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Mailer vs. Mailer: Highlights from Issue 20: The Boxing Issue

Highlights from Issue 20: The Boxing Issue

Norman Mailer sparring at Gramercy Gym


Friday, April 15, 2005

What follows is an excerpted portion of our cover story on Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Naked and the Dead and Armies of the Night. Here, Mailer shares a few thoughts on the sport of boxing with his son, John Buffalo Mailer.

The full interview can be found in Issue 20: The Boxing Issue

John Buffalo Mailer: How is boxing different from other big sports — baseball, football, etc.?

Norman Mailer: It's one against one. Boxing bears as much relation therefore, to chess as to football. In a chess game between two good players, there is humiliation in losing. That humiliation is even greater in boxing. Of course, it's true of all one-on-one sports. Tennis for example. But boxing demands one thing more. Which is hard to name. It's almost like certain courage of the blood that goes very deep. It's what attracts us to boxing. It's the side of boxing that's not too well understood by people who say, “I hate boxing. It's so brutal.” It's the amount of discipline and intelligence and restraint that goes into it. Which is why I consider boxing a social good, not a social ill.

What would a lot of these kids do if there weren't professional boxing and they couldn't make a living out of it? The answer is that a lot of them would be likely to lead violent lives. You know, when people have a little more violence in them than the average, their lives take on all sorts of very difficult turns that can't necessarily be solved by anger management courses. When there's a lot of violence in a man, society can be grateful that there are social ways that violence can be turned into an art form.

A kid who starts out as a very rough piece of work comes to learn that there's something classy about getting good at this boxing. It's a way for a violent man to begin to comprehend that living in a classic situation – in other words, living within certain limitations rather than expressing oneself uncontrollably — is a way to live that he didn't have before. Because don't forget, that when you're violent and undisciplined, life is a nightmare. Any morning when you wake up could be the morning where you go too far, and hurt somebody so badly that you're in the can, or you've killed them. Or you're humiliated. Being macho is no fun. Because macho men have to live for their triumphs and in terror of their humiliations, and there's always another guy who's as macho as you are or more. So boxing enables such kids to find a social form for themselves, where not only their strengths but also their weaknesses can be appreciated. Where in effect they can be taught to get rid of their weaknesses. They begin to learn they have to show up on time, they have to drill, they can drink, but they can't drink too much, they can take pot, but they can't take too much, because the head is too vulnerable after taking pot to get hit steadily through a sparring session. Some even begin to lead lives, which enable them to have a little social standing outside of the gang. And that's a huge step. Because for every 10,000 who train every year, maybe a 1,000 ever make it to a reasonably high amateur level and 500 to the professional level — I don't know what the numbers are. They're probably larger than that. But the point is, in the course of it, even if they don't succeed, they get a structure to their ego, and some measure of how tough they really are.

One of the worst things about being tough is if you don't know how tough you really are, all you know is that you're kind of tough, that's scary. Your ego can be shattered by one episode. But if you go to the gym every day and are subtly humiliated every day by boxers better than you, you begin, in the course of it, to get better. You can make some kind of peace with much that's unsettled in yourself. Boxing gives proportion to the psyche.

Now, there are penalties to it. You can end up less intelligent than when you started. That's obvious. On the other hand, I remember we had this boxing club we'd go to on Saturday mornings, and then after we'd go out to eat. We'd have hamburgers and beer and I remember saying once, “Hey fellas, what would Saturday afternoon be like without a headache?” We all laughed, because it was true. On the other hand, it also occurred to me that this headache I had from boxing was not quite as bad as the headaches I used to have on mornings when I was hung over with a headache much worse than I ever got from boxing. Which also gave me the next perception, which was that those of my friends who were drinkers were punch-drunk. Not from boxing. From booze. So you do pay a price for boxing, but you also pay a price for living. We all punish our bodies.

JBM: Is machismo a choice?

NM: Wait a minute. You started with the question, “How is boxing different from all other sports?” I think there's one way in which it is profoundly different. I, of course, never did enough boxing ever to be able to answer that question with authority, but I once heard Muhammad Ali speak of fighting Joe Frazier and saying, “Fighting him was like Death.” And I knew what he meant. It was right after the Thriller in Manilla, which Ali won, but it was an unbelievably arduous, grueling, brutal fight. Several times within the course of that fight I think Ali felt he was going to die if he didn't quit. So there is one element in boxing, which is not unlike Evel Kneivel's stunts — you can die doing it. Now, few boxers die, but there can be a feeling in the middle of a fight when you're bad used up that to go on is very dangerous. Of course, there are other activities, as well. You see these kids on roller skates and do flip-flops high in the air. They could break their necks if they don't do it properly — or rock climbing. That can be exceptionally dangerous. The thing about boxing is that the danger is always there in the middle of prodigious punishment. And so it has its own éclat, it's own honor, its own dignity. Which is that in the middle of pain and grueling dull punishment, there is also honor. Which is very, very important to certain kinds of men, violent men. A violent man without honor is a dreadful piece of work. So, to summarize, let me say that one of the social values of boxing is that it enables men who have difficult and unbalanced psyches to be able to strive legitimately toward personal honor.


The full 'Mailer vs. Mailer' interview can be found in Issue 20: The Boxing Issue


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