The Fight by Norman Mailer

The Fight, by Norman Mailer

May 8 2005 / The Observer

The leading character in Mailer’s thrilling account of the 1974 world heavyweight boxing championship in Kinshasa - the Rumble in the Jungle - is not Muhammad Ali, as you would expect, or even his ferocious rival George Foreman, then thought by many to be unbeatable. It is not Don King, who first came to prominence through brokering the improbable deal that brought Ali and the whole circus to Africa, or Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictatorial president of the country he called Zaire, for whom the fight was an astoundingly profligate propaganda coup, an assertion of black power that would lead him and his people, in the end, to nowhere at all. No, the main character is Norman Mailer, naturally enough. He delights, as ever, in ostentatious displays of ego and writes about himself in the third person, first as the ‘interviewer’ and then, as he gets to know himself , more familiarly as ‘Norman’ or ‘Norm’.

Yet you can forgive Mailer much, especially the vanities, because he writes so well. His book is less a work of journalism than a kind of non-fiction novel, with Mailer relentlessly at the centre of the action, if not actually in the ring. He moves freely around Kinshasa, weaving in and out of the boxers’ lives as they prepare for a fight that will define them for ever. He stays late at the bar, drinking hard with Hunter S Thompson and George Plimpton, as he listens out for the latest word from inside the fighters’ camps and mingles with the hangers-on and the money men, the chancers and the power babes.

The Fight is as much about race as it is about boxing. Mailer is astute on the catastrophe that is Mobutu’s Zaire (it will get worse, Norm), but less convincing when he speculates on the effect of superstition and animist beliefs on the ordinary Africans he encounters, Africans whom, he thinks, inhabit a ‘fearful and magic zone between the living and the dead’.

On arriving in Kinshasa, and meeting the two fighters, Mailer is immediately troubled by the threat that Foreman, so strong and ruthless in the ring, poses to an ageing Ali. He fears that Ali will be seriously hurt, killed even, and in the days preceding the fight he visits Ali often to listen to the usual banter and boasts. One evening, he even goes running with the former champ. Later, back at his hotel and no longer breathless, Mailer is convinced that Ali cannot win. ‘Defeat was in the air.’ The dramatic set piece of the book is the fight itself. Mailer was ringside but, on his return to America, he says he spent ‘about 25 hours’ watching and studying how Ali had introduced his grand theme: reclining defensively on the ropes, he absorbed Foreman’s strength, forcing him to punch himself out in a series of futile onslaughts, before, astonishingly, in the eighth round, counter-attacking suddenly and decisively to reclaim the title that was taken from him when he refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.

‘I remember I got a movie of that fight and I studied that movie, studied it by the hour,’ Mailer said later. ‘It’s just as if you were to take five pages of Finnegan s Wake and skim it quickly, that’s analogous to what you get watching a fight once. There might be all the excitement of reading it for the first time but you don’t begin to know what the five pages say, you have to study them and study them and study them. And boxers at that standard are working at so many high levels, psychologically, physically, intellectually and also in terms of the emotions, confidence and fear that you really have to study it over and over again, looking through to see which stuff you’re on - physical, mental - and so forth. That’s how those tales come in, there’s a lot of work to it, it’s like putting a mosaic together.’

The Fight has the complexity of a mosaic as well as a wonderful simplicity. A lot of work and considerable talent disguise the artistry of a book that can be read, quickly, as a dramatic first-hand account of one of the greatest of all sporting events of last century, and then again, more slowly, for the detail and acuity of its psychological insights and for the forceful fluency of its rhetorical, endlessly inventive style.