Thirty years ago, Russell Davies wrote a weekly sporting column in the New Statesman. It proved unsustainable and was soon discontinued, but not before Davies had described a boxer ‘genuflecting through the ropes’ — an image I have coveted ever since. Boxing is ‘a standing challenge to [a writer’s] powers of description’, according to Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra in their preface to The Bittersweet Science.
They are right. All physical action is a challenge to writers: YouTube can repair deficiencies, and is invoked several times in this anthology; but it is no substitute for writing, because writing adds focus to reality. I once saw the handsome, British-Hungarian, bottle-blond heavyweight Joe Bugner working out in a gym above a pub in the Pentonville Road. His looks were legendary, celebrated in many photo-shoots. But in reality they were also faintly out of focus, blurred by boxing. Writing searches, selects and freezes the frame. It lets you take a proper look at Bugner’s looks; lets you see what you can’t quite see.
There aren’t many good boxing writers. Even proven authors can fall short. Marianne Moore, a poet capable of describing a lion’s ‘ferocious chrysanthemum’ or a jerboa’s ‘Chippendale claw’, has very little to say about the Floyd Patterson–George Chuvalo heavyweight match in Madison Square Gardens on 5 February 1965, a bout she was taken to by George Plimpton, with Bob Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books,
The pre-fight preliminaries produce her most vivid touches. These are punters looking for ticket touts:
Battered felt hats [Moore is wearing her best tricorne] and heavy faces, arms waving $100 bills and men shouting, pay you double, pay you double in sight of the brass buttons of policemen. I had to be led by the hand, through the squeeze of humanity; ticket-taker vigilant looking at your face and ticket, strong thumb on the ticket.
The Fight, Norman Mailer’s account of the Rumble in the Jungle, the 1974 Zaïre match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, has its moments, but they, too, are mainly before the fight.