Authors: Norman Mailer
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #History, #Biography, #Classics
“[Norman Mailer] loomed over American letters longer and larger than any writer of his generation.”
—The New York Times
“A writer of the greatest and most reckless talent.”
—The New Yorker
“Mailer is indispensable, an American treasure.”
—The Washington Post
“A devastatingly alive and original creative mind.”
“Mailer is fierce, courageous, and reckless and nearly everything he writes has sections of headlong brilliance.”
—The New York Review of Books
“The largest mind and imagination at work [in modern] American literature … Unlike just about every American writer since Henry James, Mailer has managed to grow and become richer in wisdom with each new book.”
“Mailer is a master of his craft. His language carries you through the story like a leaf on a stream.”
—The Cincinnati Post
2013 Random House eBook Edition
Copyright © 1975 by Norman Mailer
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, in 1975.
Portions of this book originally appeared in
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., and Faber and Faber Ltd. for permission to reprint an excerpt from
The Palmwine Drunkard
by Amos Tutuola (published by Faber and Faber Ltd. as
The Palm Wine Drinkard
), copyright © 1953 by George Braziller, copyright © the Estate of Amos Tutuola. Reprinted by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc., and Faber and Faber Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The fight / Norman Mailer.
Originally published: Boston: Little, Brown, 
HERE IS ALWAYS
a shock in seeing him again. Not
as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an
breath. Men look
. They are reminded again of their lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.
When he is depressed, however, his pale skin turns the color of coffee with milky water, no cream. There is the sickly green of a depressed morning in the muddy washes of the flesh. He looks not quite well. That may be a fair description of how he appeared at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, on a September afternoon seven weeks before his fight in Kinshasa with George Foreman.
His sparring was spiritless. Worse. He kept getting hit with stupid punches, shots he would normally avoid, and
that was not like Ali! There was an art to watching him train and you acquired it over the years. Other champions picked sparring partners who could imitate the style of their next opponent and, when they could afford it, added a fighter who was congenial: someone they could hit at will, someone fun to box. Ali did this also, but reversed the order. For the second fight with Sonny Liston, his favorite had been Jimmy Ellis, an intricate artist who had nothing in common with Sonny. As boxers, Ellis and Liston had such different moves one could not pass a bowl of soup to the other without spilling it. Of course, Ali had other sparring partners for that fight. Shotgun Sheldon comes to mind. Ali would lie on the ropes while Sheldon hit him a hundred punches to the belly — that was Ali conditioning stomach and ribs to take Liston’s pounding. In that direction lay his duty, but his pleasure was by way of sparring with Ellis as if Ali had no need to study Sonny’s style when he could elaborate the wit and dazzle of his own.
Fighters generally use a training period to build confidence in their reflexes, even as an average skier, after a week of work on his parallel, can begin to think he will yet look like an expert. In later years, however, Ali would concentrate less on building his own speed and more on how to take punches. Now, part of his art was to reduce the force of each blow he received to the head and then fraction it further. Every fighter does that, indeed a young boxer will not last long if his neck fails to swivel at the instant he is hit, but it was as if Ali were teaching his nervous system to transmit shock faster than other men could.
Maybe all illness results from a failure of communication between mind and body. It is certainly true of such quick disease as a knockout. The mind can no longer send a word to the limbs. The extreme of this theory, laid down by Cus D’Amato when managing Floyd Patterson and José Torres, is that a pugilist with an authentic desire to win cannot be knocked out if he sees the punch coming, for then he suffers no dramatic lack of communication. The blow may hurt but cannot wipe him out. In contrast, a five-punch combination in which every shot lands is certain to stampede any opponent into unconsciousness. No matter how light the blows, a jackpot has been struck. The sudden overloading of the victim’s message center is bound to produce that inrush of confusion known as coma.
