Preface to Sting Like a Bee

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By Norman Mailer[1]

Mailer, Muhammad Ali, Lannie Ali, 1986.

Anyone who knows prizefighters and does not have to make his living by writing about them too often, knows that they are usually intelligent men. Of course, the worst of them get deadened in their intelligence — it is not that what they say is stupid, but they have blank spots. In the process of reasoning from A to B then to C and to D, they are likely to miss a couple of letters. Their brains get damaged from punches, but essentially in the way a good engine whose spark plugs are gone will sound spotty in its timing. The popular assumption that professional boxers do not have brains comes from sportswriters (but then sportswriters’ brains are in their tum damaged by the obligation to be clever each day). The quantities of booze necessary to lubricate such racing of the mental gears ends up giving the sportswriters the equivalent of a good many punches to the head. So most of them duck their task. They do not try to comprehend fighters. They prefer to treat them in tried and true ways, as rather heroic but silly fellows, or as clowns with a penchant for off-beat or gnomic remarks. It makes good copy, and it satisfies the average man who finds it bad enough after all that these boxers take him in a street fight without having to swallow the added gall that boxers might be smarter as well. The fact that fighters who become champions are most intelligent men with a marvelous sense of balance in their estimate of changing events under high pressure is an idea so painful, that it doesn’t even get whispered about. Nonetheless, it is true — champions are most intelligent men — and the reason so many of the remarks of Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, of Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano, of Carmen Basilio and Joe Frazier and Rocky Marciano and Gene Fullmer all sound so peculiar in that their original words were usually economical, astute, and cut into the middle of what was absurd in a particular situation. But the occasion was poorly reported, the remark (usually obscene) was cleaned off in the old dishwater of copy desk good taste, and the point was invariably shifted to another point which was less interesting. All those sportswriters punch drunk on twenty years of booze! So fighters, full of instinctive metaphor, come through like bugs who speak. It is as if we insist that athletes who are great in the ring should have for civilized balance no real stature outside.

Mailer and Torres in Maidstone, 1969 (from DA Pennebaker’s camera).

The fact that boxers do not often write books does nothing to dispel the illusion that they are stupid. Indeed when they have their name on books, we all know they do not write them — they have ghostwriters or collaborators who may be kind enough to ask them questions once a while. In fact, the only book by a good boxer which may actually have been done by the boxer was work by Gene Tunney which I remember reading in The Saturday Evening Post many years ago. It was a memoir and a courtly one, and I have no idea today how much of it truly belonged to Tunney. It may have been completely ghostwritten for all I know, but it is the only work I can remember, outside of the one you are now holding in your hands, which could have genuinely composed by a fighter.

This one, now before you, was written by José Luis “Cheqüi” Torres. It may be the first such book of its kind. I can testify to the truth of that, or at least of the genuineness of at least half of this book, Parts I and III, because José wrote those parts over a month of the hardest work in June of 1971 up in Vermont while living near me, and I saw the pages done each day, and functioned as a sort of editor each night, suggesting cuts, and giving Torres a fatherly hand with verb tenses from time to time. In its quiet way, I thought the book was a modest phenomenon for it was being written by a man who had been a Light Heavyweight Champion for a couple of years and had had no more education than other fighters, and had learned to speak and to think and to write in Spanish first, and had picked up his English with some pain, and was still, as you can see by the prose, not absolutely comfortable with it, yet I preferred to edit with a light hand and leave alone most of his odd and sometimes strained or over-formal phrasings for the flavor of his thought and attitude — which were essentially Spanish — are in it. So it is his book — I can swear to that. He wrote Parts I and III working six to ten hours a day all through a hot month of June, and succeeded there I think in offering a view of boxing which comes for the first time, genuinely and authentically from the inside.

Part II is another matter; Part II is a book more like other books which are about prizefighting and about Muhammad Ali, and while I am obviously not as fond of Part II, the middle of this book, as I am of its beginning and end, I think that for readers who love sports pages, there are a good many amusing anecdotes here, and plenty of new interviews, as well as that air of the quaint (at a comfortably low literary level) which people expect when they read a feature story on a sports page. This part of the book was a collaboration and was written by José Torres and Bert Sugar, the publisher of Boxing Illustrated. While it is true that Torres did much of the actual writing in Part II, Sugar did all the research except for the interviews (which were Torres’), and so the flavor of the material was gathered more through the eyes, senses, and literary instincts of a professional sportswriter than a prizefighter. Therefore, Part II, while it is likely to please many readers of this book more than Parts I and III, precisely because it is more familiar in its approach to boxing legends, does keep the merits of Sting Like a Bee down on the literary farm. For the mystery of Ali’s personality, while thoroughly Amplified for us in Part II, is never brought closer to explanation.

Still, what we are given in Parts I and III is considerable, and makes of this book a subtly impressive event. We are brought for the first time into the ring through the eyes of a man who has been a great boxer himself. So we suddenly see fights not as are accustomed to look at them in the pages of books, but as intellectual and characterological struggles between highly skilled artists. Or if the notion of boxers-as-artists is banal by now, then at least we see them as highly skilled human machines of will and ingenuity and strategy. What impresses us about boxing, the blood and the pain and the stamina, are merely the given conditions to Torres. He takes them for granted, is concerned with them no more than a chess master would bother to annotate the headaches and eyestrain of a long match. No, it is the intellectual content of a fight which absorbs him. The problems and the mysterious solution to some of these problems capture him, and a continuing inquiry runs through his mind.

