Pugilist Pages

Literary authors have always been drawn to boxing, and many have written beautifully about the sport. Despite dire prediction of its demise, boxing persists and, cyclically, thrives; fortunately, over the past half century and more, talented writers have chronicled its appeal while dissecting its ugliness. The nature of the sport—two human beings in competition, distilled to its barest essence—lends itself to contemplation of bigger ideas and deeper meanings.

The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling

Liebling’s sharp-eyed, sharp-eared, and sharp-witted tome is the foundation, the boxing book referenced by every other. Although he wrote in a glorious era—the days of Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and Willie Pep—he pines for the past, especially fighters like Jack Dempsey and Liebling's forebearer Pierce Egan. In the chapter “Ahab and Nemesis,” Liebling writes of the match when Archie Moore’s brain met Marciano’s brawn and realizes that the two men would have fared well in Dempsey’s time: “I felt the satisfaction because it proved that the world isn’t going backward, if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like when you were young.”

The Fight by Norman Mailer

This memoir about 1975’s “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman features Mailer at his most flamboyant. Part journalism, part autobiography, part reflection on African mysticism and American race relations, Mailer is best at describing the two fighters. Foreman, he writes, “appeared sleepy but in the way of a lion digesting a carcass,” which, to anyone who knows Foreman’s mid-’70s body language, is prose that connects like an Ali jab. Mailer pays particular attention to Ali, marking how he transformed from an intimidated spectator who noted—with some trepidation—that “Foreman can hit harder” into the braggart we all remember in the buildup to the fight. In Ali, “the funk of terror,” Mailer writes, “was being compressed into psychic bricks.”

The Black Lights by Thomas Hauser

In charting lightweight Billy Costello’s journey from the streets of Kingston, New York, to a big televised fight with Saoul Mamby in 1984, Hauser maps the corridors of power in the absurdly complicated business of boxing. Whereas other books on this list primarily reflect the point of view of the spectator, The Black Lights offers an engrossing perspective on the people who run the sport and participate in it behind the scenes, from Don King down to the poorly paid sparring partners. Amid the darkness, one thing shines through: Boxing is the purest sport of them all, and the people who love it know this to be true, which is why they endure so much for the thrill of a big event or even a good, small one. Mamby, after taking a ferocious beating from Costello, reluctantly contemplated retirement. “I’ll miss it,” he said. “I love boxing. Everything passed too soon.”

On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates

It’s no wonder that so many boxing phrases, such as “on the ropes” and “down for the count,” make their way into descriptions of everything else. “Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing,” Oates writes in this cerebral essay collection. Despite calling it “the cruelest sport,” she doesn’t seem to consider it a sport at all: “One plays football, one doesn’t play boxing.”

Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage by Budd Schulberg

In this 2006 volume, On the Waterfront screenwriter Schulberg summons knowledge from fights he lived through in the 1920s to properly estimate modern boxers’ place in history. He describes Roy Jones Jr. as a genius, then later, when Jones settled in uneasily between greatness and ennui, as “Hamlet with a mouthpiece.” Along the way, he turns the phrase “the manly art of self-defense” to coin “the manly art of no defense,” a fitting tribute to the face-first brawler Arturo Gatti. Schulberg’s most lasting contribution, though, is the ultimate boxing motto, voiced by underdogs everywhere: “I coulda been a contender.”

Tim Starks writes about boxing for his blog, The Queensberry Rules. He has penned freelance articles for The Ring and other boxing publications.