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Writing about fighting

contesting the assumption that "boxing is only like boxing" through an analysis of selected writings on Muhammad Ali

Forum by Claire Horrocks, Edge Hill University College
Bibliographic citation data for this essay



I wish to contest Joyce Carol Oates’s assumption that "boxing is only like boxing" 1 by looking at the emotions and responses the sport stimulates in writers and critics of different race and creed, particularly when discussing Muhammad Ali’s contribution to the legend of boxing. To say "boxing is only like boxing" is to limit it within the confines of the fight itself, denying the sport any social significance outside the ring. Muhammad Ali’s career charts a turning point both in the history of boxing and within the civil rights movement of the 1960s and on into the 1970s. As a boxer Ali followed black boxing greats such as Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. These figures had themselves succeeded in stirring controversies within the sport through the polarised image of the ‘Uncle Tom’ and the ‘bad Nigger’. Jack Johnson, with his characteristic grin, flaunted his wealth in the faces of the disgruntled white men whose women he loved to date. Not only had a black man transgressed the colour line in sport, but this had afforded him the opportunity to cross the social divide too. Johnson prompted the search for a ‘white hope’, as critics and fans desperately sought to dethrone the black champion, even resorting to drawing Jim Jeffries out of retirement in an attempt to strip Johnson of the title. Despite Johnson’s physical prowess, his reputation damaged and inhibited the way for black boxers of the future, for, "Johnson confirmed the worst stereotypes of black behaviour and provided the perfect justification for segregation". 2 Despite this hostility, Joe Louis rose to fame in the 1930s, seizing the opportunity to represent the USA by fighting the Nazi champion, Max Schmeling. Louis’ manager and coach strove to construct a well-groomed and idealistic image, a direct contrast to the brash behaviour of Johnson which would make Louis acceptable to any audience, as a "symbol of his race to both black and whites". 3 Indeed, Chris Mead argues that Louis "had opened sports to blacks and made athletics a cutting edge of the civil rights movement", 4 in a vital turning point in the sport that facilitated future champions, like the formidable Louisville Lip.

The young boxer from Louisville Kentucky dislocated all commonly held assumptions about boxing, using a brash immodesty that writers found disconcertingly appealing to write about. His characteristic predictions of outcomes made people watch his fights, if not just to see if anyone could ‘shut the Lip’ from Kentucky. In this way Ali’s personality began to attract an audience both within boxing and outside the ring, facilitating the means by which to express his concern for Black America by offering a role model, with racial pride and dignity, to many young black children:

I liked being who I was because they would put me on television and when I say, "I’m the greatest, I’m pretty" that means that little black children and people who felt like nothing say, "We got a champion. Look what he’s doing. Look at him over there. 5

It is not unusual for a champion to generate so large a public response; one only has to remember the hordes of Irish children that followed Barry McGuigan’s career. What was different about Ali, though, was that he was not afraid to "confront the nation with his principles", 6 whether it be his religious beliefs or his concerns about the Vietnam war. Ali is a definite example of how boxing, emerging at different cultural moments, alters the social significance and implications of the sport for both the boxer and the audience; clearly defying the assertion that "boxing is only like boxing". Ali’s declarations of "I’m pretty" could be construed as the declarations of a braggart or as a social response, originating in a genuine pride of his race, that was advocated by black activists and orators like Malcolm X, encouraging black people to cast aside white ideologies.

This ‘Negro’ was taught to worship an alien God having the same blond hair, pale skin and blue eyes as the slavemaster.

This religion taught the ‘Negro’ that black was a curse. It taught him to hate everything black, including himself. It taught him that everything white was good, to be admired. 7

Such stirring words from Malcolm X are clearly apparent in Ali’s logic when he declared to college students during his exile from boxing, that:

We’ve been brainwashed. Everything good is supposed to be white. We look at Jesus, and we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. . . Where are the coloured angels? 8

It was Ali’s religious beliefs combined with his ever-apparent ‘principles’ that lent resonance to his declarations, which made people stop and reappraise the world champion in a different light.

Having established his professional prowess in the 1960s, Ali made the ultimate public declaration of his beliefs in 1967, when he refused to be drafted. His act overtly challenged the hypocrisy of fighting for causes overseas when so many ‘battles’ remained unsettled in the USA.

