Three pages into The Rumble in the Jungle, by Lewis A. Erenberg, we read:
Foreman and Ali stood in opposite corners. Foreman symbolized the liberal establishment and Cold War civil rights along with what Robert O. Self has called breadwinner liberalism…Saved by the Great Society’s Job Corps program from a life of grinding ghetto poverty and crime, Foreman remained grateful to an America that had helped him pursue the American dream of wealth, fame, and success.
Seven pages later:
George Foreman seemed [Ali’s] exact opposite: a living example of the American Dream. A beneficiary of the Job Corps, a key program in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Foreman symbolized a form of liberalism and patriotic civil rights.
These passages don’t merely resemble each other; they are so similar that if two different authors had written them, one would be guilty of plagiarism. And almost hidden by this distracting repetition, but not quite, are the early tip-offs to the primacy the narrative will accord to politicized theorizing: the ex post facto grafting onto the Great Society era of the latter-day concept of “breadwinner liberalism”; the quoting of Robert O. Self, a Brown University professor who specializes in gender and sexual politics.
And on it goes, as Erenberg, a professor emeritus of history at Loyola University, pulls off the improbable rope-a-doping, and ultimate subdual, of his lively and free-swinging subject matter, once considered invincibly interesting. In the second chapter, tracing Foreman’s troubled Houston youth and rise to Olympic and heavyweight championships, the author writes, “He would shoot dice with his buddies, using his winnings for Marlboros and wine.” Nine sentences later: “Foreman ran the streets with his buddies, drank cheap wine on the corners, smoked marijuana…” Twelve sentences after that: “Fueled by cheap wine and marijuana…”
Two pages later, Erenberg describes how, in the 1960s, “young men…could overcome their impoverished backgrounds by learning a trade in the Job Corps.” Five sentences after that: The Job Corps “proposed to provide impoverished youth the skills, discipline, and character to lift them out of poverty.” And two sentences after that: “The focus [of the Job Corps] was specifically on males who needed government assistance and training to attain the proper skills and character necessary to support their families.” Such repetition calls into question both the author’s faculties and the attentiveness of his editors. And we’re only 42 pages in.
For readers who were not yet born when heavyweight champion George Foreman and former champ Muhammad Ali squared off in Kinshasa, Zaire, in October 1974, one of the most riveting events of the 20th century, The Rumble in the Jungle provides a useful introduction, conjuring anew the epic clash of personalities and politics of several strains—racial, political, geostrategic—that surrounded the stunning action in the ring. For a book about a legendary boxing match, however, one that pitted youth against age, slugger versus dancer, there is regrettably little boxing to be found in these pages. Where Ali’s eighth-round knockout of Foreman has inspired some writers to lyrical heights, most notably in Norman Mailer’s classic The Fight (1975), Erenberg at all points subordinates the main event to bloodless academic pontification, reminiscent of the critics who, in Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word (1980), exalted art theory over art.
It starts to take on a word-salad effect. Thus you’ll read of Ali that “his transformation of subsequent bouts into cultural performances of race brought the personal and the political together and made him an emblem of the antiestablishment counterculture of the 1960s,” and that his triumph over Foreman “served as the vindication of a black folk hero who symbolized black pride and black liberation,” “dramatized in the cultural realm the importance of global black power,” “represented the culmination of Ali’s heroism as a radical opposition figure,” “demonstrated that it was possible to survive the persecutions of the government,” and “could be taken for the ultimate uphill struggle against the [Vietnam] war itself.”
In Lewis Erenberg’s world, the specific is invariably hurried past for an embrace of grand theory; someone or something is forever symbolizing or representing something else. Yes, the Rumble in the Jungle was fraught with different meanings and tensions, not least because, as Erenberg rightly notes, it was the first heavyweight championship bout held in Africa, beamed via satellite from a nation of black people led by a black ruler, featuring two black contestants, a black referee, and a black promoter (the menacing and entertaining Don King).
But to a degree that the author is reluctant to acknowledge, many of the attributes of the Rumble had previously been on display in the so-called Fight of the Century, in March 1971, when Ali met champion Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden: the first meeting of two undefeated heavyweight champions, one formally recognized, the other unofficial. That televised “global spectacle” was every bit as consuming as the bout in Zaire, with what seemed at the time like astronomically high purses for each fighter, a slugger matched against a dancer, Vietnam- and Cold War–era politics heavy in the air, and Ali practicing his singular psychological warfare, smearing his inarticulate opponent as an ugly Uncle Tom.
