It is testament to Mailer’s already significant fame at the time that he is able to position himself so close to Ali in particular, and provide the reader with such detailed and intimate impressions of the man.
Ali’s frequently variable nature becomes manifest through this account. There are times when he is light-years from the bullish, self-assured individual we expect him to be – he is sluggish, struggling to best his lesser sparring partners, and seeming to speak with a clouded mind when surrounded by the many journalists following his every action. At other times, particularly as the bout approaches, he transforms himself. His training seems singularly focused and, outside the ring, he is quick-witted and upbeat, exuding confidence.
While Ali is undoubtedly the focus of the narrative, several intriguing elements rumble on in the background. There is, of course, the opponent. Foreman is the heavyweight champion and favourite in the eyes of most. While softly spoken in interviews, he presents a real aura of menace. Mailer builds an image of Foreman through descriptions of his imposing stature, his brutal treatment of the punching bag, and a confidence that none would begrudge him, given he has crushed multiple fighters who have bested his next opponent.
An equally omnipresent aspect of the narrative is the sense of place that lurks behind everything that takes place. The Rumble in the Jungle takes place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which, in the early seventies, is still a relatively new sovereign state. Mobutu Sese Seko is the self-proclaimed ‘Father of the Nation’, and Mobutism is his doctrine. The influence of the totalitarian regime is replete and often absurd – it is a source of great fascination for Mailer, reflected through witty commentary (and occasional prejudice).
‘The fighters went back to their corners. Ali pressed his elbows to his side, closed his eyes and offered a prayer. Foreman turned his back.’
All of this scene setting culminates towards the end of the book in the fight itself. Even if you know what the result will be, Mailer’s real-time commentary of the fight keeps you on the edge of your seat. He conveys every bit of energy and excitement in and around the stadium, and his fine description of the action provides a vivid continuous image within the reader’s mind. I actually watched footage of the rounds as I was reading these final chapters and it was a confirmation of the words that Mailer had written, but lacked the extra intrigue provided by the context he adds. Exquisite prose and electrifying action, it truly is a memorable sequence of chapters – within the entire literature of sport, there can surely be few better.
As for Ali? Suffice to say the greatness is confirmed in my mind. The brilliant fighter and the magnetic personality – through this book, we are afforded multi-dimensional insights into the character of this enigmatic individual.