Boxing. It’s one of the world’s oldest, most brutal contests, a holdover from gladiator days when fights to the death drew crowds by the thousand—and it’s inspired some of the finest sportswriting the world has ever seen. What is it about the pitting of fists versus fists that captivates us? Long before former heavyweight boxing champ “Iron Mike” Tyson ever set pen to paper to tell his own story, “Undisputed Truth,” America’s finest writers sought to answer the question. We’ve highlighted the best American boxing writing of all time, from 1970s nonfiction by George Plimpton and Norman Mailer to classics by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London. Dive into these and you’ll feel as if you’re ringside.
Author and amateur boxer Jack London wrote about his favorite sport in the short stories “The Mexican,” about a migrant boxer who enters a fight to win money to support the Mexican Revolution, and “A Piece of Steak,” the tale of a pugilist in the twilight of his career. Tom King wakes up craving steak for supper but doesn’t have the money to buy it. To win some cash, he enters a fight against a younger man and–sure enough–falters in the ring, unable to match the fitter man’s blows. London captures the sport’s brutality and the realities of aging—specifically, having to come to grips with an older body’s limitations.
Memorable quote: “His legs were heavy under him and beginning to cramp. He should not have walked those two miles to the fight. And there was the steak which he had got up longing for that morning. A great and terrible hatred rose up in him for the butchers who had refused him credit. It was hard for an old man to go into a fight without enough to eat.”
Legendary participatory journalist George Plimpton had no qualms about throwing himself into unfamiliar situations to gather material: He tried pro football (the premise of “Paper Lion”), hockey (“Open Net”), baseball (“Out of My League”) and boxing. To write “Shadow Box,” the intrepid reporter swapped punches with pal and fellow boxing aficionado Ernest Hemingway and, later, stepped into the ring against light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Moore pulled few punches, leaving Plimpton bloodied and crying (the tears were an “involuntary response,” the author wrote). The anthology “The Best of Plimpton” features an excerpt from his account of the fight.
Memorable quote: “Halfway through the round Moore slipped—almost to one knee—not because of anything I had done, but his footing had betrayed him somehow. Laughter rose out of the seats, and almost as if in retribution he jabbed and followed with a long lazy left hook that fetched up against my nose and collapsed it slightly. It began to bleed.”
“My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything,” Hemingway famously said of his life’s greatest passion. His literary talents notwithstanding, the author had an inflated opinion of his boxing abilities. Still, Hemingway did write some of literature’s most famous boxing scenes. In “The Sun Also Rises,”protagonist Jake Barnes and others tussle over Lady Brett Ashley—and in Hemingway’s classic short story “Fifty Grand,” two boxers, Jack and Wolcott, purposely throw a match against one another.
Memorable quote: “Once we got inside the dressing-room Jack lay down and shut his eyes. [….] He lies there, his eyes are open now. His face has still got that awful drawn look. ‘It’s funny how fast you can think when it means that much money,’ Jack says.”
4. Fat City
Leonard Gardner’s 1969 cult classic follows the friendship of boxers Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, a has-been and a promising new fighter, respectively, whose courses collide at a California gym. Munger inspires Tully to make a final bid for glory in the ring before hanging up his gloves. In the course of preparing for his last fight, Tully realizes his career is truly over.
Memorable quote: “On the bed in the dim light, hearing coughing from across the hall, [Tully] knew he had magnified Ernie Munger’s talents. He had done it in order to go on believing in his body, but he had lost his reflexes—that was all there was to it—and he felt his life was coming to a close.”
5. On Boxing
Joyce Carol Oates’s appreciation for boxing developed as an “offshoot” of her father’s interest: Growing up, she loved tagging along to matches with her Ring magazine-reading dad. In “On Boxing,” Oates approaches the sport like a scholar, unpacking the existential implications of going glove-to-glove against an opponent (“an act of consummate self-determination–the constant re-establishment of the parameters of one’s being,” she writes) as well as the primal, hardwired sensations we feel as spectators watching two men beating the pulp out of each other.
Memorable quote: “I don’t ‘enjoy’ boxing in the usual sense of the word, and never have; boxing isn’t invariably ‘brutal’; and I don’t think of it as a ‘sport.’ Nor can I think of boxing in writerly terms as a metaphor for something else. [….] Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.”
6. The Fight
Like Plimpton, Norman Mailer was hired by a magazine to fly to Zaire (now the Republic of Congo) to cover Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.” Over the course of the assignment, Mailer gathered enough reporting to write the article and then a book called “The Fight.” The author was given extraordinary access to his subjects, particularly Ali, whose handlers let Mailer accompany the fighter on a training jog and spend time with him in his dressing room before the event. Written entirely in third-person, “The Fight” became one of the era’s most memorable pieces of sports journalism—and an incomparable account of one of the greatest moments in sports history.
Memorable quote: “Norman has few vanities left, but thinks he knows something about boxing. He is ready to serve as engineer on Ali’s trip to the moon. For Ali is one artist who does not box by right counter to left hook. He fights the entirety of the other person.”
Boxer Eddie Brown finally has a shot at winning the middleweight championship of the world, and Doc Carroll, his devoted trainer, will stop at nothing to help him clinch it. Narrated by sportswriter Frank, W.C. Heinz’s “The Professional” follows the pair as they prepare for the big match. Heinz–a sportswriter himself and a master at building dialogue–crafts his narrative around Eddie and Doc’s exchanges, and drew praise for the book from both Hemingway and “Fat City’s” Leonard, who contributed a new foreword in 2001.
Memorable quote: “It is one of the wonders of the world, this body of a good fighter. Think of the things it must do when the mind orders it…. A month from now this man is going in there with that body against another man. There will be much written and read about this, and there will be many thousands of dollars involved. Throughout this country people will watch it in their homes and in bars, and after it is over they will read about it and, if it is a good fight, think about it and talk about it. All of this, I thought, depends upon this body.”
In 2002, Sports Illustrated named A.J. Liebling’s New Yorker essay anthology “The Sweet Science” the best sports book of all time. Liebling covered some of boxing’s most storied matches and moments, from Sugar Ray Robinson’s comeback after pursuing a Hollywood career to Rocky Marciano’s quest to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Liebling’s essays comprise the definitive journalistic account of professional boxing’s golden age.
Memorable quote: “Watching a fight on television has always seemed to me a poor substitute for being there. For one thing, you can’t tell the fighters what to do. When I watch a fight, I like to study one boxer’s problem, solve it, and then communicate my solution vocally.”