I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam, and at the same time my people here are being brutalized and mistreated, and this is really the same thing that’s happening over in Vietnam. 9

This act and Ali’s membership to the Nation of Islam changed people’s perception of ‘the Lip’, now coming to accept him as a spokesperson for his race and for principles of self-belief and self-worth. It was a status that his outrageous personality had previously disguised, distracting people from seeing the real Ali. Yet Ali had always believed that:

The man who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life . . . I take a lot of risks with odds against me . . . predictions, the draft, my religion, my name. 10

Ali was threatened with imprisonment and was stripped of his title for vocalising his political position, claiming exemption from drafting as a minister for the Nation of Islam. Fellow sportsman Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a UCLA basketball player, articulated a general change of opinion amongst fellow athletes, when he said:

When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali and announced that he was joining the Nation of Islam, I was surprised. I thought that he [Ali] was just a colourful character, and that seemed to show that he had some serious underpinnings. 11

Muhammad Ali had acquired a new status outside of boxing, demanding recognition for his manipulation of the sport to provide a platform from which he could reach out to people. Ali’s first fight after his suspension was with Foreman in 1974, a focal point for many writers who were forced to reappraise Ali after his dramatic political exit from boxing. Whilst keeping him from the ring, his exile certainly did not keep him out of the public spotlight.

Norman Mailer’s text The Fight 12 is specifically about the 1974 World Heavyweight Boxing Championship in Kinshasa, Zaire, looking at both the build-up to the fight and the fight itself. Whilst Mailer’s description of the actual fight and his analysis of the aesthetics of boxing provides another valuable perspective, I wish to focus predominantly on the first section of the book. Here, Mailer is struggling to come to terms with his own prejudices of race and the reality of the racial inequalities that the sport, and particularly Ali, encapsulates. Oates herself actually criticises Mailer’s text and his insecurities, believing that, as "Mailer cannot establish a connection between himself and the boxers . . . he is forever excluded from what, unthinkingly, they represent: an ideal (because unthinking, unforced) masculinity." 13 Her repetition of the word ‘unthinking’ denies recognition of the wider social purpose that fighters like Ali encapsulated and that Mailer comes to recognise. In this way Mailer’s text in ‘writing about fighting’, reveals as much about contemporary concerns with race, and particularly interracial sports, as it does about the sport itself, indeed:

. . . his love affair with the Black soul, a sentimental orgy at its worst, had been given a drubbing through the seasons of Black Power. He no longer knew whether he loved Blacks or secretly disliked them, which had to be the dirtiest secret in his American life. 14

Inherent in Mailer’s mental crisis is the need to accommodate his fascination with Ali within the confines of his own white heterosexual masculinity. There is an almost homoerotic fascination with watching "two men, near-naked, fight each other" 15 and Mailer in this text is clearly battling his way through understanding and legitimising the mixed rush of emotions he experiences when working with Ali.

John Hobermann explores the parallels of comparison that critics like Mailer was experiencing:

. . . we see a fascination with the phenomenon of sheer physical struggle that can prompt the writer to confess his own shameful ineffectuality in comparison with the black athlete, who acts out the oppression of his people in real blood, sweat, and tears. 16

On reading this, one remembers the evening that Mailer went jogging with Ali. Whilst initially intended to be a journalistic trick to get to know the champion, this incident also reveals a great deal about Mailer’s own inhibitions and insecurities.

His conscience, however (now on the side of good journalism), was telling him that the better his own condition, the more he would be able to discern about Ali’s. 17

Indeed, the jog that night becomes as much about Mailer as it does about the champion, as he pits himself in opposition to not only the contender for the World Heavyweight Championship, but also a black contender, whose every sinew and muscle fascinates him. It is Mailer’s reflective experiences that situates the narrative outside of the ring, whilst still remaining so close to it, demonstrating the way in which boxing is not only like boxing. What disconcerts Mailer is the numerous social complexities that Ali embodies which causes him, as a ‘secure’ white American male, to become so self-scrutinising.


Initially Mailer would appear to have misunderstood the social significance of boxing to the same extent as Oates, "Boxing is the exclusion of outside influence. A classic discipline". 18 For a brief critical moment Mailer and Oates deny boxing a wider social significance, Oates limiting its cultural moment to an ahistorical, apolitical anti-space.

