With the holidays rolling around and the nights starting earlier, many of us will find more and more reason to curl up with a book than to go out and be sociable in the evenings. I'm often asked to recommend books for fight fans, and while I have written lengthy articles on Edwin Haislet's Boxing, Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, and the Chinese kung fu text of unknown origins, Bubishi, those are all books which focus on the technique and strategy of fighting itself. Instead, today's list is one populated with non-fiction works which stand up as fantastic reads but also glean some greater insight on the mindset of the fighter, the culture of the martial arts, or the spectacle of the fight. Books which ask the hard questions about death and about cruelty but which also celebrate the beauty and the art involved in organized violence.
The Fight – Norman Mailer
The Rumble in the Jungle was one of the seminal events in the history of combat sports. There is unlikely to be another fight with build up anything close to it. In 1974 the bout brought international attention to Africa and to the newly named African dictatorship, Zaire. President and one man government Mobutu Sese Seko offered up the princely sum of ten million dollars to tempt world heavyweight champion, George Foreman and his challenger, Muhammad Ali to hold their title fight in Zaire and unscrupulous promoter, Don King made it happen. Over the course of the days up to the fight the press and the performers in the accompanying music festival shared a hotel with the fighters and their camps. Norman Mailer was among them and his memories of the surreal event make up The Fight.
Surrounded by a celebrity cast, the name-dropping Mailer practices throughout this book provides much of the joy. From small insights on Hunter S. Thompson's low opinion of Don King, to another insight on the infamous tensions in Ali's camp and the roles of hype man Drew 'Bundini' Brown (whom Mailer dubbed the King of the Flunkies) and coach Angelo Dundee within it.
Mailer was an avid boxing fan and his passion for the sport is weaved through the pages of The Fight. It is charming that despite a laundry list of legitimate celebrities in camp including figures like James Brown and B. B. King, Mailer seems fondest of the time he was able to spend with old Archie Moore. Moore was already ten years removed from his boxing retirement and yet Mailer goes to lengths to recall Ageless Archie's pearls of wisdom. From being asked how he was able to counterpunch from infamous cross guard, to Moore's main passion in Zaire—attempting to hustle the writers and musicians at table tennis.
Mailer's relationship with Ali helps to weave his memories together into a coherent and engaging narrative. From visiting the challenger in camp in the United States before departing for Zaire, to joining the 'The Greatest' in his roadwork through the darkness of the Congolese night. Mailer's friendship with Ali and genuine concern for the ageing challenger helps to make the figure of a prime George Foreman even more of an intimidating force. While Ali was self taught in his craft and relied on his coach, his camp and Bundini to give him the constant praise and reassurance he so desperately needed, Foreman is remembered as a stoic talent being sculpted daily by a 'Gang of Champs' in Dick Saddler, Sandy Saddler and Archie Moore.
can drag in places because although Mailer refers repeatedly to his idolization of Ernest Hemingway, he shows none of the latter's restraint in his description. Muhammad Ali taking blows along the ropes somehow becomes a worker on an assembly line deciding which pieces will do and which won't, and littered between the moments of real insight and what Hemingway would probably call 'truth' are extracts such as:
"To reach the edge of the 'Heart of Darkness'[...] Kinshasa, once evil Leopaldville, center of the slave trade and ivory trade, and to see it through the billious eyes of a tortured bowel!"
Mailer pours it on a little thick at times but the content of the book is fascinating. Norman Mailer is an extremely interesting man—having just picked up his first million dollar advance before arriving in Zaire and with most of his peers having heard about it—and he is surrounded by figures we now consider to be legends of the pugilistic, literary or music businesses.
Moving Zen – C. W. Nicol
Written at the height of karate fever, Nicol's account of his time training at the Japan Karate Association honbu in Tokyo is part of that grand tradition of travel writing: Western person goes to Asia seeking greater wisdom by standing next to Eastern person. The most famous recent addition to that genre is of course Eat, Pray, Love. Joking aside, Nicol's account gives a terrific insight into the state of martial arts training in the 1960s.
