Richard Hoffer’s “Bouts of Mania” is a lovely echo from a bygone era, when boxing and the written word co-habited in sensual ardor. It tells of the rivalry of three heavyweight champions, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, who fought five bouts from 1971 to 1975. Their legend comes alive, in tone and pitch, light and dark and gray, under Hoffer’s deft touch.
To readers who followed Hoffer’s long and distinguished career at Sports Illustrated, and to those (such as myself) who remember his earlier work for the Los Angeles Times, this is no surprise. Hoffer plies his craft in the tradition of the sportswriters he admired — Red Smith, Dave Anderson, Mark Kram, Robert Lipsyte, Jim Murray, Larry Merchant, Jerry Izenberg, Hugh McIllvaney, Dave Kindred — as well as the literary lions — Norman Mailer, William Saroyan, George Plimpton, Budd Schulberg — who dropped in on the sport.
All are channeled in this considered piece of boxing history and journalism, a work of aggregation and synthesis — Hoffer drew from a voluminous bibliography of print and film and added eight interviews of his own.
He starts with a vignette from Ali’s exile, after he had been stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967 for refusing induction into the U.S. military. Early in 1970 the lecture circuit took him to tiny Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.
It did not go that well. Ali’s black-white routine went fine, his comic representation of an all-white country getting laughs. Santa Claus is white; Miss America is white, he pointed out. Cigars are White Owl! “Even Tarzan, the kind of Africa, is white,” he said. But his answer to the “racist problem,” a nonviolent separation of the races, was not popular, especially among the dashiki-wearing militants who’d come in from Lehigh. Whey, they wondered, was this separatist living in such a grand house in a white neighborhood?
It grew heated, Ali trying to reconcile his ambitions with a divided country, the black kids in their dashikis having none of it. “We must go to war!” one in the crowd shouted. “You go ahead,” Ali said. “I’ll read about you tomorrow in the newspapers.” They continued to bark at him from the wooden bleachers, Ali growing increasingly frustrated at the interruptions. “You niggers give me more trouble than the whites,” he finally said.
The scene captures the polarization Ali inspired. Meanwhile, Frazier, who won gold at the 1964 Olympics, toiled in relative obscurity to fill Ali’s vacuum. He gets this intro:
…Olympic success aside, his preparations had been ragged and hurried, not reassuring to potential backers at all. He’d come a long way from the South Carolina low country where, as a thirteen-year-old dropout, he worked the dirt behind a team of mules. He’d come a long way from his daddy’s porch, where the two watched Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano — and Joe Louis! — on a fifteen-inch Philco. A long way from that swinging burlap bag, filled with rags and corncobs, a brick in the middle to give it some weight, young Frazier making it swing anyway. Boxers are not expected to materialize with advanced degrees, but, even by the low standards of admission for this game, Frazier had a woefully incomplete dossier.
As for Foreman, Hoffer tells us that after he won the heavyweight gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, he became a sparring partner for ex-champion Sonny Liston, an unrepentant thug. By osmosis, Foreman absorbed Liston’s personality, such as it was:
George Foreman believed in the singularity of heavyweight power. By a law of the universe, it could inhabit no more than one person at a time. And for that matter, it didn’t necessarily have to inhabit any. Ali had been champion, had even been the Greatest for a while, but never possessed that super natural force. He was many things, but never a knockout artist. Even Frazier…was without it. Nobody wanted to be on the business end of Frazier’s left hook, but there was nothing especially surprising about its effect, either.
There was some mystical quality that turned an ordinary punch, however finely tuned by mechanics and muscle, into something beyond physical explanation. There were some punches — Rocky Marciano delivered them, Floyd Patterson did not — that were simply astonishing, even as they were concussive. The scale of impact could not be predicted by comparative anatomy; the shock of such blunt force couldn’t be explained by any study of physics. There was an element to this particular sort of heavyweight power that was, perhaps, even spiritual.
In February 1970, Frazier unified the heavyweight title with a fourth-round knockout of Jimmy Ellis. Soon the courts restored Ali’s right to fight. Hoffer takes us from there to Ali-Frazier I, in March 1971, at Madison Square Garden, a bout dubbed the Fight of the Century.