There as in no other public arena does the individual as a unique physical being assert himself; there, for a dramatic if fleeting period of time, the great world with its moral and political complexities, its terrifying impersonality, ceases to exist. Men fighting one another with only their fist and their aiming are all contemporaries, all brothers, belonging to no historical time. 18

However, Mailer is dissatisfied with this explanation, searching throughout his work for a nugget of ‘truth’ which will reveal the mysteries of the ‘other’, the black boxer. Moving through emotions of disgust and abhorrence, to an almost nostalgic reading of Bantu’s Philosophy, Mailer comes to realise that "boxing had become another key to revelations of Black, one more key to black emotion, black psychology, black love" 20 and it is for this reason that Mailer remains in Zaire following the fight and not for any of the "sly lessons of masochism" that Oates accuses him of pursuing. 21

Mailer’s text is also vital for bringing out the ‘art’ of the fight, the very choreography and skill that is manipulated in order to succeed; skills that Ali clearly embodies.

I’m a boxing scholar. I’m a boxing scientist – this is scientific evidence. You ignore it at your peril if you forget that I’m a dancing master, a great artist. 22

Mailer is on a journey of discovery, seeking to reconcile the myths surrounding the sport with its gritty reality; that boxing is both an art as well as a battle of skills and wits. His lengthy description of the fight itself captures the very aesthetic and artistic choreography of boxing that other writings, like Oates’s, fails to convey.

Never has a major fight been so locked into one pattern of movement. It appears designed by a choreographer who knows nothing about the workings of legs and is endlessly inventive about arms. 23

There is evidently a pattern to every move the boxers make, yet it is less prescribed than any choreography of the theatre could be, for an equal attraction of the fight is its unpredictability. The language in which the fight itself is described is as rich as the syntax which rhythmically reflects the breathless pace of each round. There is a metaphoric quality to the language of Mailer’s work, which disguises the brutality and intensity of the punches.

And Ali, gloves to his head, elbows to his ribs, stood and swayed and was rattled and banged and shaken like a grasshopper at the top of a reed when the wind whips, and the ropes shook and swung like sheets in a storm, . .  24

In contrast, Oates’ concern is the physical and bodily experience of boxing, seemingly regardless of the sport’s social implications. Indeed, it is her opinion that "the aesthetics of boxing is in sharp contrast to its ethics". 25,26 Mailer, however, does eventually come to realise the full implication of Ali’s statement that:

People in America just find it hard to take a fighter seriously. They don’t know that I’m using boxing for the sake of getting over certain points you couldn’t get over without it. Being a fighter enables me to attain certain ends. I’m not doing this . . for the glory of fighting, but to change a lot of things. 27

Even at the close of the fight Ali has the breath to emphasise the social significance of regaining the championship:

But I know that beating George Foreman and conquering the world with my fists does not bring freedom to my people. I am well aware that I must go beyond all this and prepare myself for more. I know . .. that I enter a new arena.. 28

In narrating this, Mailer acknowledges the dawning realisation that boxing is more than mere sport, "My God! All of it! He was going after all of it." 29 Recognising the wider social implication of the sport plays a vital part in understanding the appeal that writing about boxing, particularly the career of Ali, must hold for many writers and critics. Mailer becomes aware that one can disagree with Ali, but at the same time one must also respect him, for "Norman had the uneasy intuition that sooner or later his admiration for Ali could change to the respect one feels for a powerful and dedicated enemy". 30 Mailer’s text must surely advance one’s understanding of why boxing is not only like boxing, quashing the limiting perspective of critics like Oates, whose essay on Ali, "The Cruelest Sport", concludes pessimistically by declaring that, "These somber and terrifying boxing matches make us weep for their very futility".31 Did Ali convey any sense of this futility in the weeks before the Foreman fight? Mailer’s text would suggest otherwise.

Yet, one must be cautious analysing so complex a black role model, like Ali, solely from the perspective of a white heterosexual male critic and writer, such as Mailer, for:

The black critics’ distance from these camp followers is significant, because it distinguishes between blacks, for whom the prizefighter is a race hero, and whites, for whom he is only the titillation of choice. 32

There is a vital difference of perspectives between the work of critics who are black and those who are white. Mailer’s text and self-scrutinisation is founded both in his work as a critic and in his own egotistical quest for ‘truth’ and knowledge about black America; indeed a "titillation of choice". A comparative analysis of other contemporary works demonstrates a rich variety of texts that arise debating the social significance of boxing, a large number of these writers being black. Indeed, Hobermann’s chapter entitled "Writing is Fighting" specifically looks at the black writer’s contribution to the vast number of articles now being written about race in sport.

