In 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaïre, two African American boxers were paid five million dollars apiece to fight each other. One was Muhammad Ali, the aging but irrepressible "professor of boxing." The other was George Foreman, who was as taciturn as Ali was voluble. Observing them was Norman Mailer, a commentator of unparalleled energy, acumen, and audacity. Whether he is analyzing the fighters' moves, interpreting their characters, or weighing their competing claims on the African and American souls, Mailer's grasp of the titanic battle's feints and stratagems - and his sensitivity to their deeper symbolism - makes this book a masterpiece of the literature of sport.
©1975 Norman Mailer. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., and Faber and Faber Ltd. For permission to reprint an excerpt from The Palmwine Drunkard by Amos Tutuola (published by Faber and Faber Ltd. as The Palm Wine Drinkarct), © 1953 by George Braziller, © the Estate of Amos Tutuola. Reprinted by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc., and Faber and Faber Ltd. (P)2016 Brilliance Audio, all rights reserved.
Of course I like the description of the fight most of all, but overall a good book. It helps people who don't remember the way George Foreman and Muhammad Ali actually used to be thought of before they got old. Before Foreman became a nice guy who sold grills, and before Ali became famous for his philanthropy and valiant battle with Parkinson's syndrome.
The great triumph of Ali over Foreman in Zaire gets first class coverage by Norman Mailer. With a novelist's flair, Mailer reports on Ali's shocking upset win over George Foreman. Foreman had bludgeoned his way to an Olympic gold medal and then utterly demolished virtually every professional that came his way. Mailer brings us inside the chaos of Zaire, and we get a peek into the camps and personas of both Ali and Foreman. Oddly enough, the most interesting characters in the book are Drew Bundini Brown and the assorted fighters who served as sparring partners for Ali and Foreman. Ali was a huge underdog in the match against a young and terrifyingly destructive Foreman. But Mailer gives the listener a sense of the head games that Ali played on the mind of his less worldly opponent. The culmination of the book is the round by round deconstruction of the fight. Ali's victory seems very much in doubt throughout this book as Foreman stages small rallies and lands blows that would never have landed before in Ali's prime. The genius of Ali and Mailer captures this well, is that Ali made the adjustments and knew better than his corner that the tactics he adopted for Foreman would wear the younger man down.
This is a treat for the boxing fan. More though, it is a treat for the fan of good nonfiction. I have always felt that Mailer's fiction, with the exception of The Naked and the Dead, is quite overrated, but feel that his nonfiction writing (particularly on politics) will stand the test of time. I am not sure we will ever see boxing return to this type of prominence and perhaps it shouldn't. I do know that few writers will ever write this well about sports again.
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