It seems an eternity since the heavyweight division was relevant. As a teenager in the 1990s, I watched awestruck as Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and a couple of others temporarily loaned each other the title. Back then being the heavyweight champion of the world made you famous, and it was big business. There was a time before that though, when heavyweight boxing was more than big business: It was important. Not just important for boxing or sports in general, but culturally important. In the political and societal upheaval of the early 1970s, the fights between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman mattered.
In his new book “Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and an America on the Ropes,” former Sports Illustrated writer Richard Hoffer tells the story of that three man tournament (Da Capo press provided a review copy to The Queensberry Rules). Part history lesson and part character study, it is not so much a profile of three prizefighters as it is a profile of a period of time told through the eyes of three very different men. Hoffer treats his subjects as human beings, flawed and mistake prone, each with as unique a story out of the ring as interesting as their battles in the ring.
The modern perception, driven by the voluminous work about him, is that Ali was the star and Frazier and Foreman were simply the foils. Their job was to challenge him so that he could be as great as he proclaimed himself to be. In “Bouts of Mania,” they are given the top billing that they deserve. Having not been born until 1982, there is an incredible amount about Foreman and Frazier that I didn’t know. It was their stories that I found particularly fascinating. From Frazier’s musical aspirations to Foreman stepping off the plane in Zaire with his prized German Shepherd dog, unwittingly scaring the **** out of everyone who had been terrorized by the Colonial government’s use of the same type of animal to suppress riots, the pages covering them fly by. It’s amazing just how much of their stories have been lost in time.
The people who surrounded and influenced each fighter come through in technicolor, particularly Archie Moore. His quotes are so funny that I dropped the book laughing more than once. Just as interesting as the various managers, trainers, and hangers on are the writers covering the fights. Whether it is Hunter S. Thompson giving away his credential and spending Foreman-Ali drinking by a pool or Larry Merchant being denied reentry to Zaire because of critical comments he made about those staging the event in his columns, the reader always feels that they are present. Each chapter includes these gems, and the often hilarious chapter titles give the reader a peek at what they will find in the coming pages.
Given the current state of politics and society in the US, and the world, this book is timely. Division is everywhere you look and rhetoric has been dialed up to 11. The time from 1971-1975 was similar for a variety of reasons, and one of my favorite things about “Bouts of Mania” can be summed by my favorite passage. In regard to Life Magazine profiling Frazier-Ali I on its cover one week after reporting on the failed US incursion to Laos, Hoffer writes:
“It was as if to say, we must interrupt the creeping gloom of these awful times for some old-fashioned foolishness, the kind of spectacle that America used to be so good at. Here’s a gladiatorial event between our two finest, best conditioned specimens, bound to produce a conclusive and satisfying result, with maybe some fun along the way. Why wouldn’t we pause?”
As someone who routinely finds himself in a full froth over the apathy and idiocy of the world, those words perfectly described why I watch boxing. It is an escape from the weariness, frustration and generally underwhelming experience that is adulthood, with maybe some fun along the way.
If you are a boxing fan, or simply an appreciator of excellent prose and thoroughly researched history, you will love “Bouts of Mania.” Richard Hoffer has showed Ali, Foreman, and Frazier the respect that they earned by telling their story as honestly in his writing as their efforts in the ring were.