Norman Mailer, Sportswriter

By Allen Barra
Mailer at his Brooklyn apartment in 1998. (AP / Bebeto Matthews) 

Norman Mailer’s writing career spanned almost 60 years, over which he produced more than 40 books, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (The Executioner’s Song) and the Pulitzer and National Book award for nonfiction (The Armies of the Night). Yet, as J. Michael Lennon notes in his sumptuous new biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, despite laudatory reviews, Mailer had “mixed feelings” over The Fight, his account of the 1974 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. He wondered if spending half a year on it had been worthwhile. But reading Lennon's biography's “making-of” details about The Fight, I found myself thrilled by the story all over again.

A cardinal rule among sportswriters is to never openly root for a team, player or a fighter. One should always be cool and objective, or at least pretend to be. But Mailer openly and passionately pulled for his favorites, and it made his work jump off the page at you. In Zaire, according to Lennon, Mailer ardently believed that a victory by Ali would be “A triumph for everything which did not fit into the computer: for audacity, inventiveness, even art.”

“What,” he asks himself rhetorically in his book, “could be more important to Norman?”

But as he watched Foreman in training, Mailer concluded that Foreman’s punches “were probably the heaviest cumulative series of punches any boxing writer had ever seen. Each of these blows was enough to smash an average athlete’s ribs; anybody with poor stomach muscles would have a broken spine.” Mailer was worried for Muhammad Ali, who was 32 at the time. A loss would have effectively ended his career, and Foreman, Ali’s junior by eight years, could very well hurt or at least humiliate Ali.

Even now, 39 years later, one can feel Mailer’s exhilaration when, after seven brutal rounds, Foreman was moving as “slow as a man walking up a hill of pillows.” When Ali finally came off the ropes in the eighth round and fired a rapid-fire three-punch combination Foreman “went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news. Yes, fell over all of a long collapsing two seconds. Down came the champion in sections.”

“Guile,” Lennon concludes, “beat force; art defeated power.” Lennon—rightfully, I think—feels that “looking back now at what is generally considered a masterpiece of sports biography, one could justly conclude that the expenditure of effort was worthwhile.”

In passages like this, Lennon masterfully captures Mailer’s all-consuming love of Muhammad Ali and boxing. Lennon’s biography, however, only touches on what was actually a substantial and fascinating aspect of Mailer’s life and career: his sports fandom. It’s a great shame for readers everywhere that Mailer didn’t do more writing on sports. He might not have become the greatest sportswriter who ever lived, but he could have been one of the greats.

***

Though he could never devote much time to the sport, Mailer loved baseball. But despite numerous references to the game in his work, he never wrote a long baseball piece.

According to Lennon, Mailer thought that 1947, Jackie Robinson’s first year as a Brooklyn Dodger, “was the most exciting year Brooklyn fans could remember.” He loved some players and was indifferent to others—Joe DiMaggio, for instance: In a piece collected in The Presidential Papers, he wrote, “His legend left me cold.” (Possibly because his idol, Ernest Hemingway, staked a claim to the Yankee Clipper first in The Old Man and the Sea.)

Another fascinating tidbit Lennon uncovered is that Mailer corresponded with one-time Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan, who had written baseball’s first tell-all, The Long Season. “I can’t pitch worth a fuck,” Mailer wrote to Brosnan, “and you write like a dull whore with an honest streak, but if you ain’t afraid of a grand slam, which you is, come around when you get to New York, and we’ll have a drink or two.”

But Lennon leaves out that Mailer was an early supporter of Bill James, baseball’s sabermetrics pioneer. When James was putting out his first analytical newsletter in the late 1970s, Mailer heard about him through a friend and wrote to James asking how he could subscribe.

“I told him I’d be happy to send it to him for free,” James told me, “but he wanted to pay for it. He sent me a check for $5. I had Norman Mailer’s autograph on a $5 check. And I was so desperate back then, I cashed it.”

Mailer loved football, too, and let it slip on several occasions that he had played on the intramural team at Harvard. Another of Mailer’s favorite sports was bullfighting, though he never really developed his own style when writing about it.  It’s hard not to imagine that he took up with it in the hopes that Hemingway would see what he had written and send him a fan letter.

The sport Hemingway should have sent him a fan letter about, though, was, of course, boxing. In his account of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight in 1971, King of the Hill (a long essay included in several Mailer collections but also available in a slim paperbackedition) and The Fight, his book on the 1974 George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight in Zaire, Mailer reached heights of poetry and insight that neither Papa at his best nor the New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling nor the great Red Smith nor anyone else ever laid a glove on.

No boxer fired up Mailer’s imagination like Ali did. “He is,” Mailer wrote in King of the Hill, “America’s Greatest Ego”—which might well have been true if not for Mailer himself. To Mailer, Ali was “the swiftest embodiment of human intelligence we have had yet, he is the very spirit of the 20th century.”And, writing about Ali in The Fight, Mailer proclaimed that “The World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man.”

When writing about Ali, if Mailer’s prose sometimes seems unmoored, it was, after all, because he was writing about a man who had no point of comparison. According to one of his most famous passages in King of the Hill,

The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little bit insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility he is. It is like being the big toe of God. You have nothing to measure yourself by.

And if, by extension, a writer could capture such a fighter’s essence in words, who could we measure that writer by? If it’s true that to understand is to equal, then Mailer’s genius was the equal of Ali’s, for he was the first writer to perceive the method in Ali’s apparent madness in the ring. When, in Zaire, Ali violated all the cardinal rules of boxing by leaning back against the ropes and letting Foreman wear himself out by pounding on him, Mailer wrote that Ali was “demonstrating that what for other fighters is a weakness can be for him a strength.” Ali, said Mailer, “turned the pockets of the boxing world inside out.” 

