Magazine article The Spectator

'The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner and at the Ringside', by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra (Eds.) - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner and at the Ringside', by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra (Eds.) - Review

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago, Russell Davies wrote a weekly sporting column in the New Statesman. It proved unsustainable and was soon discontinued, but not before Davies had described a boxer 'genuflecting through the ropes' -- an image I have coveted ever since. Boxing is 'a standing challenge to [a writer's] powers of description', according to Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra in their preface to The Bittersweet Science.

They are right. All physical action is a challenge to writers: YouTube can repair deficiencies, and is invoked several times in this anthology; but it is no substitute for writing, because writing adds focus to reality. I once saw the handsome, British-Hungarian, bottle-blond heavyweight Joe Bugner working out in a gym above a pub in the Pentonville Road. His looks were legendary, celebrated in many photo-shoots. But in reality they were also faintly out of focus, blurred by boxing. Writing searches, selects and freezes the frame. It lets you take a proper look at Bugner's looks; lets you see what you can't quite see.

There aren't many good boxing writers. Even proven authors can fall short. Marianne Moore, a poet capable of describing a lion's 'ferocious chrysanthemum' or a jerboa's 'Chippendale claw', has very little to say about the Floyd Patterson-George Chuvalo heavyweight match in Madison Square Gardens on 5 February 1965, a bout she was taken to by George Plimpton, with Bob Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books,

The pre-fight preliminaries produce her most vivid touches. These are punters looking for ticket touts:

Battered felt hats [Moore is wearing her best tricorne] and heavy faces, arms waving $100 bills and men shouting, pay you double, pay you double in sight of the brass buttons of policemen. I had to be led by the hand, through the squeeze of humanity; ticket-taker vigilant looking at your face and ticket, strong thumb on the ticket.

The Fight, Norman Mailer's account of the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 Zaïre match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, has its moments, but they, too, are mainly before the fight. Ali in his dressing room, 'wearing no more than a jockstrap, was soon prancing around the room, shadowboxing with the air'. Foreman's stare when the referee is instructing the fighters is 'a big look, heavy as death, oppressive as the closing of the door of one's tomb'. Even here, you can see the temptation to overwrite, to which Mailer quickly succumbs:

Then the barrage began. With Ali braced on the ropes, as far back on the ropes as a deep-sea fisherman is braced back in his chair when setting the hook on a big strike, so Ali got ready and Foreman came on to blast him out. A shelling reminiscent of artillery battles in World War I began... heavy maniacal slamming punches, heavy as the boom of oaken doors, bombs to the body, bolts to the head, punching until he could not breathe...

David Remnick is a much better boxing writer because he trusts the facts to tell. They carry their own authenticity. They don't need writing up. 'Kid Dynamite Blows Up' (The New Yorker, 14 July 1997), his account of the Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield bout, is exemplary: clear-eyed, dispassionate and alert to detail. I learned that Tyson ate bits of both Holyfield's ears, first 'a half-inch chunk' from the right one. I also learned that Holyfield had his own ear-eating previous. …

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