The Sporting Life

Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs

by Wilfrid Sheed
Crowell, 256 pp., $19.95


by Robert Lipsyte
Quadrangle, 288 pp., $10.00

The Fight

by Norman Mailer
Little, Brown, 239 pp., $7.95

The Greatest: My Own Story

by Muhammad Ali and Richard Durham
Random House, 416 pp., $10.95 (to be published November 17)

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali; drawing by David Levine

Boxing is a cruel art. Both the cruelty and the art are made possible by the modern sport’s key feature—the cushioning of the hands. This is not done to protect the person being hit. Far from it. The human fist is a fragile little bird cage of bones. Impressive as Muhammad Ali’s fist looked, photographed life-size for Esquire, it is not the “lethal instrument” outside the ring that legal fiction makes it. The more powerful a man’s punch, the more body leverage he puts behind it, the worse would he shatter that bony wicker basket against any solid target—especially against the head.

Experiment with a skeleton. Fold that pterodactyl-webbery of hard bones, wired together like a Calder, then crunch it down on the holdable Yorick-ball of cranium, the attached helmet-guard flap of cheek bones, or the awning over the eye sockets. Admittedly the bare fist, perfectly placed, might get at the jawbone’s juncture with the skull. But in trying to hit that precise joint, while ducking enemy blows and seeking the spot on a moving target, the fastest man would first disjoint and splinter his fingers two by two. The myth of facial vulnerability to the fist rests mainly on schoolboy memories of nosebleeds: nose cartilege is more friable, even, than knuckles.

A man who really learned to fight, in the first instance, as a boxer would be in very bad trouble if he took his acquired art into the nearest bar. My father was a melancholy example of this truth. He knew, in theory, that you cannot punch a man’s head with your bare fist; but his fighting instincts had been so patterned by ring training that he always forgot it in the heat of battle. One time, when he had gone out to collect money from a resisting debtor, he came back holding the money in his broken hands, himself held up by the debtor: “I figured I better pay the little son-of-a-bitch, before he made me kill him.” He regularly had to give up his other favorite sport, golf, until healing and a new grip made it possible for him to fold those sprung pterodactyl wings back around a club.

What my father did by force of training, some barroom brawlers do by movie-reflex. The great myth of the head punch controls all the hokey fight-out scenes on film. John Wayne, planted knock-kneed in his boots, fetches an Antaeus rocket from the dirt, and hits John Carradine “right on the button.” The resulting sound is somewhere between the click of billiard balls and the crack of a rifle. I remember watching an early gangster movie in which the hero (Jimmy Cagney?) took a roll of quarters and wrapped his fist around it. A few seconds later we hear the rifle shot against the bad guy’s jaw, and the quarters come rolling out under a door. In real life,…

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