Taking notes in the Near Room: writing, fighting and the cruelty of consent
“A place to which, when he got into trouble in the ring, he imagined the door swung half open and inside he could see neon orange and pink lights blinking, and bats blowing trumpets and alligators playing trombones, and where he could hear snakes screaming. Weird masks and actors’ clothes hung on the wall, and if he stepped across the sill and reached for them, he knew that he was committing himself to his own destruction.”
George Plimpton reporting Muhammad Ali’s description of "the near room"
Kinshasa, Zaire, September 1974. The scheduled world heavyweight title fight between the champion George Foreman and the ex-champion Muhammad Ali, bruited globally as the "Rumble in the Jungle", has been postponed. Foreman has suffered a cut over one eye from a stray elbow while sparring and time is required for the cut to heal. The fight is to be put back for six weeks at least.
There is consternation. Six whole weeks? The attendant press corps, vast both in its numerical bloat and in its sense of its own part in the making of history, has now to make some critical decisions. Why, six weeks is a lifetime of hanging around in Mobutu's strange republic, with nothing to do but sniff about and listen to gossip. Dismay is widespread. Nevertheless, some incident pertinent to history, some unlooked-for occurrence, might yet transpire in the "jungle" during the hiatus, and then where would the reporter be if he were back home tramping the home beat? Out of the picture, is the answer. And this is the biggest cultural/sporting storyboard of the year – perhaps even of the decade.
Even so, some writers pack their bags and take the first flight out, fixing to return when things hot up again; while others, those with curiosity to burn and an expense account/private funds to support the conflagration, hang on. The American big cheeses Norman Mailer and George Plimpton are of the latter party – but then they are celebrities in their own right; literary celebrities who know what it is to hit and be hit in the cause of la vérité.
Neither one of them has the faintest idea of how it would be to be hit by George Foreman, though. By the time of the postponement, both have written dispatches in which they boggle handsomely over the might of the champion as he works out, broods, walks his dogs, pummels the heavy bag with hydraulic efficiency; they also reflect upon the level of the destruction wrought by him on the bodies of Ken Norton and Joe Frazier, both of whom had troubled Ali severely in the recent past. Indeed, the writers harbour authentic concerns for the well-being of the former champion, who is now significantly slower than in his prime (he is now thirty two, a considerable age for a fighter in that era) and has already been beaten, damagingly, first by Smokin' Joe and then by Norton, who fractured Ali's mandible into the bargain. Foreman is considered by some to be the heaviest hitter the heavyweight division has ever seen – which also makes him de facto the most destructive puncher in history – and is known perhaps above all for the unsmiling, cloud-covered ruthlessness of his style: among heavyweights he is the darkest weather system since Sonny Liston, but with added Sturm und Drang. Concerns for the ageing Ali's safety are well-founded.
So the writers stick around and concern themselves with their concern for Ali and try to make themselves part of the story, as is required both by their editors and their readers. Mailer, ever the writer-as-protagonist, takes himself out on a training run with the ex-champ, just to see what may be seen and to find a way to stitch himself into the narrative.
And after puffing a mile or two in Ali's wake around N'Sele's stark roads in the darkness of the small hours, the fifty-something Norman runs out of gas altogether and stops to bend double, hands on knees, while Ali disappears with his sparring partners into the night. Norman is all alone. And it is while he contemplates this disagreeable new state of affairs that he is engulfed by the roar of a lion. It is far too close for comfort and appears somehow to emanate from all directions at once.
Mailer instantly finds that his second wind is upon him and he takes off like a gazelle, bounding back to the N'Sele compound in half the time it had taken to make the outward journey, convinced that at any moment he will be torn down from behind and devoured. It is only after he's been back at the compound a while, and Ali and entourage have also returned to the fold, that he learns that there are no lions in the wild in 1970s Zaire and that their jogging route had in fact taken the party close to the perimeter of the national zoo.
This time the roar is laughter.
Thus humbled momentarily, Mailer reflects that, actually, all things considered, being eaten by a lion might be a suitable way for one such as he to go, ripped limb from withering limb by the king of beasts. Hell, there's a story for you! This is the stuff, surely, that all writers live for: my death! Eat that, Mr Hemingway.
