Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Fighters and Writers

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Fighters and Writers

Article excerpt

"At Corinth two temples stood side by side, the temple of Violence and the temple of Necessity."

--Albert Camus, "The Minotaur" (1939)

A BANNER HANGING ON A WALL at Gleason's Gym testifies to boxing's enduring appeal for writers. The Brooklyn boxing institution takes its motto--"Now, whoever has courage and a strong and collected spirit in his breast let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands"--from Virgil. From antiquity to the present, writers have been fascinated by humans fighting, seeing in the sport something akin to their own efforts. Appropriately, two contending views of the sport emerged. In the red corner stand those who see meetings between nearly naked and practically unprotected combatants as simple and straightforward pursuits of victory through the unmediated imposition of their wills. Writers like to see them as symbolic of their own lonely quests after the elusive truth. In the blue corner are those who see fights as far more complex endeavors fraught with meaning and metaphorical possibilities. Rather than immediately comprehensible physical contests, fights are primarily mental challenges. Far from being basic and true, boxing involves trickery and deception. In one camp, boxing is free of artifice; in the other, it is full of it.

Jose Torres, a boxer turned writer, takes the latter view. The former world light heavyweight champion relishes describing boxing as a game of intelligence, cunning, deception and confidence. Some of his favorite boxing stories involve Muhammad Ali, a boxer with special appeal for writers. After he retired from the ring, Torres became one of the many authors (such as Murray Kempton, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Ishmael Reed, Wole Soyinka, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe) to write about Ali. Long after committing them to print, Torres continued to tell his Ali stories very much like he did in Sting Like a Bee, which he co-authored with sportswriter Bert Sugar.

The first time I met Torres he was with Paul Johnson, a former club fighter who later became chairman of the Boxers Organizing Committee, a group set up to form a union for professional boxers. Johnson set the stage for his friend to tell some of his favorite stories by recounting a time when the two were speaking together at a university. Paul had been telling students about what he then thought of as the fundamental honesty at the heart of boxing. Torres interrupted him.

"Boxers are liars," he said.

Torres believes that boxing is "not really a contest of physical ability." He elaborated his ideas in a subsequent meeting: "I felt it was a contest always of character and intelligence. And I always felt what made a champion and an ordinary fighter was that, the character, the will to win, more than the physicality. Because when you are up there, among the best, the physicality is the same." Torres takes evident pleasure in explaining why Ali was not the greatest boxer, but was a genius in the ring. Doing so affords him the opportunity to recall fond memories of Ali and legendary trainer Cus D'Amato while also illustrating his point about boxers being liars. In his book on Ali, he starts the story with D'Amato, the guide to three world champions: Floyd Patterson, Torres himself, and Mike Tyson. "[Ali] is not a good fighter, so says D'Amato, much less a great fighter. But he is champion of the world. Which, believing Cus, and I do, makes Ali a genius.... " He continues, in virtually the same words he spoke to me decades after the 1971 book appeared:

   Ali is not a great fighter in the conventional sense that Sugar Ray 
   Robinson, Willie Pep and Joe Louis were. Each of these fighters 
   knew every punch and every move and added some tricks to the book, 
   that unwritten book whose teachings are passed on from gym to gym 
   and are the nearest thing we have to our own culture. … 
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