The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/He Was a Fighter: Boxing in Norman Mailer’s Life and Work

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007 »
Written by
Barry H. Leeds
Abstract: Boxing has provided a significant moral paradigm throughout much of Norman Mailer’s life and work. Mailer’s significant writing about boxing begins with The Presidential Papers in the long and riveting essay entitled “Death,” originally titled “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” one of his “Big Bite” columns for Esquire. Not only does this piece prefigure and announce the new mode of Mailer’s nonfiction writing in the late 1960s and 1970s, notably The Armies of the Night, it is the key to his fascination with boxing.

Boxing has provided a significant moral paradigm throughout much of Norman Mailer’s life and work. In his seminal essay entitled “Death” in The Presidential Papers (1963), Mailer uses the first Sonny Liston/Floyd Patterson championship bout as a point of departure from which to develop a profound series of perceptions about the American national temperament, particularly that of blacks. In King of the Hill (1971) and more strikingly in The Fight (1975) he deals nominally with a specific championship bout, but goes beyond journalism to find certain normative precepts in the sport. But there is another level on which boxing informs and conditions Mailer’s vision: In his fiction, most notably An American Dream (1965) and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984), boxing experiences help define the protagonists. Stephen Richards Rojack and Tim Madden respectively find “the reward of the ring”[1] applicable to their existential quests for self. Ultimately, Mailer’s views on boxing are far from simplistic. From the powerful account of Benny Paret’s death in the ring at the hands of Emile Griffith to his statements to me about the ill-fated conclusion to Muhammad Ali’s career to his 1988 article on Mike Tyson, “Fury, Fear, Philosophy,” Mailer has found in this arena of ritualized violence a rich source of perception about the human condition. In fact, in his 1993 essay in Esquire, “The Best Move Lies Next to the Worst” (reprinted in {{harvtxt|Mailer|1998))), he deals with his own boxing experiences at the Gramercy Gym with José Torres, Ryan O’Neal and others. The title of the piece comes from the comparison of boxing to chess.[2]


  1. Mailer 1965, p. 16.
  2. Mailer 1998, pp. 1045–1052.

Works Cited

  • Mailer, Norman (1965). An American Dream. New York: Vintage.
  • — (1998). The Time of Our Time. New York: Random House.