This sets his friendly rival Plimpton off and before long George has canvassed every famous writer he knows for their own death fantasy. Gore Vidal, Art Buchwald, Woody Allen, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Hall, William Styron... They all pile in. Yet none of their fantasy deaths are tremendously interesting, except perhaps to their compiler and, understandably, to the fantasist himself (and none of the canvassed crew are women, apart from an unnamed female poet/hitchhiker whom Plimpton encounters in the bar at the Inter-Continental). Terry Southern, meanwhile, weighs in and lowers the tone – and then sinks even further, into modish banality and cliché. For his death fantasy, he unfolds an interminable sexual escapade involving the oral application of boules de glace to his tenderest regions by an exotic handmaiden (perhaps unconsciously parodying the application of ice to inflicted bruises) and he finally expires transported on an "ecstasy beyond all bearing! Death beyond all caring. I die… FULFILLED!!!"
The banality and charmlessness are notable.
But then the projection of death, defanged and gussied up in idiosyncratic literary style, lends itself with a compliant smirk to the narcissistic riffer. Death as style. Mortality pantomimed for laughs or kicks or survivable horror or maybe just the momentary bump of a good look. "Death" is felt to be the embodiment of cool in this context. Or rather, here, under these aesthetically controlled conditions, the individual becomes cool in the context of death – especially when irony is present.
It is the irony of course that makes everything safe.
Yet when the moment came at last for reality to obtrude once more in Kinshasa – the long delay having finally run its course, the stadium filled with enormous crowds and the ferocious hitter having seeped silently as a thunderhead into the ring to assume his brooding station in the corner opposite the rackety old dancing master – playful and ironic feelings were in short supply. Fear for the ex-champion was palpable, even via the agency of a scratchy TV picture far away on the edge of the East Anglian fens, where I goggled and sweated. How might Ali's ageing body and reflexes stand up to the perfect storm of violence that was bearing down on him; would Ali's warrior spirit and low cunning be sufficient to prevent permanent damage at least? No one had yet been able to withstand the blast, most succumbing in fewer than three rounds. It seemed entirely possible that Ali might die.
It is difficult now to recall precisely the proper sequence of events that conveyed all this information to me, at the age of fourteen, safe and sound in my middle-class rural home in England, a boy as yet only tested very slightly by life yet desperate to feel the currency of its harshness. I certainly read the great Hugh McIlvanney with fawning attention in the Observer every weekend, and would have also certainly checked out the boxing correspondent in the Guardian during the weeks and days leading up to the fight (John Rodda, I imagine), both as sources of news and as a stimulus to my increasingly anxious excitement. Perhaps the BBC also offered television previews of the "Rumble" on Sportsnight or Grandstand or some such. I have no clear memory of the hype at all, only of the foreboding that seemed to come with it, as detectable to the fearful mind as the tang of sweat is to the nostril in a gym.
Oddest of all, I have a clear recollection of watching the fight as if it were being broadcast live, without any foreknowledge of the outcome and in an authentic funk of anxiety – and yet I am also certain that it was not shown live on the BBC in the small hours but as a recording a night or two after the fact... How then could I have watched it not knowing the outcome? Or did I in fact know it but memory has replaced that knowledge with a better narrative that allows me to re-experience the excitement and heroism of that extraordinary passion play as if I were living it in the same instant as Foreman and Ali, blow by blow? Because that's how I actually remember experiencing it. In my memory, the "Rumble in the Jungle" remains the most thrilling encounter with human violence I ever endured in real time – an experience only intensified by the likelihood of an unwelcome outcome, in which Ali would be maimed or worse. The African night I watched on television, and took into my dark interior as I had no other televised event in my short life, was filled with dread.
Everyone with even the slightest interest in boxing history and in the politics and culture of the era knows what actually happened that night, and in some detail. As Harry Carpenter, the BBC's man on the spot, spluttered with very few seconds remaining on the clock at the end of the eighth round: "Huh?!... He's got him with a right hand, he's GOT 'IM!... Oh, you can't believe it – he's doing his shuffle… I don't think Foreman's going to get up!… And he's OUT! Oh… my… God, he's won the title back at thirty-two!" The enumeration of Ali's age was uttered in a tone pinched with shock, as if the real figure had actually been seventy-three.