Erenberg posits a number of questionable, even self-contradictory, formulations. Is it really true that the $5 million purses guaranteed to Foreman and Ali “threatened to dwarf social and racial concerns and establish the dominance of market values above all others”? Did such a thought cross the minds of any of the 500 sportswriters or 65,000 other spectators who attended the bout—or is it just more ex post facto academic gloss? Were the 1970s truly “notable for two major trends: the spread of egalitarianism between nations and amongst peoples, and the growing dominance of market values”—or was it most notably the height of the sexual revolution, Wolfe’s “Me Decade”? Then there is this:
The freedom movement and the Vietnam War transformed sport from an escapist playground to an arena in which divisive social, political, and racial issues battled for supremacy.
Was sport really an escapist playground (or an “escapist playpen,” as Erenberg repeats 44 pages later) until the tumult of the 1960s? A few paragraphs after the indented passage above, the author himself admits that “in the early years of the 20th century, heavyweight prizefighting…played out in racial and ethnic terms.” Elsewhere he remembers to remember that Joe Louis, with his redemptive victory over German champion Max Schmeling in the prewar years of the Third Reich, “emerged as a national symbol of American racial and ethnic pluralism.”
Action so thick with racial and nationalist politicization, dating back to the arrival on the scene of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, hardly sounds like what one would expect to find in an escapist playground. The truth is that sport has always carried broader meanings, including political overtones; it’s just that Ali, with his array of gifts, including his physical beauty in an age of mass media, was the first to make the politicization overt, and profitable, both in and out of the ring.
Erenberg deserves credit for combing through American and African press clippings, conducting some original interviews, and mining newly declassified State Department cables that U.S. diplomats sent from Zaire in the run-up to the bout. But readers in search of an emotional connection to this soulful meeting of two great fighters will find previous works such as Mailer’s The Fight and George Plimpton’s Shadow Box (1977), not to mention Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996), of greater value.
To many observers the Foreman–Ali fight seemed like an eerie replay of the showdown, a decade earlier, between heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay, the upstart challenger who would change his name, in the days after the bout, to Muhammad Ali. There, too, at the Miami Beach Convention Hall in February 1964, the contest featured an inarticulate slugger, universally considered monstrously invincible, against an elegant dancer; and there, too, the match came swathed in morality tales, with Liston, the former mob enforcer and convict, cast as the odds-favored villain and Clay, the handsome, charming young Olympian, supported as boxing’s long-shot savior from the control of corrupt forces.
The stranglehold that the underworld long exerted over professional boxing is recounted succinctly and entertainingly in Boxing and the Mob. Author Jeffrey Sussman, a public-relations executive who writes frequently on boxing, with biographies of Max Baer and Rocky Graziano under his belt, exhibits a true love for his subject, alternating lively accounts of ring action with Runyonesque sketches of the mobsters and hit men who fixed top fights for decades—until Clay and the Black Muslims, and newly awakened law-enforcement authorities, wrested control of the sport from criminal hands.
Sussman’s narrative divides the mob’s mastery over boxing into three eras, defined by three hardened men: In the early-20th century, the English-born gangster Owney Madden secured control over Primo Carnera, the oafish giant with little boxing skill who was naive enough to believe he had actually made his own way to the heavyweight championship, only to be discarded cruelly by the mob, broken and penniless, once he was no longer of use to them. In the 1930s and ’40s, the pioneering promoter Mike Jacobs lorded over Madison Square Garden and his prime property, the great Joe Louis. And, in the 1950s and early ’60s, the sport languished in the grip of the International Boxing Club (IBC), founded by notorious Murder Inc. hit man Frankie Carbo and sidekick Frank “Blinky” Palermo, a kingpin of the Philadelphia numbers racket.
As Sussman rightly notes, boxing was always uniquely susceptible to criminal perversion. The presence of only two fighters in the ring meant that only one of them had to know a fix was in; and if neither did, the fix could still be arranged through the referee or the judges. The lack of education that marked the childhoods of most boxers hardly helped them navigate the treachery, which often extended to their own managers and trainers, as well as the authorities nominally installed to oversee the contests.
Sussman’s admirable devotion to the tough-guy aura of the times he writes about sometimes gets him into trouble; there is such a thing as too Runyonesque. This produces sentences like: “No matter how much cheap cologne the IBC sprayed on the rotting garbage of its stinking reputation, the rancid smell would not fade away.” And surely the author could have found some better way to summarize the profitability of televised boxing than to call it “a wet dream” for promoters. And Sussman, too, suffers from repetition. During one bout, a fighter’s face, he tells us, “was evidence it had been a brutal battle”; four sentences later, we read of the same fighter and same fight that “his face was testimony to the brutality of his encounter.” In another instance, the author uses “guys” four times in five sentences.
