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29 November 2007 Edition

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IN MANY of the obituaries written for Norman Mailer, reference was made to what almost amounted to his obsession with boxing. For anti-boxing or, better still, anti-Mailer writers, this was further proof of Mailer’s machismo and his need to prove himself as a writer in a competitive way.
He was certainly combative. Among those to fall foul of his literary competitive streak was Gore Vidal, who had compared Mailer to contemporary mass murderer Charles Manson! Not surprisingly, Norm’ took exception and retaliated by head-butting Vidal prior to an appearance on a talk-show in 1971 and then a few years later floored him with a punch. Vidal described the episode as, “The night of the tiny fist.”
Mailer’s second wife, Adele Morales, was the daughter of former lightweight professional Al Morales and, apparently, the son-in-law and Pappy used to do a bit of sparring. Pappy usually won but paid Mailer the tribute of having been a game fighter. He later became friendly with Jose Torres, who won the World Light Heavyweight championship in 1965 and, in turn for Torre’s boxing tips, encouraged the Puerto Rican to become a boxing writer.
Mailer mostly put his knowledge of the sport to use in his writing although he once offered to settle an argument with McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnston’s advisor on the Vietnam War, with a bout of fisticuffs. He was also wont to challenge other writers and intellectual adversaries like James Baldwin and William F Buckley to debates in which a winner would be chosen by a panel of judges.
Most famously of all, he took on Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos and a particularly irritating lesbian poet in a 1971 debate filmed as Town Bloody Hall. The debate was ostensibly about Mailer’s essay, The Prisoner of Sex, but degenerated into an open forum to attack Mailer as a “chauvinist pig”. Really, you have to see it.

Anyway, back to the boxing. Mailer was at the World Welterweight decider between Benny Paret and Emile Griffith in March 1962 when Paret was killed in a barrage of punches from Griffith who Paret had apparently insulted him as “a maricón” (a derogatory Mexican term for a gay man) prior to the fight. The fact that the fight was televised led to a massive backlash against the sport.
Mailer wrote about the fight. Of Paret he said:”Some part of his death reached out to us.” He recognised the essential savagery of boxing and of the ever-presence of death but he saw it as reflecting some primeval aspect of human nature that needs expression.
Death is ever-present in Mailer’s writing about boxing. In King of the Hill, about the first Ali/Frazier fight, it is clear that it is about far more than the prestige or the money. These are two men fighting against what Mailer might have described as existential death – and with it the real possibility of actual death. Indeed, when the two men fought for the third time, in 1975, in the almost unbearable heat of Manila, Ali said it was the closest he had come to dying. Both of them had and it may well have been a contributory factor in Ali’s later physical degeneration.
Mailer used boxing not only to illustrate the human condition but also to reflect upon American society itself, possibly best of all in his writing about the first championship decider between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson in Chicago, September 1962. This was at the height of the Civil Rights campaign, just days before James Meredith was enrolled as the first black student at Mississippi University and the subsequent riots.
Liston was the ‘bad nigger’ who hung around with Italian gangsters. Patterson was polite and Catholic, almost a black Kennedy. And to Mailer there seemed no doubt as to which side either was on in the battle for the American soul. Liston won.
Famously, Mailer turned up still drunk the next morning to bait Liston at his press conference. Some who were there thought that Liston might give him a few smacks but instead he started to laugh after Mailer offered to organise Liston’s first title defence.

But Mailer’s best book about boxing was The Fight. Mailer was one of a coterie of famous writers who travelled to Zaire to see Ali take on Foreman in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in October 1974. It was staged amid the grotesquery of the kleptomaniacal Mobutu regime and was delayed for weeks because of an injury to Foreman.
Mailer was close to the preparations and particularly to Ali, of whom he was clearly fond. He even accompanied Muhammad on his early-morning run with Mailer typically proud of how well he had been able to keep up at the age of 51 with a man of whom he wrote that, in his presence, “men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”
The fight was best known for Ali’s tactic of lying on the ropes to absorb ferocious punishment from Foreman who many considered the most powerful puncher since Joe Louis. Then, seemingly destined for a humiliating defeat, in the eighth round, Ali came off the ropes. Mailer describes it best:
“Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career. Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like with a parachute jumping out of plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the centre of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world would see him in his dying days.”
And for myself, sitting at four in the morning with my father eating a bowl of porridge after earlier seeing the Dubs bring Sam up to Robert Emmet’s, life could not have been any better. Heroes were dependable in those days

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