But it was stunning, truly stunning. It felt to me almost as if death itself had been beaten, such was the surge of emotion in my body. It seemed impossible, both the outcome and the means by which the outcome had been achieved. This was surely some kind of fabrication. The whole story, from the very first second when Ali jack-in-a-boxed off his stool, firing himself towards Foreman's corner propelled by who knows what adrenal rocket-fuel, then reacted to finding himself three parts of the way there – up the creek without a paddle – by reversing into a strange Bambi-like skittering gambol as Foreman came out to meet him, then let loose a series of left-right combinations followed, a minute into the round, by repeated biffs to Foreman's wide forehead with a musical sequence of right-hand leads while boring in, driving himself inside the arc of the champion's galvanic swings – and then dancing straight out again... The whole story felt like a confection. It just wasn't supposed to go like this.
Or like what happened next, either.
Famously, from the start of the second round, Ali retreated to the ropes – the ropes supposedly slackened beforehand by his trainer Angelo Dundee – upon which he reclined as if in a hammock and let the champion punch himself into a state of arm-weary exhaustion, the soggy cables dissipating the force of the blows as it passed through Ali's arms and body and down into the ground beneath the ring, earthed like lightning.
And then the extraordinary closing twenty seconds of the fifth, when Ali, sensing Foreman's terrible weariness, made his first escape from the ropes and launched a sudden attack on the champion's treacling resources before, having failed to take him down, staging another tactical retreat into the embrace of the rigging for two more rounds, as Foreman slowed still further. You could see the strength draining from the big man as the percussion of his punching softened and dragged.
And then the eighth, when Ali came off the ropes with final purpose to disassemble the exhausted Foreman with a syncopation of short punches that sent him spiralling face-forward in stages to the canvas while Ali stood admiringly over the geometry of his handiwork, his right fist cocked by his ear but withheld as if he were reluctant to spoil with one punch more than was necessary the perfect coil of the ogre's descent.
Of course I'm scared of dying. But I'm not nearly as scared of dying as I am of killing.
One punch is all it might take; one punch well-timed enough to snap a head back and jar the wiring in the tight linkages of the jaw sufficiently to induce temporary unconsciousness and to send the victim slumping boneless to meet who knows what hard objects en route to the floor/hearth/horse trough. Sometimes a punch is enough on its own to inflict terminal damage, though thankfully not often. But it has been known.
I am looking now at the backs of my hands, suspended as they are over the keyboard: quite delicate, feminine hands better suited to writing than to punching. Well, obviously. They're probably better suited to knitting too. The knuckles alone tell me that. Punchers' hands have obtuse knuckles, like rows of reversed ball-peen hammers; but not mine – my knuckles are pointy and fragile-looking, like small segments of freckly Toblerone. Punch an ungiving surface with them and they would surely shatter like chocolate.
I did punch someone once and I did not enjoy the experience, though I do recognise that that may have been partly because it was a terrible punch. But I have felt strange about it ever since. Ambivalent. The experience raised a number of questions, but chiefly they were: did I fail in that moment, or did I triumph?
Like most boys of my age, born during the first twenty years after the end of the Second World War, I was brought up by that world to want to punch, at least in theory. Cowboys punched. Batman punched. Henry V punched in Henry V, although it was more of a gauntleted swipe that sent the Constable of France spinning from his horse and, as a result, obviated for the matinee audience the traditional battlefield outcomes of dismemberment and screaming. Boxers punched too, within a framework of rules and regulations. They punched, the lot of them, because punching was an acceptable form of violence that indicated two things principally: manliness and no consequent threat to life. It was accepted, culturally, that punching was a reasonable way to resolve conflicts without moral and physical jeopardy, especially in America. You punched someone who deserved it. They got "knocked out" (neutralising, perforce, their threat), and later they "came round" having learned their lesson and the world was made a better place for it.
