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'At the Fights' Collects Best Writing on Boxing

Norman Mailer, Jack London among selected authors

Aug. 15, 2011
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Pro boxing kills. Emile Griffith beat Benny “Kid” Paret into his grave. Sugar Ray Robinson punched Jimmy Doyle to death. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, in a WBA title defense, killed South Korea's Duk Koo Kim with the infliction of a right, subdural hematoma. The human head was not built to be punched repeatedly. Norman Mailer, who knew his boxing, wrote, “Walls must begin to crack inside the brain.”

Writers like Mailer who knew the cold facts of the fight rackets seldom let their grief interfere with their good writing. Mailer, or maybe George Plimpton, said it's the one-on-oneness of boxing, as opposed to the corporate nature of baseball, that makes it so dramatic.

Edited by George Kimball and John Schulian, At the Fights (The Library of America) is an anthology of the best writing about pro boxing in the hundred years since Jack Johnson knocked out the Great White Hope, James Jeffries.

It's all there. Young Joe Louis in 1938 sending Harlem into a spin when he knocked out Nazi pinup boy Max Schmeling. Then: Old Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber,” in 1951, beaten up and knocked out by young Rocky Marciano.

The key to the durability of these stories is that they are about the old, old game of two big-hearted combatants set to inflict maximum ruination upon each other, usually for the entertainment of the people with the big spondulicks.

The book's essays, profiles and reportage capture the paradoxes of boxing. There is Muhammad Ali's charisma and fistic genius alongside his cruelty to Joe Frazier and betrayal of Malcolm X. It describes the arc of George Foreman's transformation from Bad Bear to Teddy Bear. It gives us a glimpse of a thuggish Sonny Liston caught in a redeeming moment.

At the Fights
is good reading from start to finish. It features top-notch, rat-a-tat, lurid, insightful, intelligent, unsentimental writing by some of America's best writers. One example is what one-time Milwaukee Sentinel sportswriter Red Smith called “the greatest novel ever written in one sentence,” by John Lardner. “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

There are other scrapers along the way who need almost no introduction, like Honey Mellody, Mysterious Billy Smith, and Al “Bummy” Davis. The only thing missing is Daphne Merkin's recent profile of Mike Tyson in The New York Times, which gives another angle on the bad press he gets in At the Fights.

The pieces are not just by sportswriters, but also by novelists like Jack London (“Johnson vs. Jeffries”), James Baldwin (“The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Rape and the Boxing Ring”). Norman Mailer brings his insights as an amateur boxer to the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” (“The Fight”). Gay Talese draws out a thoughtful Floyd Patterson on the nature of loss (“Floyd Patterson”).

The cast of characters over a period of 100 years in “At the Fights” is Dickensian: the venal managers, the kindly trainers, the mobsters, the cut men, the soreheads, the sweethearts, the victims. At the Fights is a keeper.


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