Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of a black man being executed in the South by poison gas whose final words were, “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis.” This man knew that he could not turn to whites or to an unjust government for help so in his desperation he prayed instead to the most powerful black person he could think of: a boxing champion.
Researchers have concluded that King’s anecdote was probably apocryphal, but one of the things its existence suggests involves the tremendous resonance boxing once had with the American people. Reading Richard Hoffer’s “Bouts of Mania’’ is an entertaining reminder of the days when fighting had the power to thrill the country and cause riots at the same time.
A former Sports Illustrated writer, Hoffer tells the story of what is often considered the golden age of American boxing through a series of nine sections, each of which chronicles a crucial year. The late 1960s and 1970s saw epic matches among three outstanding heavyweights: Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, and George Foreman. And Don King emerged, too.
As the subtitle — “Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and an America on the Ropes” — suggests, the book argues that the fights and fighters reflected contemporaneous US society, which was suffering through the Vietnam War and Watergate. “Their unabated resolve had been reassuring, necessary, just then, as if to remind America that the right thing, certainly the hard thing, was still worth doing,” writes Hoffer.
But he doesn’t develop this theme much, and it’s unconvincing anyway. Had the heavyweight trio he writes about existed in earlier years, he could as easily have claimed that they reflected, say, the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fortunately for Hoffer, and for readers, the story he has to tell is compelling enough to justify itself.
Ali gets the most treatment, and rightly so. He was arguably the single most colorful athlete of the 20th century — simultaneously hilarious, brilliant, courageous, hypocritical, and cruel.
And all that was aside from his boxing talents, which were, Hoffman reminds us, tremendous. The author’s recounting of the 1974 fight between Ali and Foreman, known as the Rumble in the Jungle, is first rate. Oddsmakers predicted an easy Foreman victory. Ali’s handlers became furious at his surprise strategy to accept the blows of Foreman — who threw among the most powerful punches in boxing history — by letting the ropes absorb the force. The goal, which proved successful, was to tire him out before moving in for the kill.
Frazier comes off as something of a tragic figure. Despite his formidable talents — he was in many ways the best, most well-rounded boxer of the bunch — he lived a sad life. After retiring, Frazier toured with his unsuccessful band, managed fighters poorly, and invested in failed business ventures. He died in a room above the gym he owned, to the end justifiably bitter about being called a gorilla, a Belgian colonialist, and Uncle Tom by Ali. Only in death did journalists realize they had treated him shabbily, outshined as he was by Ali.
And Foreman? Well, any of the millions of Americans who own one of his grills will know that Foreman was far more successful at business than he was in the ring. And that’s saying a lot. The smiling pudgy guy now hawking barbecues was once a fearsome man, a man who left behind punching bags with “dents the size of half a watermelon.”
Wisely, Hoffer refrains from treating the three champions in isolation. They existed concurrently, and each organized his life and career to some extent around the actions of the others. Humane moments existed alongside the violence, as they grudgingly respected one another.
After Foreman took the heavyweight title from Frazier, he saw the erstwhile champion’s sister on a balcony next door to his. He waved an apology at her, an apology for winning. “Don’t feel bad, Mr. Foreman,” Hoffer quotes her as saying. “We’ve had many victories.”
Indeed, they all did. And “Bouts of Mania’' honors their struggles with lovely prose. It was often observed that while boxing was the most brutal of sports, it inspired much of the best sportswriting. From Norman Mailer to James Baldwin to Joyce Carol Oates, some greats have taken their shots at the sweet science. Richard Hoffer’s new book continues that fine tradition.