"Hit them back," I was told as a small boy, when I first complained about being bullied at school. "Bullies don't like it if you hit them back. They soon stop." Yeah right, I can remember thinking. So I hit all three of them back, while they stand still and let me punch them... Then what happens? The moral force implied by my imagined punching was somehow never met by my lived experience of a punch's real-life consequences.
In the end I was dispatched to judo lessons, to toughen me up and perhaps induce in me a taste for the fray – by learning to chuck bad guys around "using the force of their own aggression". But all that happened was that I got chucked around a lot on a mat. Meanwhile, the non-authorised bullying continued, and not on a mat, most memorably when a couple of regular assailants cornered me aged eleven-ish at the local recreation ground, hit me in the face and then stuffed me head-first into a hedge. I never did find out why, despite my reasoned pleading for an explanation. I was not an obnoxious kid. I suspect it was partly because I could be relied upon not to hit back, especially when outnumbered. Also, I was skinny as a bunch of twigs. Mayhap my reasoned pleading was entertaining too. But most likely it was class war – it wasn't actually me they wanted to damage. Or if it was me, then it was me in my symbolic role as a representative of middle-class privilege. At all events, I was unable to execute osoto-gari on anyone while in the hedge.
What was my natural response to being chucked around, to being punched and stuffed in hedges? Why, I seethed of course and, as time went by, discovered that I had a capacity for rage which would descend suddenly and uncontrollably and, as I found out, might be sufficiently intimidating in output to deter those who posed a threat, or had been the source of an injustice. Or merely caused offence. The rages were towering and were entirely confined in scope to raised voice, terrible words, minatory faces plus shoving. I never got round to actually hitting anyone while in the grip. But nevertheless my distantly recollected past is littered with red-misted incidents of various degrees of seriousness over which I feel embarrassment and, in one case, unhealing shame.
It's long gone now, the uncontrollable rage; hasn't been seen in decades, and I sincerely hope never to feel it again. But even in its remission I fear its onset still, because I know that in that state I used to feel that I was capable of anything. Anything.
I even became a boxing fan.
Muhammad Ali was the gateway pug. I didn't entirely understand why at the time, but he felt like a hero to me, despite his unheroic taste for sounding off when a little dignified reasonableness might better suit the circumstances. His major fights were reliably screened live or soon after on TV, almost as a matter of course, as he made his rumbustious return to the heavyweight boxing ring in 1970 (following a three-year suspension from the profession as a punishment for refusing the military draft). His earlier, pre-ban 1960s fights had taken the art of heavyweight boxing to new levels of physical grace and speed (and bragging), although I had been too young to witness them. But I knew about them all right, especially when he had been dumped on his behind briefly by the salt-of-the-earth cockney Henry Cooper (after which, things had not gone so well for Our 'Enery). It seems extraordinary to me now that, as only little more than a toddler attending school for the first time, I would get to hear the outcome of a boxing match from classmates – but those were different times and punching was mainstream.
And just as important to my adolescent self as the fights were Ali's frequent appearances in either interview or chat-show environments, two milieux to which he was as ideally suited as he was to the ring. Interrogated agreeably by either Michael Parkinson or Harry Carpenter, Ali always cut an amusing but simultaneously deadly serious figure, capable of shafts of great wit, insight, childlike wonderment, cogent political observation and almost transcendental persuasiveness on questions of racial prejudice and injustice. I was brought up rigorously by my parents to be against racism, but it was Ali who made the issue live in me as a burning thing.
So boxing always carried dignity with it, as well as a modicum of moral strenuousness and lashings of raw violence, plus courage, folly, rhythm, high skill, the unavoidable collateral of physical damage and an almost limitless potential for tragedy. Boxing seemed to me the highest, purest form of sporting endeavour because it said so much – and it took so much to say it. Indeed, the jeopardy implicit in boxing's very action was intrinsic to its articulacy. And of course there was another reason for my compulsion: boxing also afforded me the opportunity to experience vicariously other people doing the punching that I needed done to quieten an unruly part of myself, the part of me that needed desperately to be avenged, without my ever having to raise a knuckle or take a blow in the face.
