The opening words of Norman Mailer’s King of the Hill, Mailer’s treatise on the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, raise the bar for those who write about the fights.
“It is the great word of the 20th Century. If there is a single word our century has added to the potentiality of language, it is ego. Everything we have done in this century, from monumental feats to nightmares of human destruction, has been a function of that extraordinary state of the psyche which gives us authority to declare we are sure of ourselves when we are not.”
Although Mailer is writing about last century and not our own, the permutations of ego – his ego, our ego, Ali’s ego – have not lost currency.
Mailer writes: “Ego is driving a point through to a conclusion you are obliged to reach without knowing too much about the ground you cross between. You suffer for a larger point. Every good prizefighter must have a large ego, then, because he is trying to demolish a man he doesn’t know too much about, he is unfeeling – which is the ground floor of the ego; and he is full of techniques – which are the wings of ego. What separates the noble ego of prizefighters from the lesser ego of authors is that the fighter goes through experiences in the ring which are occasionally immense, incommunicable except to fighters who have been as good, or to women who have gone through every minute of an anguish-filled birth, experiences which are finally mysterious.”
Comparing boxing to giving birth is only possible with language.
“There are languages other than words, languages of symbol and languages of nature. There are,” according to Mailer, “languages of the body. And prizefighting is one of them . . . Boxing is a dialogue between bodies. Ignorant men, usually black, and usually next to illiterate, address one another in a set of conversational exchanges which go deep into the heart of each other’s matter.”
Boxing is the game of the underclass. It was for the Irish, Italians and Jews. Now it’s for the beige, brown and tan races.
“Ghetto cultures, black, Puerto Rican and Chicano cultures . . . speak to each other with their bodies, they signal with their clothes. They talk with many a silent telepathic intelligence. And doubtless feel the frustration of being unable to express the subtleties of their states in words, just as the average middle-class white will be unable to carry out his dreams of glory by the uses of his body.”
It’s not only athleticism which sets these men apart. They also have balls.
“They are men’s men,” Mailer writes. “Rocky Marciano was one of them. Oscar Bonavena and Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo and Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio, to name a few, have faces which would give a Marine sergeant pause in a bar fight. They look like they could take you out with the knob of bone they have left for a nose.”
The machismo that boxing perpetuates hits the heights when it comes to heavyweights.
“The closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little 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,” writes Mailer. “You have nothing to measure yourself by.”
Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, aka The Greatest, fit the bill.
Ali was “well on the way to becoming America’s most unpopular major American. That too was part of the art – to get the public to the point of hating him so much the burden on the other fighter approached the metaphysical – which is where Ali wanted it. White fighters with faces like rock embedded in concrete would trade punch for punch. Ali liked to get the boxing where it belonged – he would trade metaphysic for metaphysic with anyone.”
Metaphysics aside, could Ali trade bombs with Joe Frazier?
“Frazier was the human equivalent of a war machine,” Mailer writes. “He had tremendous firepower. He had a great left hook, a left hook frightening to watch even when it missed, for it seemed to whistle; he had a powerful right. He could knock a man out with either hand – not all fighters can, not even very good fighters.”
Frazier was one the greatest pure punchers in boxing history. Comparing Smokin’ Joe to Rocky Marciano, another bruiser with a killer punch, Mailer speculates: “If those two men had ever met, it would have been like two Mack trucks hitting each other head-on, then backing up to hit each other again – they would have kept it up until the wheels were off the axles and the engines off the chassis.”
Frazier was tough, but it was a game to Ali.
“For the fight, Ali was wearing red velvet trunks, Frazier had green. Before they began, even before they were called together by the referee for instructions, Ali went dancing around the ring and glided past Frazier with a sweet little-boy smile, as if to say, ‘You’re my new playmate. We’re going to have fun.’”
The men and their seconds met at the center of the ring.
