A sportswriter takes a deep dive into the “brutal but strangely beautiful world” of boxing.
McRae (A Man’s World, 2015, etc.) was smitten with boxing as a youngster in his native South Africa when he saw a newsreel that showed Muhammad Ali “destroying Cleveland Williams” in a 1966 fight “with a speed that made the savagery look lustrous on monochrome film.” As a sportswriter, he got to indulge his obsession up close, attending matches and interviewing fighters while traveling across the U.S. for five years. At least for fans of the sport, his illuminating book exploring this fierce world may rival the works of such famed boxing writers as Bert Sugar, Norman Mailer, and A.J. Liebling. The athletes McRae has followed, he writes, “are all men who have dreamed that they might one day be as great as...Muhammad Ali.” The author skillfully describes his boxing-related adventures of the 1990s in 15 action-packed chapters, devoting particular attention to such legendary fighters as Mike Tyson, James Toney, and Oscar De La Hoya. Much about Tyson exudes menace—in their first encounter, McRae recalls, he “moved toward me, reminding me of a giant hammerhead swerving in for the kill.” But the author deftly finds the pathos of the former heavyweight champion, noting that “his whole life had been chiseled from themes of loss and deceit.” De La Hoya appeared to be cut from a wholesome cloth but “beneath the glitter, it was easy to sense the strain. His rich stardom was muddied by loss and distrust.” At the heart of this engaging and eloquent work, though, is McRae and his intriguing attempts to explain his “seemingly illogical but enduring love” of boxing. An 11th-round knockout punch that turned “defeat into stunning victory” has a strong effect on him: “When else as an adult, if not in sex or sleep, had I been so beyond the mundane?” The serious, and even fatal, brain injuries suffered by boxers in the ring give him reason to pause, but “for those of us still lost in the maze, there is always another fighter to follow. A new version of an ancient story is always waiting to be told.”
Boxing fans should enjoy the author’s close encounters with the likes of Tyson, Toney, and De La Hoya.