So I took the time and became au fait at a suitable distance, watching as many fights as I could on television and learning the curious habit of creative identification. I did not aspire to be individual fighters as I watched them fight, not as such, but I certainly wanted to be represented by them. In particular, I followed the careers of those fighters who were elusive, expressive, artistic in their deployment of their technical gifts (I was particularly fond of a middleweight will-o-the-wisp called Herol "Bomber" Graham, who fought with his eyebrows arched and always struck me as a genuinely nice man) or fighters who exhibited warrior qualities and therefore fought as if fighting were not necessarily a pleasure to them but a necessary retort to the hardness of life. I was a great fan of "The Clones Cyclone", Barry McGuigan; still more – perhaps surprising even myself – of the hard man to end all hard men, the American middleweight Marvelous (sic) Marvin Hagler, who frankly terrified and exhilarated me in equal measure in his unrelenting desire to scrap harder than any man living. I was curiously snooty about big punchers, as if their inordinate weapons made cheats of them at some level, and absolutely contemptuous of defensive, smothering fighters who could take a punch and keep their more gifted opponents at bay through the endowments of their considerable physiques, and then win a points decision by surviving better.
And of course, en route, there were disasters. I was terribly affected by the death of the spindly Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen (aka "The Merthyr Matchstick"), whose ears stuck out like scallop shells and whose astonishing courage drove him into thickets of punches his unusual physique was ultimately unable to withstand. He never emerged from the coma he entered as a direct consequence of his last fight. McIlvanney wrote about him movingly and in so doing articulated an ambivalence about prize fighting I absorbed and admired but did not answer to. Then, a few years later, when my favourite guy, the loveable Herol Graham, was decked while miles ahead on points in a title fight against the inferior and apparently bamboozled Julian Jackson, I was suddenly sickened with worry again. Graham walked face first on to a solid hook and entered a state of deep unconsciousness before he hit the floor – and he lay there inert as a rolled-up carpet for what seemed like a week (but was probably a number of seconds) without receiving medical attention. Yet I did not consider it grounds for a reconsideration of my position vis a vis the whole boxing thing because, well, because of consent. Consent underpinned everything. It was consent that made these exhibitions of courage truly courageous and not just a stupid macho affectation; it was consent that lent the whole apparatus dignity. It was the consent that I found magnificent, uplifting, reparative. These men chose this.
It was consent that justified the horror of the other "greatest fight I ever saw" in 1985, when Marvelous Marvin Hagler took on Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns in defence of his world middleweight title and, over three rounds of almost unwatchable reciprocal savagery, battered the challenger into rubber-legged submission. Hagler had been cut above the eye in the first round and, early in the third, was examined by the ringside doctor prior to what seemed likely to be an imminent stoppage. I watched the eight minutes the whole fight took while stoned at a friend's flat in Peckham with a half-full bottle of Thousand Island dressing in my hand. As the referee counted Hearns out in the third, mere seconds after the examination of Hagler's cut eye, I came to the realisation that the moisture I could feel cooling on my cheeks was not perspiration but tears and that the bottle of Thousand Island dressing in my fist was now empty.
And long before that heart-stopping episode, I had sat through the stations of Ali's decline. This unedifying parade of delusional self-disintegration followed the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975 – "Ali-Frazier III" – in which the great man had finally resolved his prolonged struggle with Smokin' Joe over fourteen rounds of brilliant but cruel boxing that, even in Ali's own estimation, came too close to killing both men. What followed – certainly the last four matches from 1978 which should never have been made or, once made, allowed to proceed – shamed everyone involved, including me, even though I wasn't involved. Not technically. I think I watched them all, with the exception of the appalling mismatch with Larry Holmes in 1980, and my recollection is dominated by the grainy image of a slow, pudgy, lost individual, sometimes teetering on the edge of bewilderment, pawing at the memory of what he had once been because of his unquenchable need to deny his own mortality. Because, in the imperium of Ali's will, he could never cease to be the greatest without ceasing to be altogether. It was heart-breaking. It was shameful. There was far too much consent going on.
How many fights did I see live, in the pummelled and pummelling flesh, during the period of my boxing attachment? A mere three. I saw the distinguished British middleweights Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank both fight during the passage of their respective ascents to stardom, though they weren't facing one another. That came later. And I did not enjoy any of it: live boxing you receive through the soles of your feet, as well as your eyes and ears; and you are assailed from all sides by overwhelming surges of howling that you can easily ignore when you watch on your own late at night in the quiet of your own home with your breath held. But not in the Royal Albert Hall. Also, if you sit at home on your own, you are much less likely to be splashed.
