Examiner Sports column, 15 November 2007.

March 27, 2008

mention the dog

‘THERE is always the shock in seeing him again. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.’

The words of Norman Mailer, ladies and gentlemen, the celebrated writer who died last weekend. A lot of his work is pretty hard to get through now — could anyone nowadays read something called ‘The White Negro’ without mopping their foreheads? — though some of his real-life adventures make for an eye-popping read on their own merits.

Married six times, Mailer stabbed one of his wives and spent 17 days in a psychiatric ward.

He nearly lost an eye in a fight when — seriously — a sailor challenged the masculinity of his pet dog, while he head-butted renowned writer Gore Vidal before they both went on live television.

As for the time he ran for Mayor of New York, Jimmy Breslin, another writer from the Big Apple was stunned by Mailer’s campaigning style. And Breslin was his running mate.

Anyway. He fetches up here because of his sportswriting. For instance, Mailer was friendly with both Hollywood actor Ryan O’Neal and light-heavyweight boxing champion of the world Jose Torres, and all three worked out in the same gym.

One day O’Neal, who was big and athletic, pestered Torres to spar with him, and the pro consented; the two of them worked out for a few minutes — O’Neal taking it far more seriously than his opponent, one of the all-time greats — until a lucky punch from the actor drew blood from Torres’ lip.

Torres suddenly stopped and left the ring, and as Mailer recalled, O’Neal was the only one in the gym oblivious to the fact that the champion’s sudden silence was far more threatening than anything he could have said . . .

But it’s for ‘The Fight’ that sportswriting aficionados will remember Mailer — the book he wrote about the heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974.

The quotation which opens this column describes the arrival of Muhammad Ali at a press conference in the lead-up to the fight, which of course became known as the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.

Mailer’s eye didn’t desert him in the long preamble to the fight in Zaire.

He was the one who noticed that Foreman’s sledge-hammer blows to the heavy bag in the gym left a huge indentation in the bag ‘like a melon with a bite taken out of it’.

Mailer also noticed that Muhammad Ali studiously avoided looking at the bag, with its big dent, whenever he entered the gym.

It was Mailer who registered the fact that Ali began that fight with a right-hand lead, taking the battle to Foreman, so it’s only fitting that we quote his description of the fight’s climax in the eighth round:

‘Then a big projectile exactly the size of a fist in a glove drove into the middle of Foreman’s mind, the best of the startled night, the blow Ali saved for a career.

‘Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like with a parachute jumping out of plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out the centre of the ring.

‘All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world and would see him on his dying days.

‘Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down.

His mind was held with magnets high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground . . . He went over like a six-foot 60-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news.’

Not bad, eh?

AND just in case you thought Mailer was a pushover, try this: ‘If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.’

Rest easy, Norman. Don’t take it personally if anyone comments on your dog.



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