Shadow Box, by George Plimpton

Shadow Box

George Plimpton was a very talented writer who could write on a great range of subjects. One of his areas of interest was sports, and within the field of sports he is best known for his pieces on boxing. Shadow Box brings together those boxing pieces.

I often find compilations like this structurally disappointing, in that they just take the old writings, put them back to back, stick a cover on it, and call it a book. If the author happened to make the same point in different articles, or introduced a certain topic roughly the same way in different articles, then you just have to deal with the repetition.

To its credit, this book isn’t like that. Yes, much of the book had already appeared in various magazine articles (I’m not sure how much; I recognize a fair amount of it because I read a great deal of boxing writing in the years covered by this book, but I don’t know if it’s 40%, 70%, 90% or what), but it’s not just copied and pasted as is. It appears what Plimpton did is work that material into the book where it fit best, while rewriting parts of it, elaborating on some of it, adding some interesting new anecdotes and tangents, etc. So it’s a mix of old and new that fits together in a coherent whole, rather than just a bunch of self-contained magazine articles left as is.

Among the topics Plimpton writes about is his exhibition bout with then-light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. One of the things Plimpton was best known for, after all, was a form of participatory journalism where he directly experienced what he wanted to write about. Much of that was in the realm of sports—pitching in a major league exhibition game, quarterbacking the Detroit Lions in an exhibition game, this bout with Moore, etc.—but not all. He also experienced playing in an orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, being in a trapeze act in a circus, and more.

There are also essays on various major fights he covered, mostly involving Muhammad Ali, including Ali’s bouts with Liston, Quarry, Frazier, and Foreman, with the material on the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire being the most extensive. But it’s not just Ali fights; there’s also the Frazier-Foreman fight (“Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”) in Kingston, Jamaica, for instance.

Along the way, Plimpton allows himself to stray from the topic at hand into other things that interest him. Sometimes on those occasions it’s still about boxing, but sometimes he heads elsewhere, as long as it’s boxing-related, or at least started with something boxing-related.

There are two such instances that stand out to me as venturing too far to still make sense as part of a book on boxing. One is his account of British theater critic Kenneth Tynan’s indignant intervention to stop some executions in Castro’s Cuba. Another is Plimpton’s gathering of stories from famous people—mostly fellow writers—about how they’d like to die. Not that these don’t have some entertainment value, but I felt like the book is so rich with boxing material and boxing-related material that it really wasn’t necessary to fudge the theme with irrelevant items, whatever their quality. One gets the feeling that Plimpton had some stories he really liked that he hadn’t been able to fit anywhere else, so he just threw them in this book.

But on the whole, Plimpton’s tangents are great. He really has an eye for the humorous, oddball anecdote. For his exhibition with Moore, he not only trains at a boxing gym and spars under the tutelage of legitimate fight trainer George Brown, but augments it with book learning about how to box. But he seems to gain very little relevant knowledge from his books that will help him against Moore, because he constantly is distracted by the colorful characters and incidents he reads about. Like “Fainting Phil Scott the Horizontal Heavyweight” who constantly fell to the canvas clutching his groin during his fights, hoping to win on a foul. Or Jack Doyle, who had a habit of singing in his corner in his bouts, and was reputed to be a far better singer than boxer, not so much because he was a great singer as because he was an awful boxer.

There is plenty about his fellow writers and other celebrities. Generally Plimpton comes across as the one sane person in the room. There’s Ernest Hemingway with his constant displays of manhood, like trying to crush Plimpton’s hand when they shake hands. There’s Norman Mailer challenging all and sundry to head-butting contests at cocktail parties. There’s Hunter Thompson wandering about Kinshasa, Zaire in a drug-induced paranoia. There’s Howard Cosell, um, being Howard Cosell:

“You’re staying downtown in the Sheraton, George? What sort of slob thing is that to do? Look at this,” he said, sweeping a hand at the opulent setting—wicker bird cages hanging among the palm fronds, wooden statues standing in the shadows, everywhere the splash of the fountains. “How inelegant and pedestrian to be staying elsewhere. Emi [sic—it’s actually Emmy] and I are living in the Errol Flynn suite, where, I have been told by the proprietor of this hostelry, Flynn watched Beverly Aadland dance in the nude. We have a pet lizard that comes in from time to time. I have named him Roscoe.”

“Why Roscoe?”

“Because he is Roscoe,” Cosell said, “What other name is possible?”

The Ali material is terrific, though it didn’t stand out as much to me, simply because I’ve been over that stuff so much. For years I read everything I could find about Ali, and in fact read the Sports Illustrated pieces by Plimpton that the Ali chapters in this book are mostly built from. So in that sense most of it was a little stale for me, but still enjoyable. For someone who hasn’t already been over this ground multiple times, there are some really interesting behind the scenes type things here—Ali being interviewed by a couple of high school students for a school newspaper after his first career loss, Ali alternately cavorting with and abusing assistant trainer Drew “Bundini” Brown, Ali tooling around behind the wheel of his converted Greyhound bus gabbing with truckers on his CB radio, and so on.

I love the photo of Ali knocking out Foreman. It’s a famous boxing photo, but what I never noticed until it was pointed out in the caption in this book is that you can plainly see at ringside, across from the camera, Plimpton and Mailer with their mouths agape as Foreman tumbles to the canvas.

One theme of the book is that Plimpton feels a certain guilt that back when Ali was unjustly exiled from the sport, prevented from pursuing his profession for refusing to enter the Army after being drafted, Plimpton and other prominent liberals thought a lot and talked a lot about doing something to support him, but really never got around to doing much of anything.

Ali lost three and a half years of his career that way, and it still gnaws at Plimpton that he didn’t make some kind of effort on Ali’s behalf. Probably nothing he could have done would have made a difference, but, he thinks, you never know.

He mentions it to Ali once, apologetically, and Ali immediately dismisses it, saying he was not disappointed in anyone’s assistance or lack of assistance during that time, because this was his fight, and he had to fight it himself. He was the one who would have to get his title back, in the ring as it should be. No one could do it for him.

The triumphant comeback story is set up perfectly when Ali returns to the ring to fight Joe Frazier for the championship, with Plimpton fervently rooting for him so that the whole matter of Plimpton and his friends not doing more for him during his exile will be rendered moot. But alas, Ali loses by close decision in one of the greatest fights in history.

That seemingly puts an end to any hope that Plimpton’s guilt will be assuaged. Yes, Ali gets another crack at the title several years later, but it’s when he’s on the downside of his career, fighting as a heavy underdog against the fearsome Foreman, and Plimpton is almost afraid to get his hopes up.

So when Ali somehow prevails in that bout, it is sweeter even than if he’d beaten Frazier. For Plimpton it was a matter of justice that Ali regain his championship, and a matter of life for once living up to the kind of perfect story that normally only happens in fiction.

Really Shadow Box is a fun, engaging read from start to finish. Plimpton is a fine writer. It’s nothing real flashy, not obscure in some artsy way, just straightforward, articulate, informed, witty, insightful prose. (I will give him a rap across the knuckles for one glaring error. Sandy Saddler was not a welterweight champion. He was one of the greatest featherweight champions in history. That’s like referring to Johnny Unitas as a linebacker. I’m sure Plimpton knew that; it must have been a mistake that crept in in the editing or something.)

Shadow Box is a wonderful book for any Ali fan or any boxing fan, but because the writing is so solid and the topics range well beyond boxing it should appeal to a wider audience as well.

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