The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/Fighters and Writers

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007 »
Written by
John G. Rodwan Jr.
Abstract: A banner hanging on a wall at Gleason’s Gym testifies to boxing’s enduring appeal for writers. Norman Mailer and José Torres (light heavyweight champion and author) were friends, and Mailer admitted to providing editorial aid to the fighter, who did give the novelist some boxing pointers. Mailer did share his friend’s views about pugilistic trickery. In his 1975 account of the Ali-Foreman fight, Mailer explicitly invokes the D’Amato-Torres philosophy, a key component of which is that skilled boxers can block or evade any punch they can see coming.

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.

José 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.

. . .