I wrote journalism about boxing very briefly and callowly, including an interview with Barry McGuigan for a magazine, written towards the end of his career; a piece that was never published because the fight it was supposed to be previewing was cancelled. McGuigan was charming, intelligent, poised and we bonded over a mutual enthusiasm for Roy Orbison. I liked him a lot and he shared with every boxer I've ever met – it is not a huge sample – a confidence in his own masculinity that meant he did not feel the need to impress his toughness on scrawny, self-effacing men armed with notebooks.
In fact, boxing and I did not ever formally sunder, not as such. I maintain an interest in its history to this day, because it was important to me once and it was objectively important too, as a fact and as a sporting and politically symbolic activity and as a measure of human courage and distinction. But I cannot watch it anymore. I cannot stomach men and women punching one another, even with consent.
The turning point for me came, I think, in 1991, when the two British super-middleweights Chris Eubank and Michael Watson fought one another wholeheartedly at a north London football stadium. It was after the fight had finished in victory for Eubank that Watson collapsed in his corner and received very little immediate medical attention, only to emerge permanently damaged from hospital several months later in a wheelchair. He was never the same man again, although he remains an immensely impressive figure. But it was the reaction of the victor, Eubank – a dandy, a posturer, an eccentric – that told. His professional mask did not entirely fall away, but it was possible to see through it for a moment, through to the eyes and perhaps beyond. Although it had not been his intention to damage Watson permanently, he said, he took responsibility for throwing the punch that first prostrated his opponent that night, and he took responsibility for it with an unmistakable look of horror in his eyes. It was his punch and no one else's.
It horrified him. And I thought I could also see in his eyes a shadow of self-loathing that confirmed that he, Eubank, the new super-middleweight champion, had always felt that horror.
I punched a man on one occasion only. He was a young man of about my age and weight, and I was then in my early thirties. It was in a supermarket.
In fact it was Sainsbury's and I emerged from the cheese aisle to see a kerfuffle, a ripple going down the rank of check-out tills. A man half-skipping, half-running down their length slapping women customers as he went with one extended arm. A strange ululation filled the air. I didn't seem to have much choice as to what to do, as no one else seemed to be doing anything about it at all. So I gave chase and caught up with the guy just as he disengaged from the last till and turned to face me. In the split second before I made contact I saw that his eyes were bloodshot and wild, even tearful.
I arrived with some momentum and shoved him violently up against the plate-glass wall behind him. He did not resist. He was off his face, a young-ish guy answering to some noise in his head that required him to slap women as he passed them, irrespective of who they were as individuals.
"What the fuck you think you're doing?" I said, ramming his shoulders against the glass. He still did not resist, but neither did he answer. He was extremely off his face. I did not know what to do and as I wondered I heard a voice say, "Hold him, hold him – the police are here!", which came as a relief. I held him, though I don't think I needed to. He was kind of limp against the glass.
The two officers arrived in a scramble, one male and one female, and positioned themselves either side of my prisoner, whose head was now lolling a bit and even swinging on the pole of his neck. They pinioned his arms while I continued to talk to him. Still he said nothing. The police officers' radios crackled and squawked and, just as I began to talk over the noise to begin my explanation of what appeared to have happened, still pressing the guy's shoulders against the glass, he rotated his head to his right and nutted the WPC full in the face. I heard her nose break. So I hit him. I hit him quite hard, aiming without looking for the solar plexus with the intention, I suppose, of at least winding him and doubling him up, but missed as he moved and whanged my delicate knuckles into his sternum. He did not double up. I tried not to howl with pain. And then three more officers arrived and piled in. The WPC was still on the floor, blood jetting from the centre of her face.
The last I saw of the assailant, he was still passive, even limp. He was being thrown horizontally into the back of an unmarked van. I do not expect he came out of it unmarked.
I went home and sat on my sofa and went into shock. My girlfriend found me there an hour later, still leaking tears.