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In the galleries: Norman Mailer’s handwritten draft of “The Fight”

The opening page of Norman Mailer's handwritten draft of "The Fight."
The opening page of Norman Mailer's handwritten draft of "The Fight."

Norman Mailer once wrote, “[Boxing] arouses two of the deepest anxieties we contain. There is not only the fear of getting hurt, which is profound in more men than will admit to it, but there is the opposite panic, equally unadmitted, of hurting others.”

Mailer used boxing to explore many of the violent debates of modern American life, debates about sex, gender, race, and even literary style. The Fight, Mailer’s book-length account of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, touches on many of these subjects while capturing one of the most famous and memorable boxing matches in history. Mailer’s love of the sport shines through as he describes the precision, skill, and art of two of the greatest fighters who ever lived. Mailer’s unabashed egoism and racism are equally evident. Since its publication in 1975, the book has been both widely celebrated and deeply criticized, much like Mailer himself.

In this draft page of The Fight, Mailer offers a description of the charismatic and often outrageous boxer Muhammad Ali. Mailer writes, “Is it possible that Muhammad Ali is the only American in the 20th century one does not need to describe?… when he is looking his best (and Ali has his days) then not only is the greatest athlete who ever lived standing before you but a fellow who is in danger of being the most beautiful man.”  Though few could rival Mailer’s oversized ego, in Ali, Mailer may have met his match.

The opening page of Norman Mailer’s handwritten draft of The Fight is on display through August 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Literature and Sport. Megan Barnard, Associate Director for Acquisitions and Administration, will lead a curator’s tour of the exhibition on July 31 at 7 p.m.

Mailer’s archive is held at the Ransom Center.

Norman Mailer's ticket to the George Foreman–Muhammad Ali championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, September 25, 1974.
Norman Mailer's ticket to the George Foreman–Muhammad Ali championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, September 25, 1974.

Author W. K. Stratton Uses Norman Mailer Papers in "Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion"

Norman Mailer's notes for the Liston-Patterson re-match in Las Vegas on July 22, 1963. © Norman Mailer Estate.
Norman Mailer's notes for the Liston-Patterson re-match in Las Vegas on July 22, 1963. © Norman Mailer Estate.

In Chicago in the fall of 1962, heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson squared up to face Sonny Liston, also known as “The Bear,” in a monumental fight. Liston, a former convict with ties to organized crime, seemed the opposite of the ambivalent and introspective Patterson, who was known to help an opponent mid-round to find a misplaced mouthpiece. Against the advice of his famed trainer, Constantine “Cus” D’Amato, Patterson agreed to confront Liston in the ring, only to be defeated in less than three minutes. Liston knocked out Patterson again the following July in Las Vegas.

The 1962 title bout against Liston in Chicago, a milestone in Patterson’s life and career, attracted hundreds of reporters. Norman Mailer was among the writers who traveled to Chicago to observe the event. Mailer, who trained as a boxer at Patterson’s gym, used boxing as a major motif in his work and was a lifelong fan of the sport. Out of the Patterson-Liston matchup, Mailer produced an important essay about boxing, “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” for Esquire, a piece that became a cornerstone in Mailer’s book The Presidential Papers (1963).

In his 2012 book, Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), author W. K. Stratton draws from the Norman Mailer papers at the Ransom Center to share a portrait of Patterson’s boxing career. Mailer, who recognized the symbolic importance of Patterson’s confrontation with Liston, kept press kits and materials from both Liston fights. In addition to examining these materials, Stratton quotes Mailer’s handwritten notes about his interest in boxing.

Other boxing materials from Norman Mailer’s papers will be on display in The Ransom Center’s exhibition Literature and Sport, which runs from June 11 to August 4, 2013.