As an insight into the traditional aspects of Japanese martial arts it is intriguing, but it also serves as a window on the almost cult-like way of life in the Japanese Karate Association at that time. Rather than some long standing organization, the JKA was formed just fifteen years before Nicol's arrival there and was built largely from university karate clubs and the majority of instructors were graduates from these universities. Rather than continuing the Okinawan tradition, the JKA's karate became something of its own.
One of the memorable moments in Moving Zen comes when Nicol comes in early for a class and finds his senior, Sasaki, a second dan black belt sparring with some of the JKA instructors. As Sasaki is thrown around the dojo and swept off of his feet, Nicol is told that by the time he is done Sasaki will have been sparring fresh opponents for an hour non-stop and that they are "breaking him down" so that they may build him up again. It's an idea somewhere between daft and noble, and it shows the part nurturing, part bullying mindset which was popular in many Japanese traditional martial arts for some time and can still be found in some dojo.
Makiwara training, sparring until past exhaustion to build character, the use of iron sandals (geta) to strengthen the legs—all the old tropes of overzealous traditional martial arts are here and juxtaposed with Nicol's adventures in post-war Tokyo. Nicol's memories of his friendship with the legendary Donn Draeger provide insight on a man who went on to become a pioneer of judo and other martial arts in the United States and who studied and wrote about dozens of martial arts traditions across Asia.
The book is only a short one and so to tell you too much would ruin the experience of reading it but it sits on my bookshelf as a fond favourite and has been thumbed into a dog's dinner over the years.
Death in the Afternoon – Ernest Hemingway
Unless you are one of the very few people in the world who love bullfighting you are probably in either the "passionately against it" or "uncomfortable about the thought of it" camps. Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon doesn't pretend for a moment that bullfighting is a sporting pursuit and in fact defines the bullfight as a tragedy. Yet almost every detail shared by Hemingway on the technique and strategy of the corrida or the nature of bulls and matadors can readily be applied to the reader's knowledge of other combative sports.
Substitute a goring for an embarrassing knockout and you can readily see the flinches and fears developing in the subconscious of a professional fighter on their return. As Hemingway writes about the types of bull and how a brave and ignorant bull will provide the best show with straight line charges and no tendency to change direction or hook, you cannot help but think of those straight line brawlers who have overwhelmed their opponents until they have met an opponent with real craft and been left looking clueless. And when 'Hem' talks about the fighters who simply defend themselves against most bulls and wait for these "mounted-on-rails bulls" to attempt any brilliant work one cannot help but think of Anderson Silva grinding out the rounds against conservative opponents and only springing into life against men who were willing to charge wildly at his invitations to do so.
From the ceremony and spectacle, to the ploys that matador may use to feign greater bravery and skill than they have, having the corrida brought to life by someone who knows the difference between good bullfighting and gimmicky bullfighting opens the reader's eyes to the depth of the craft. From the ceremony, to the passes, to the art of killing itself, Hemingway gives a strong opinion on the right and wrong way to do each. For instance, to the layman a kill is a kill. But Hemingway explains at length that a stab in the neck with both fighter and bull in motion takes nowhere near the skill that a stationary thrust between the shoulder blades as the bull is controlled past the fighter does. In fact a killing blow delivered to the right place on the bull would be impossible if the bull's head were not dipped and following the muletta (cape). As with the great fighters in boxing and MMA, it comes down to control and how much the man can gain amid the chaos of a fight. You might even find Hemingway undermining your initial distaste for the sport, though I am still uncomfortable about the whole pastime.
While Ernest Hemingway was an avid boxer, this is the closest he came to writing extensively on a combat sport and he pours everything he knows and thinks into it. Opinionated, snobbish, and telling anecdotes that just make him look too witty to be believable, Hemingway's non-fiction seems to contain less of the 'truth' he sought than his fiction. But if you read nothing else of it, chapter fourteen might be one of the best assessments of the principles of any contest that a fight fan will read anywhere.
The bullfighter's ideal, what he hopes will always come out of the toril and into the ring is a bull that will charge perfectly straight and will turn by himself at the end of each charge and charge again perfectly straight; a bull that charges as straight as though he were on rails. He hopes for him always, but such a bull will come, perhaps, only once in thirty or forty [...] The bull is the part of the fiesta that controls its health or its sickness.
I'm sure every fight fan can remember seeing a fighter move like that.