Now it was as if Ali carried the idea to some advanced place where he could assimilate punches faster than other fighters, could literally transmit the shock through more parts of his body, or direct it to the best path, as if ideally he were working toward the ability to receive that five-punch combination (or six or seven!) yet be so ready to ship the impact out to each arm, each organ and each leg, that the punishment might be digested, and the mind remain clear. It was a study to watch Ali take punches. He would lie on the ropes and paw at his sparring partner like a mother cat goading her kitten to belt away. Then Ali would flip up his glove and let the other’s punch bounce from that glove off his head, repeating the move from other angles, as if the second half of the art of getting hit was to learn the trajectories with which punches glanced off your gloves and still hit you; Ali was always studying how
to deaden such shots or punish the glove that threw the punch, forever elaborating his inner comprehension of how to trap, damp, modify, mock, curve, cock, warp, distort, deflect, tip, and turn the bombs that came toward him, and do this with a minimum of movement, back against the ropes, languid hands up. He invariably trained by a scenario that cast him as a fighter in deep fatigue, too tired to raise his arms in the twelfth round of a fifteen-round fight. Such training may have saved him from being knocked out by Frazier in their first fight, such training had been explored by him in every fight since. His corner would scream “Stop playing!,” the judges would score against him for lying on the ropes, the fight writers would report that he did not look like the old Ali and all the while he was refining methods.
This afternoon, however, in Deer Lake it looked as if he were learning very little. He was getting hit by stupid punches and they seemed to take him by surprise. He was not languid but sluggish. He looked bored. He showed, as he worked, all the sullen ardor of a husband obliging himself to make love to his wife in the thick of carnal indifference.
The first sparring partner, Larry Holmes, a young light-colored Black with a pro record of nine wins and no losses, boxed aggressively for three rounds, hitting Ali more often than he got hit in return, which in itself might not have been unusual — sometimes Ali would not throw a punch through all of a round — but on this afternoon it seemed as if Ali did not know how to use Holmes. Ali had the disgusted expression Sugar Ray Robinson used to get toward
the end of his career when struck on the nose, a grimace of disdain for the occupation as if you could lose your looks if you weren’t careful. The afternoon was hot, the gym was even hotter. It was filled with tourists, more than a hundred, who had paid a dollar to get in — there was a late-summer apathy to the proceedings. Once in a while, Ali would set out to chastise Holmes for his impudence, but Holmes was not there to be instructed for nothing. He fought back with all the eagerness of a young pro who sees a maximum of future for himself. Ali could of course have given a lesson, but he was boxing in the depths of a bad mood. Part of Ali’s strength in the ring was fidelity to his mood. If, when speaking to the press, a harsh and hysterical tone entered his voice as easily as other men light a cigarette, he was never frantic in the ring, at least not since the fight with Liston in Miami in 1964 when he won the Heavyweight Championship. No, just as Marlon Brando seemed to inhabit a role as though it were a natural extension of his mood, so Ali treated boxing. In a bad mood, he would stay in his lethargy, box out of his very distaste for the staleness of this occupation. Often he trained all of an afternoon in such a bad spirit. The difference today was that he was running into unexpected punches — the end of the world for Ali. In annoyance, he would punish Holmes by wrapping an arm around his head. Over the years, Ali had become one of the best wrestlers in the ring. But then if karate kicks had been introduced to boxing, Ali would also have been first at that. His credo had to be that nothing in boxing was foreign to him. Now, however, such virtuosity was reduced to wrestling with Holmes. When they separated,
Holmes would go back to the attack. Toward the end of three rounds, Ali started stinging him with punches. Holmes stung him back.
Ali’s next sparring partner, Eddie “Bossman” Jones, a Light-Heavyweight, was a dark sawed-off version of George Foreman. He didn’t look five-ten in height, and Ali used him as a playmate. Absolutely comfortable with Jones (a fighter reminiscent of other fighters who stood flat-footed and belted away) Ali lay on the ropes and took Bossman’s punches when he chose to and blocked them when he wished. For all it seemed to demand, Ali could have been an inspector on an assembly line, accepting and rejecting the product. “This piece passes, this one won’t.” To the degree that boxing is carnality, meat against meat, Ali was master when it was time to receive, he got the juice out of it, the aesthetic juice of the punches he blocked or slipped, plus all the libidinal juice of Bossman Jones banging away on his gut. For all of a round Bossman belabored Ali, and Ali communed with himself. In the second of their two rounds, Ali stepped off the ropes for the last two minutes and proceeded for the first time in the afternoon to throw punches. His master’s assortment leaped forth, jabs with a closed glove, 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, his glove did something different, as if the fist and wrist within the glove were also speaking.