It is founded on the very old argument between instinct and reason. He is obsessed with that. Torres was trained by Cus D’Amato, the only prizefight manager remotely comparable to a Scholastic. D’Amato is a manager so unlike that common view of prizefight managers as leeches, parasites and thieves that he seems to find it obscene if any of his boys get hit, and indeed over the years D’Amato has worked out such a master schedule of thrust and riposte, of block and slip and counter to every conceivable punch and combination of punches that one might have to turn to Clausewitz for a view of warfare as elaborated and comprehensive. Torres was his prize pupil — perhaps even more gifted instinctively, and certainly through training, than Floyd Patterson, for Torres, unlike Patterson, was, during his prime, almost impossible to hit (perhaps because he did not have Patterson’s love of the immolating flame). Indeed, at his prime, José Torres was a phenomenal fighting machine. He had the speed of a fast middleweight, even of a fast welterweight, and he could hit as hard as any heavyweight. He could knock out his opponents with a left hook or a straight right, he had a jab so fine he could out-jab Willie Pastrana, who had no real punch other than the best jab in the business, and moreover, Torres had all the impregnable defenses D’Amato had designed for years, and always boxed with his gloves protecting his head, and could slip punches with both fists up as well as Cassius Clay could then slip punches with both hands down. There were a few people in boxing who could be heard to say that if José Torres had the desire, there was no reason he could not have become the greatest boxer in the history of the game and it is true (at the very least in this writer’s belief) that Torres was the only man around in those years, in the prime of Muhammad Ali when Ali was winning monotonous contests with men like Chuvalo, Mildenberger, Zora Folley and Terrell, who could have given Ali a terrible night and could conceivably have beaten him, for he was as fast as Ali or faster, and hit as hard or harder, and was very difficult to find in a ring, just as difficult as Ali. Why then did he end with no more than the high, fine honors of being light heavyweight champion of his time with a most respectable record of three successful title defenses before he lost his crown to an older fighter, Dick Tiger?

The answer could take a book. It is buried in those enigmas which surround the question of why a man with the talent of a genius does not become a genius. But in brief, the answer could rest in the thought that Torres did not have the kind of hunger which drives men to transcendence. Ali, most mysteriously, does not seem to have had that hunger either, unless the flaming orbits of his ego were powered by a fuel of desperation we cannot even begin to conceive. For certain, however, Ali had one huge flood tide in his favor — the cause of his own black people — and he has always been the most extraordinary pilot of our time as he has floated the boat of his iron-and-eggshell-ego down that collective river of black instinct which is approaching the headwaters of their liberation. No current, once attached to it, can be more powerful. Whereas Torres, like you or me, is a man alone who works on the smaller tides of his own appetites, vanities, imperatives, anxieties and pride. So I do not know if he would have beaten Ali if they had both met at their peak; for Ali might have found a thousand ways to weaken José psychologically before the bell, but of this I can be certain — that the mystery of Ali’s attachment to boxing as a deep function of the human instinct has produced a book in a man brought up uniquely as was Torres by boxing reason, which any lover of prizefighting will read and read again in favorite parts and say, “This Puerto Rican is fantastic. He was good enough to be champion and now he’s written a book which, Goddammit, makes me think I never knew there was that much to boxing.”

As for Torres’ personality, well, he is my friend, so why weaken friendship by talking of his virtues? Suffice it that when his Afro is in shape and he is listening seriously to a new acquaintance who has something interesting to say, why then he has the dignity and most impressive mien of a serious revolutionary or judge. Then, you desire his good opinion. And when he is laughing at something just said which he thinks funny, why then he pounds the table with his fingertips, and laughs in a high and uncontrollable voice, and often as not falls on the floor. He is that much out of control! The night we became friends, he had knocked out Bobo Olson in the first round at the Garden and was finally on his way to becoming champion. I had invited him and his wife and a couple of their friends out to dinner; I was acting, I suppose, like a rich fight buff jumping on to take care of an up-and-coming fighter. So, Torres, assuming no doubt he ought to sing a little for his supper, looked at me solemnly at one point during the meal and said, “You keep in good condition?”

“You kidding?” I asked.

And he fell out of his chair laughing. Right at Toots Shor’s. It is his greatest charm. Anybody can knock him down in conversation with an honest line. It is probably because as he puts it, “Boxers are liars,” and he was able to lie so well in the ring. What is remarkable now is the huge distance he has come against the deepest habits of prevarication in himself, those habits every good boxer knows from his childhood’s bones. For to be honest is to get hit, yes, what a distance José has come to work now at writing, to work at that game where the rewards are given for that truth you’ve elucidated from the tricky memories of the flesh. Andale, hombre! I am waiting for your next book. If you get better than good, Cheüi, maybe I will become the best late-middle-aged boxer in the literary world, and that is a small honor to all but a working writer in the core of his prime.

Citation

  1. From Torres, José (1971). …Sting Like a Bee: The Muhammad Ali Story. New York: Abelard-Shuman. Reprinted by Project Mailer with permission of the estate of Norman Mailer. (71.26)