Cleaver was only one of the black writers who have appreciated the social significance of interracial boxing matches and used them to illuminate the black man’s predicament. 33

Eldridge Cleaver wrote his essay on boxing, entitled "Lazarus, Come Forth", whilst serving a prison sentence for rape. Whilst his essay provides an informative insight into the writing that emerges from contemporary black prisoners, providing interesting parallels with other black prison writings like Martin Luther King’s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", it also strongly articulates the case that boxing is not only like boxing. Indeed:

For there to be so deep an uproar over Muhammad Ali should indicate that there is something much more serious than a boxing title at stake, something cutting right to the center of the madness of our time. 34

Cleaver’s writing is strong and powerful, there is no rambling self-scrutiny. The style of his writing is far from uneducated and is as metaphoric as Mailer’s, yet in this essay his use of metaphor is much more graphic and immediate than the poetic way in which Mailer utilises it.

A racist Black Muslim heavyweight champion is a bitter pill for racist white America to swallow. Swallow it – or throw the whole bit up, and hope that in the convulsions of your guts, America, you can vomit out the poisons of hate which have led you to a dead end in this valley of the shadow of death. 35

Indeed, the very title of the essay is a metaphoric example of the way in which Cleaver wants black Americans to rise up from their oppression, to pursue a mental and social liberation.

The New Testament parable of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is interpreted by the Black Muslims as a symbolic parallel to the history of the Negro in America. 36

It is from within this culturally historical framework that Muhammad Ali can be seen to emerge.

What is different about Cleaver’s work is that there is a clear path plotted through the civil rights movement into which Ali emerged. The structure of the essay works through the contribution of Malcolm X, W. E. B. DuBois and Paul Robeson in articulating the struggles of the Negro, concluding that as a group they all:

bear witness to the historical fact that the only Negro Americans allowed to attain national or international fame have been the puppets and lackeys of the white power structure – and entertainers and athletes. 37

The subtitle ‘The Negro Celebrity’ clearly conveys where Cleaver perceives Ali to fit into this social structure, as he analyses the opiate nature that sport, within a power structure of struggle and social change, comes to play. Against so detailed an historical analysis of the cultural origins behind boxers like Ali it would be difficult to dismiss his contribution to vocalising Negro concerns as being mere boxing, for his role clearly extends beyond the confines of the ring. However, for Cleaver the turning point in Ali’s career comes earlier than the Foreman fight that Mailer focuses on. Cleaver focuses on the Ali and Patterson fight as the pivotal moment in which ‘blackness’ and boxing become interrelated.

The simplistic version of the fight bandied about in the press was that there was a "white hope" and a "black hope" riding on this fight. 38

Boxing had gone full circle back to the earlier days of Johnson when the pursuit of the "white hope" was a primary concern. Utilising the powerful rhetoric employed by orators like Malcolm X, Cleaver goes on to look at the ‘Uncle Toms’ that have distorted the reality of black America and contributed to a crisis of identity. His narrative, whilst situated within the ring, is at the same time so distant, that one feels a complete disinclination to believe that "boxing is only like boxing".

A vital extended metaphor that is utilised throughout the essay is that of the puppet, a familiar metaphor to those who have read works such as the autobiography of Malcolm X. It is an image which clearly reinforces the perceived manipulation of the Negro.

Essentially, every black champion until Muhammad Ali has been a puppet, manipulated by whites in his private life to control his public image. His role was to conceal the strings from which he was suspended, so as to appear autonomous and self-motivated before the public. 39

One cannot forget the staged façade of Joe Louis and sympathise with the craving for acceptance that led to the quashing of his own individuality. What was so refreshingly different, and so appealing to writers and critics, was Ali’s spontaneity, his effervescent personality both in and out of the ring, which demanded further analysis. Unlike Louis, Ali "was a black American sports hero who would not allow himself to be defined according to white racist categories. He was seizing back his persona". 40 Indeed, as Cleaver outlines, what was so disconcerting about Ali was that with his coming "the puppet-master was left with a handful of strings to which his dancing doll was no longer attached." 41 Ali had broken away from both the physical and ideological constraints of white America and through him hope was offered for other black Americans to rise up and join him. Previous fighters such as Sonny Liston had had the autonomy and potential for liberation but had aimlessly wandered like "the lone wolf who did not belong to his people or speak for them." 42 Ali, in contrast, was not afraid to express his opinion and confront those who challenged his beliefs.

What emerges from the beginnings I have made on analysing the practice of ‘writing about fighting’ is that both boxing as a sport and boxers like Muhammad Ali defy categorisation, they are a subjective entity at the same time as contributing to a collective ideology. Boxing, as with many other sports, retains a cultural significance that fluctuates and alters at different cultural moments. In this way it is the sport that becomes the point of contestation, as much as the sports person themselves.