For this and other bouts Hoffer lays out the build-up, promotion, scene, supporting cast, and hard numbers. Thus do Jerry Perenchio, Jack Kent Cooke, Lucien Chen, Joseph Mobutu, Ferdinand Marcos, and yes, Don King, prance across the pages. There are the boxing savants — Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee, Archie Moore — the canny publicists, and the ocean of hangers-on. Ever present is the boxing media — Hoffer relishes Howard Cosell anecdotes.
We follow them to Jamaica for Foreman-Frazier (1973), New York again for Ali-Frazier II (1974), Zaire for Ali-Foreman (1974), and Manila for Ali-Frazier III (1975). The only clunker was Ali-Frazier II — the others were transcendent each in its own way.
But it is not the ring action — though richly rendered — as much as the character portraits of Ali, Frazier and Foreman that elevate “Bouts of Mania”. Ali has inspired an entire canon unto himself, for good reason. Frazier and Foreman, though less epic, had strong, eccentric personalities.
We learn, for instance, that while Ali was in exile, he and Frazier were friendly enough that Frazier lent him money. Once Ali’s right to fight was restored, and a bout with Frazier became inevitable, Ali turned on Frazier, labeled him an “Uncle Tom”, and earned his deep and permanent enmity.
This, on Ali, prior to his third bout with Frazier:
He oozed through life with equal charm and insolence, completely unmindful of consequence, always removed from the results of his affairs. If something happened, he would react. Drafted? He declined. Bulled against the ropes in the biggest fight of his life? He’d suddenly and perversely accept. It always seemed to work out, not to plan, of course — he never made plans, just lived moment to moment — but according to his dazzling improvisation, his uncanny ability to adapt. Did he mean to drive Frazier to a deadly kind of distraction? No. Why would he? Did he care? Absolutely not. Would it matter one way or another? How? How could it matter?
As individuals and opponents they were comic and tragic by turns, shaded in ambiguity, Shakespearean perhaps. Three was an ensemble, much as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns were an ensemble in the 1980s.
Prudently, Hoffer rolls the narrative forward after the last bout, toward the destinies — celebrated, bleak and redemptive — that awaited the three champions.
“Bouts of Mania” has one dubious premise. If Hoffer flails — as Foreman did against Ali — it is in his geo-political context. His subtitle is “Ali, Frazier, Foreman and an America on The Ropes”. The first half of the 70s, Hoffer suggests, was an especially bleak moment in American history, with a war lost in Vietnam, Watergate, gas lines and the Nixon resignation. The three heavyweights, with their round robin, gave us respite from our troubles.
Well, yes and no. Yes, because Ali was politicized and global. The spotlight he commanded was as grand as sports has seen since, and perhaps equal to that of Joe Louis when he fought Max Schmeling (and Hitler). The sheer magnitude of Ali’s celebrity made the 1970s special.
No, because the era wasn’t as hopeless as Hoffer suggests. The flip side of the 1970s is that our democratic system worked. Activism and public pressure got us out of Vietnam, and our constitution forced out a corrupt president. While the old smokestack economy declined, the new high-tech economy was seeded. People of color, women and gays moved toward empowerment. The creative arts — “All in The Family” — flourished.
Besides, what five-year period hasn’t had debacles, atrocities, panics and the dire suspicion that America is falling off a cliff? Whenever that idyllic period was I must have missed it. If you listen to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Partiers, the Obama presidency is the worst in American history — period. (A nation turns its lonely eyes to Wladamir Klitschko.)
And as for the “escape” provided by the bouts, the same could be said for any number of athletes and sporting events of that era. How about the Nebraska-Oklahoma Game of the Century in 1971? The Oakland A’s three-peat dynasty? The perfect season (1972) of the Miami Dolphins? Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins? The ’73 Knicks? John Wooden’s fabulous UCLA Bruins?
Hoffer could have finessed the squishy macro context. That said, “Bouts of Mania” delivers just fine, a page-turner, well told.