Norman Mailer describes the action: “The referee gave his instructions. The bell rang. The first 15 seconds of a fight can be the fight. It is equivalent to the first kiss in a love affair. The first round set a pattern for the fight. Ali won it and would win the next. His jab was landing from time to time and rights and lefts of no great consequence. Frazier was hardly reaching him at all. Yet it looked like Frazier had established that he was fast enough to get in on Ali and so drive him to the ropes and to the corners, and that spoke of a fight which would be determined by the man in better condition rather than in psychic condition, the kind of fight Ali could hardly want for his strength was in his pauses, he nature passed along the curve of every dialectic, he liked, in short, to fight in flurries, and then move out, move away, assess, take his time, fight again. Frazier would not let him.”
Smokin’ Joe was pressing The Greatest, not letting Ali fight his fight.
“Frazier moved in with the snarl of a wolf, his teeth seemed to show through his mouthpiece, he made Ali work. Ali won the first two rounds but it was obvious he could not continue to win if he had to work all the way. And in the third round Frazier began to get to him, caught Ali with a powerful blow to the face at the bell. That was the first moment where it was clear to all that Frazier had won a round. Then he won the next. Ali looked tired and a little depressed.”
He had good reason to be tired and depressed. Frazier was bobbing and weaving will power throwing punches with bad intentions.
“There is an extortion of the will beyond any of our measure in the exhaustion which comes upon a fighter in the early rounds when he is already too tired to lift his arms or take advantage of opening there before him, yet the fight not a third over, there are all those rounds to go, contractions of torture, the lungs screaming into the dungeon of the soul, washing the throat with a hot bile that once belonged to the liver, the legs are going dead, the arms move but their motion is limp, one is straining with another will, breathing into the breath of another will as agonized as one’s own.”
The fight moved into the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth rounds and Ali was forced to dig deep. Frazier was ahead on two of the three scorecards. If Ali was to win the fight and reclaim the title, he was going to have to try to slow Joe Frazier down.
“Ali had never been a street fighter,” writes Mailer, “and never a whorehouse knock-it-down stud, no, it was more as if a man with the exquisite reflexes of Nureyev had learned to throw a knockout punch with either hand and so had become heavyweight champion of the world without knowing if he was the man of all men or the most delicate of the delicate with special privilege endowed by God.”
Frazier won the first half of the ninth round with a nonstop head and body attack, but Ali turned things around in dramatic fashion: “Now he jabbed Frazier, he snake-licked his face with jabs faster than he had thrown before, he anticipated each attempt at Frazier counterattack and threw it back, he danced on his toes for the first time in rounds, he popped in rights, he hurt him with hooks, it was his biggest round of the night, it was the best round yet of the fight.”
Ali took the tenth, but the eleventh and twelfth were Frazier’s. The thirteenth round could have gone either way, unlike the fourteenth, which was all Ali.
The bell rang for the fifteenth and final round and the heavyweight championship of the world was up for grabs. Ali “came out dancing for the 15th, while Frazier, his own armies of energy finally caught up, his courage ready to spit into the eye of any devil black or white who would steal the work of his life, had equal madness to steal the bolt from Ali. So Frazier reached out to snatch the magic punch from the air, the punch with which Ali topped Bonavena, and found it and thunked Ali a hell and hit Ali a heaven of a shot which dumped Muhammad into 50,000 newspaper photographs – Ali on the floor!”
Frazier landed a left hook for the ages which dropped Ali to the deck. Unconscious when he went down, he was conscious when he rose to beat the count. Ali and Frazier fought to the final bell. Smokin’ Joe retained the crown.
“The world was talking instantly of a rematch,” Mailer writes. “For Ali had shown America what we all had hoped was secretly true. He was a man. He could bear moral and physical torture and he could stand. And if he could beat Frazier in the rematch we would have at last a national hero who was hero of the world as well, and who could bear to wait for the next fight? Joe Frazier, still the champion, and a great champion, said to the press, ‘Fellows, have a heart – I got to live a little. I’ve been working for 10 long years.’ And Ali, through the agency of alter-ego Bundini, said – for Ali was now in the hospital to check on the possible fracture of a jaw – Ali was reported to have said, ‘Get the gun ready – we’re going to set traps.’ Oh, wow. Could America wait for something so great as the Second Ali-Frazier?”