And Mailer did the same for his world. When Mailer met George Foreman, the heavyweight champion said to him, “Yeah, I’ve heard of you. You’re the champ among writers.” (At least, that’s how Mailer himself told the story.)

***

Sometimes, though, even champs get treated like bums. In 1982, Mailer told me how it happened to him.

Out of college, without a job and having failed to establish Birmingham, Alabama’s version of the Village Voice, I moved to New York to try for a job writing for the real thing. Ross Wetzsteon, a great editor and great writer who had been around when Mailer was writing his column for the paper in 1955, suggested I might start out by writing about sports. “Here,” he said, slipping me a piece of paper with a 718 area code on it. “Pick your subject and ask Norman if he’ll give you a quote. And don’t give that number to anyone else.”

I dialed the Brooklyn number, and damned if America’s Greatest Writer didn’t answer. I told him I wanted to write about boxing for the Voice.  “Ah, yes,” he said in a half laugh, half growl. “The Village Voice, where boxing is the sport of queens.” He told me to think through what I wanted to write about, put it in a letter to him, and he’d put his response on paper for me to quote. Right then and there I started thinking of myself as a writer.

I asked Mailer an innocuous question about the then heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, who was unbeaten at that point in his career and preparing to fight challenger Gerry Cooney in a hugely anticipated championship bout, but there was something else on my mind. Boning up on my boxing literature, I had come across a piece by the famed New Yorker journalist A.J. Liebling. In the aftermath of Sonny Liston’s knockout victory over Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in 1962, it described a disturbance at the post-fight press conference—one between “a writer” and the new heavyweight champ.

Liebling’s story triggered a memory. My father kept scrapbooks of newspaper stories on sporting events, and I recalled a piece he had saved from the September 17, 1962, edition of the New York Post by a writer named Leonard Shecter headlined “The Prizefighter and the Author.”

“The Patterson-Liston fight,” Shecter wrote, “was covered by some of the most famous writers in the country, among them Norman Mailer, author of The Naked and The Dead, who made himself as much a part of the scene as either fighter, maybe even more so.” According to Shecter, during a Q&A session with Liston, Mailer harangued the room, saying, “I’m here to establish one fact. I am the only man here who will make the next Patterson-Liston fight a $2,000,000 gate instead of a $200,000 dog.” (Selling that many tickets to a Liston-Patterson rematch would have been some accomplishment, since Liston had knocked Patterson out in just two minutes and 12 seconds in the first round.)

Several journalists hooted him down, but Liston, a brute of a man who had spent much of his life behind bars, raised his hands and told them to be quiet. He smiled and said, “Leave the bum talk.”

“I picked Patterson to win in one punch in the sixth round …” Mailer shouted.

“He’s still drunk,” Liston said with a laugh.

The future Pulitzer and National Book Award winner then spent the next few minutes ranting about why his prediction was right and why Patterson had actually beaten Liston.

For Mailer, Patterson represented the dreams of millions of blacks and white liberals that the heavyweight champion, then the most iconic sports figure in the world, would be a heroic figure in the mold of Joe Louis, who held the heavyweight title for more than 12 years and was, everyone agreed, a “credit to his race.” Liston, with his criminal past and ties to organized crime, didn’t come close to this ideal. As he wrote later in his first great boxing piece, in Esquire, “The Thousand Words a Minute,” “If Liston was the agent of the Devil, what a raid had been made on God, what a royal black had arisen, Sonny, the King of Hip, was Ace of Spades, and Patterson, ah Patterson, was now an archetype, all which was underdog.” (Liston had outweighed Patterson by more than 25 pounds.)

Patterson, Mailer seemed to be saying, had won a great victory simply by overcoming the psychic burden of being the hope of so many—a burden Liston would never know.

The new heavyweight champion, smiling as radiantly as anyone had ever seen him, advised the heavyweight champion of American writers, “Don’t be a sorehead.”

Am I right, I asked Mailer, in assuming that “the writer” in Liebling’s piece was you?

Yes, he told me, he was. And what he objected to was that Liebling did not mention him by name. “I was irked that he did not use my name because the story of my dialogue with Liston had appeared in many a New York newspaper. … It’s the most effective form of reportorial bum-rapping.”

(Since Liebling was regarded by many as the greatest boxing writer ever, I asked Mailer for his opinion. “He was wonderful on politicians and many other matters,” he wrote back.)

No fighter, no American athlete, would ever be so connected with a writer as Ali would be with Mailer. But the champ no one wanted, Sonny Liston, had a special place in Mailer’s esteem, too. Mailer recalled to me that on the night he disrupted Liston’s press conference, “Sonny himself wasn’t as offended as the newspapermen. I told him I didn’t like it that he called me a bum. He laughed and said, ‘Hey, you can call me a bum. Hell, I’m a bigger bum than you because I’m bigger than you,’” he told me.

Mailer said Liston offered him his hand to shake; he asked, “Okay, bum?” and asked Mailer to get him a drink. “I’m not your flunkie,” Mailer told Liston. Liston looked around the room and said in a voice everyone could hear, “I like this guy.”

I wrote Mailer one last time. I’ve got to know, I said, what did you reply to Liston when he said that?

He told me that he stuck his finger boldly in Liston’s massive chest, looked him in the eye, and said, “And you are better than I thought you were.” 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/norman-mailer-sportswriter/282115/