Boxing Book Club: Revisiting Norman Mailer’s ‘The Fight’

If by chance you’re unfamiliar with the work, Norman Mailer’s classic, The Fight is a masterful account of the legendary Ali-Foreman Rumble in the Jumble fight. Widely regarded as one of the most outstanding books ever written about boxing, The Fight helped to establish Mailer as one of the premier writers of his time. The novelist’s descriptions of that fateful fight and the personalities involved elevated boxing to a new level of cultural significance.

The Fight also contributed to the mythos surrounding Muhammad Ali, who was already a larger-than-life figure well before the Rumble in the Jumble. Mailer’s portrait of Ali as a charismatic, cunning, and ultimately triumphant underdog arguably helped cement his status as one of the greatest athletes and cultural icons of the 20th century.

The poetry of boxing and the age of “new journalism”

Norman Mailer was not a boxing analyst or even a sportswriter, but he had an interest in boxing that was more literary and philosophical than technical. The Naked and the Dead author often explored the deeper meanings and cultural significance of boxing as a human activity, beyond mere sport. His writing style in The Fight reflects the poetic nature of pugilism, often blending reportage with literary flair. It should be noted that Mailer was a pioneering figure in the 1960’s field of “New Journalism,” which combined the factual accuracy of traditional reporting with the stylistic techniques of fiction writing.

In The Fight, Mailer creates a vivid and immersive narrative, including dialogue, description, and stream-of-consciousness prose. His writing is often poetic and metaphoric, and he uses language in innovative ways to capture the drama and emotion of physical battle. He wrote in a way never before seen in the sports world, and everyone – boxing fans, fighters, and other writers – became infatuated. We still are.

Despite taking poetic license, Mailer is careful to remain true to the story’s facts, and he conducted extensive interviews with the fighters, trainers, and other figures.

As compelling as it is factual, The Fight is a must-read for boxers and boxing fans. Here are a few favorite moments that best showcase Mailer’s poetic insights.

Mailer’s description of Muhammad Ali’s strategy for the fight

“What he hoped to do was induce Foreman to expend as much energy as possible while he himself would expend the minimum. “Ideally, Foreman would knock himself out trying to knock Ali out, while Ali conserved his strength for the later rounds.”

A portrait of Ali’s character and persona

“Ali had created a style of his own, at once improvisational and scientific, that had transformed his fights into ballets of mass destruction.”

Reflections on the nature of boxing

“Boxing is the most beautiful thing in the world… It is a science, an art, and, like everything that is great in life, it is also a game.”

Mailer’s description of the fight itself

“The sun was setting over the forest to the west, and the sky was a rainbow of hues, purple and mauve, deep blue and pink… The bell clanged, and the fighters came out for round one.”

“Boxing is a sport at the edge of civilization. The half-civilized ring, where the rule of law is suspended and the only rule is the survival of the strongest, is at the heart of it. It is a way of testing the human will, a contest of character and courage, a proving ground for the soul.”

We’ll be taking a closer look at Norman Mailer’s other works about boxing in future articles, as well as his literary works that mention the sport. Meanwhile, please feel free to leave a comment if you’ve read The Fight.