In what is essentially a work of synthesis, not original scholarship, two substantive flaws mar Sussman’s otherwise solid showing. First, Boxing and the Mob never endeavors to explain how “several” fighters managed to defy the “all-encompassing influence” that organized crime exerted over the sport. The case of Max Baer, the pioneering Jewish heavyweight champion, is related as an early example in which a fighter and his managers rejected entreaties from the fearsome Madden gang, with Sussman adding weakly: “And strangely enough, there were no repercussions.” Similarly, welterweight champion Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson, whom Basilio defeated to capture the middleweight belt, are portrayed as two standouts who “never gave in” to gangland intimidation. Sussman writes:
Robinson was smart enough to keep his distance from Carbo and Palermo, and because he was the best living fighter in the 1940s and early 1950s, he could make his own deals. He didn’t need the mobsters the way up-and-coming fighters did or the way down-and-going-further-down fighters did.
Yet this explanation departs from the rest of the book, which depicts the fight game as one in which neither scruple nor talent provided a measure of inoculation from corruption. The chapter on Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull fame, immediately preceding the passage above, had already demonstrated as much. LaMotta was canny enough to insist that his brother manage his career, and he plowed through opponent after opponent, inexorably to find his ring career stalled because “the mob wouldn’t give him a shot at the title.” Only LaMotta’s capitulation to the underworld, unconvincingly throwing a fight to “Blackjack” Billy Fox at the Garden in November 1947, afforded the Raging Bull the chance, two years later, to contend for the middleweight championship. He finally won the title from Marcel Cerdan (and that was for the National Boxing Association belt; Sussman never explains how that organization obtained a piece of the action supposedly controlled exclusively by the IBC).
Sussman likewise throws up his hands, in effect declaring no mas, on the enduring controversy surrounding the Liston–Clay and Ali–Liston matches. In The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000), Nick Tosches argued forcefully, though not persuasively, that both fights were fixed: the first, purportedly, so that Liston could cash in on a rematch with his publicity-savvy foe; the second, lore has it, because Liston feared assassination in the ring, either from Black Muslims determined to protect their hero, or from unnamed others aiming their weapons, poorly, at Ali.
To watch Liston–Clay on videotape today—still one of the most thrilling documents of its century—is to see with one’s own eyes that Liston began the match with no evident intention of throwing it. He tried hard to hit Clay, with the same fearsome mode of attack that had leveled Ingomar Johansson and Floyd Patterson in mere minutes. Clay was simply too tall, fast, and sharp for the older man. Liston quit when he did, failing to answer the bell for the seventh round, because he knew the rounds to come would exact even greater damage to his face than the cuts and bruises that Clay, to the astonishment of the betting crowd, had already inflicted on it.
The second match—all one-and-a-half minutes of it—was shaping up as every inch a replay of the first, the aging ex-champ ineffectually chasing the master dancer and jabber, when Ali landed the so-called phantom punch that sent Liston to the canvas. There—amid pandemonium as Ali demanded Liston get up and novice referee Jersey Joe Walcott, a former heavyweight champion of the Carbo era, neglected to start the count on time—Liston can be seen rising, then toppling over again, like a teenager who has decided he really can’t be roused from bed to mow the lawn on a Saturday morning. If the fight had gone on, Sussman asks without elaboration, “would it have ended the same way?” Pity the author did not avail himself of the fight film, which shows that in fact Ali and Liston did resume boxing, under Walcott’s instruction, for about 10 seconds, during which time Ali threw a series of combinations that showed him fully in command, until Walcott stopped the bout for good. Declining to settle, or even probe with original reporting, the claims and counterclaims about these landmark fights, Sussman simply demurs: “The arguments will continue.”
This abdication is even more disappointing than the author’s shrug at the final question of whether the mob is poised to reassert control over the sport today. (“Maybe,” goes the book’s final sentence, “they already have.”) After all, the cover of Boxing and the Mob is adorned with a photograph of Liston and Clay in the thick of battle: an advertisement that the most intriguing mystery associated with mob influence over boxing will receive final adjudication. That it does not, and moreover fails to do so in such limp fashion, is enough to send away otherwise satisfied readers with the same sentiment that angry fans shouted at ringside at the conclusion of Ali–Liston: “Fix! Fix! Fix! Fake! Fake! Fake!”