It is, therefore, wrong to see black sporting achievement merely as an index of oppression; it is equally an index of creativity and resistance, collective and individual. The level playing field can be either a prisoner or a platform for liberation. 43

It is this vital recognition that Oates’s work directly fails to acknowledge and that has encouraged me to readdress a number of different works on boxing and particularly about Ali. Had time allowed I would have gone on to look at other critics like Gerald Early, particularly his seminal text The Culture of Bruising. Early has most recently edited the Muhammad Ali reader and his introduction demands a further analysis of his other works, for the tone and language in which he discusses Ali is yet another contrasting perspective on his career. Whilst celebrating Ali’s life, it clearly attributes blame for his illness, due to his prolonged fighting, on those who had deprived him of boxing in the late 1960s, for "now the public, because of Ali’s illness, want to drown him a bathos of sainthood and atone for its guilt". 44 The tone is more personal than the self-scrutinising rambles of Mailer:

The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities. 45

Yet, Early also offers an explanation for the appeal of writing about boxing in a similar way to Oates. Oates believes that boxing’s most "immediate appeal is that of the spectacle, in itself wordless, lacking a language, that requires others to define it, celebrate it, complete it". 46 Yet this is to deny the narrative any social cohesion, a process by which the author can work through his own prejudices or insecurities as Mailer does, for as Early explains:

The white response to Ali and Robinson may be a reflection of racism, but it seems more profoundly to be a sign of some organic confusion, a mythic yet turbulently defective pietism, at the very heart of our perception of ourselves. 47

What emerges from the selection of writings I have chosen is that Ali deployed social stereotypes to confuse and intrigue his critics, utilising them at the same time as manipulating them to create an effect which transformed the concept of the role model. The effect was a character who was both loved and hated, inspiring a mixture of emotions in his critics. In this way writing can be seen to be the method by which people came to explore the significance of both the sport and the career of Muhammad Ali. To declare "boxing is only like boxing" is to deny the cultural climate in which Ali fought and which is vital to an understanding of Ali’s spirit, both in and out if the ring.


  1. Joyce Carol Oates On Boxing (Paperback edn., London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 4.
  2. Chris Mead Champion Joe Louis A Biography(London: Robson Books, 1986), 30
  3. ibid., xi.
  4. ibid., xii.
  5. Henry Hampton + Steve Fayer (eds) Voices of Freedom – An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement From the 1950s Through to the 1980s (London: Vintage, 1995), 325.
  6. Thomas Hauser Muhammad Ali – His Life and Times (Reprint, London: Pan Books, 1997), 172.
  7. Alex Haley The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Reprint, London: Penguin, 1968), 257.
  8. Thomas Hauser, op cit., 188.
  9. Thomas Hauser, op cit., 187.
  10. Victor Bockris Muhammad Ali – in Fighters Heaven (London: Hutchinson, 1998), 87.
  11. Henry Hampton + Steve Fayer (eds), op cit., 330.
  12. Norman Mailer The Fight (Reprint, London: Penguin,1991)
  13. Oates, op cit., 54.
  14. Mailer, op cit., 35.
  15. Oates, op cit., 185.
  16. John Hobermann Darwin’s Athletes (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 82.
  17. Mailer, op cit., 81.
  18. ibid., 30.
  19. Oates, op cit., 114/115.
  20. Mailer, op cit., 43.
  21. Oates, op cit., 198.
  22. Mailer, op cit., 67.
  23. ibid., 191.
  24. ibid., 196.
  25. Oates, op cit., 188.
  26. Mailer, op cit., 79.
  27. ibid., 222.
  28. ibid., 222.
  29. ibid., 233.
  30. Oates, op cit., 197.
  31. bermann, op cit., 77
  32. ibid., 80.
  33. Eldridge Cleaver "Lazarus, Come Forth" in Soul on Ice (1968), 94 ((module handout for ‘Writing about Fighting’, with Ross Dawson, 1999))
  34. ibid., 95.
  35. ibid., 94.
  36. ibid., 87.
  37. ibid., 91.
  38. ibid., 92.
  39. Mike Marqusee "Sport and stereotype: from role model to Muhammad Ali" in
  40. Race and Class 36,4 (1995), 15.
  41. Cleaver, op cit., 93.
  42. ibid., 93.
  43. Marqusee, op cit., 5.
  44. Gerald Early "Tales of the Wonderboy" in I’m a Little Special A Muhammad Ali Reader (London: Yellow Jersey Press,1998), viii.
  45. ibid., xix.
  46. Oates, op cit., 50.
  47. Early, op cit., x.

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