Former Sports Illustrated senior writer Richard Hoffer (Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, 2009, etc.) puts forth a new addition on the last “golden age” of boxing that was the United States of the 1970s and the battles among three boxers that would eventually be considered among the great heavyweight champions.
Hoffer offers us a unique and in depth insight into the personalities of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman who all won Olympic Gold medals for their country and later became famous in the decade of the 1970s when America was deep into the Vietnam War and Watergate with President Richard Nixon at the helm. It would be a mistake to believe that there is nothing new or unique in this book. While the stories of all three men have been told countless times in several documentaries and numerous books Hoffer does well to recreate the events and times that led to all three men facing one another.
There is the wonderful story of how Don King was introduced into boxing by the “impish” Don Elbaum. The fact that the Kingston, Jamaica fight between Frazier and Foreman known as the “Sunshine Showdown” was promoted by a bookie named Lucien Chen. And of course there is the “Thrilla in Manila” bout between Ali and Frazier that Hoffer describes as “a kind of self-immolation” in which they attempted to destroy one another.
The behind-the-scenes lead up to the “Fight of the Century” in 1971 between Frazier and Ali, the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Foreman and Ali and of course the “Thrilla in Manila” are all exquisitely detailed. Hoffer tells us about the cast of characters that made these fights happen and the associates that surrounded the fighters in such a manner that it makes these events from four decades ago come to life again.
There is fine prose to be found in the pages. Here is one shining example:
“There are few events, in life and even in sports, that have the same capacity for surprise as a boxing match. A heavyweight bout, even one for a title, can be dull, inconclusive, a plodding affair as two tacticians struggle for the smallest advantages, each mindful of terrible consequences that are natural to the game. Sometimes there will be flurries of abandon, as the combatants briefly reach beyond their comfort zones. Or, on the rarest of occasions, it can detonate in a sudden explosion of surprise. It can happen in less than a second: long-held values vacated, a bias corrected, the surety of opinion canceled, a whole foundation of belief instantly subsumed, swallowed up in an instant. What was once a strictly choreographed dance becomes a blast sector. All in the time it takes a man to swing his arm.”
Ali receives top-billing in the book and that is justifiably so. But much is also there for the taking when it comes to the psyches and lives of both Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Both men were often times unsure of themselves and their place in life, boxing and the country. Frazier was a wannabe singer who traveled the globe with his band. The young Foreman was nothing like the champion and eventual pitch-man he would eventually become and he suffered from confidence problems before Archie Moore came to his rescue and transformed him into a sullen beast.
Hoffer wonderfully describes an era when these boxing legends were paraded and chided by great newspapermen such as Red Smith, Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon. The smoky and carnival-like atmospheres were beamed into theatres and homes while each punch was described by Don Dunphy or Burt Lancaster or Howard Cosell. Then of course literary heavyweights such as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton occupied ringside seats in order to put into words what all of these fights really meant to the fighters and the world. Hoffer has carried on that wonderful tradition and brilliantly illuminated the last “golden age” of boxing. “Bouts of Mania” takes us back to a time and place when the country was as complicated and dark as it is today, but when viewed through Hoffer’s colorful kaleidoscope it is wonderful to see.