The early 1970s was a good time for heavyweight boxing. Indeed, it was probably the last truly great age for the sport. Flamboyant fighters contested brutal matches in exotic locations, from the Philippines to the Caribbean. The world watched open-mouthed. The marketing slogans attached to some of those fights remain instantly recognisable: who has not heard of the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manila? During these years boxing, and particularly American heavyweight boxing, was the most prominent and glamorous sport on the planet.
Boxing in the early Seventies was also culturally important in a way that it is not any more. The sport was briefly about more than money and pain. It spoke to the politics of war, race, religion and international diplomacy. Fighters became, as Richard Hoffer puts it, ‘proxies for competing belief systems’, which gave the heavyweight belt ‘an unlikely significance in these otherwise dispiriting years’.
This was almost entirely down to the celebrity of one man: Muhammad Ali, the big-mouthed, draft-dodging Islamic convert who became a pariah and a martyr for his refusal to go to war in Vietnam, and used his astonishing verbal dexterity and physical resilience to give his sport an uncommonly thrilling unpredictability, both inside and outside the ring. Ali was one of the most unusual and fascinating sportsmen of all time. It was he, more than anyone else, who made boxing matter.
But Ali couldn’t fight himself. He found his most memorable rivals in Joe Frazier, whom he fought three times, and George Foreman, whom he fought once. Hoffer’s book is about these four matches and the single bout that took place in Jamaica between Foreman and Frazier. Cumulatively, this three-way contest added up to 51 rounds, four countries, and an awful lot of money.