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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

Channeling Joe Frazier

December 08, 1996|J. R. Moehringer | J. R. Moehringer is an Orange County staff writer

My grandmother gave it all she had, but she just couldn't beat Muhammad Ali.

She got him on the ropes in the middle rounds, but he wore her down--gradually, pitilessly--and in the 12th he knocked her sideways.

Ali probably thought he was fighting Joe Frazier at the time. But, in fact, Frazier was channeling my grandmother, the fiercest of Ali's apron-clad enemies. During that famous 1975 battle in Manila, Frazier merely served as stand-in for Margaret Maguire, who lay in her dark Long Island bedroom, listening to the radio updates that followed each round and throwing crisp mental jabs. (Despite the bunions and thick glasses, she had what boxing cognoscenti call heart.)

So much for the notion that boxing is a disgusting, anachronistic blood sport enjoyed exclusively by men. Watching Grandma lose the "Thrilla in Manila," I realized that boxing is a disgusting, anachronistic blood sport enjoyed by women too.

Still, that was 1975, when boxing mattered and people cared about its combatants. The fistic art (bequeathed to us by the ancient Greeks, along with democracy and the Socratic method) has spent the intervening decades out on its feet. (If you wanted to be specific, you could mark boxing's modern zenith, and the start of its decline, as Nov. 21, 1976, the day Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" premiered.)

Then, last month, something happened. Evander Holyfield, an underdog of Dole-ian dimensions, did what underdogs seldom do: He dropped Mike Tyson, boxing's raging bully. This was no sucker-punch upset, either, no "slingshot job," as they say in the Bible. Holyfield out-badded the bad guy, giving boxing what it's always needed, a legitimate grievance between two willful and equally talented men. Salivating for the rematch, fans have been returning to the roped-in fold ever since.

Granted, boxing remains under the thumb of Don King, who looks like an electrocution victim and speaks like an elocution student. And, sure, cabals of doctors periodically restate the obvious, that too many left hooks can turn cerebellum into beluga caviar. (Holyfield, for instance, who has taken more head shots than a Sears portrait photographer, tends to slur badly.) But in a nation where beauty and brutality are so much admired, any sport that seamlessly mingles the two can't be suppressed for long.

Perhaps that's why publishers have been issuing a plethora of pugilistica. Even before the referee hoisted Holyfield's hand above his head, boxing books were flooding the stores. They will help us pass the time and celebrate the sport's complicated glory while anticipating the first body blows of Holyfield-Tyson II.

Time to read A. J. Liebling again, the best boxing writer ever to lace up a typewriter, whose stray essays have been collected in a new paperback called Neutral Corner. Time to revisit Leonard Gardner's Fat City, reissued last month by University of California Press. Time to savor a gorgeous new coffee-table book called Times Square Gym, with ruminations on boxing's blue-collar ethic by Pete Hamill, and The Fights, which collects the breathtaking boxing photos of New York Daily News photographer Charles Hoff.

Though best known for his shot of the Hindenburg crashing in flames, Hoff spent most of the 1940s and '50s sitting ringside at Madison Square Garden, a vantage point from which he often witnessed the human equivalent of that zeppelin disaster.

You have never seen photos like these (almost none appeared in the News, actually). They show the most ferocious gladiators of boxing's golden age, literally fighting for their lives before cheerful and roistering crowds. Imagine if someone had had a Hasselblad at the Roman Coliseum.

In sumptuous black-and-white, Hoff laid boxing's savagery and madness bare. And yet his work doesn't repulse. Despite the menacing poses and preposterous musculature, he managed to show fighters at their weakest and most disarming. Maybe it's the haunted eyes or the broken faces or the sad mouths. Whatever it is, Hoff reveals something sweet and tender about men, some deep secret of masculinity that can't be expressed, except physically.

Your grandmother will love it.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

THE FIGHTS, Photographs by Charles Hoff; Essay selection and introduction by Richard Ford (Chronicle, $24.95, 128 pp.)

NEUTRAL CORNER, Edited by James Barbour and Fred Warner (North Point Press, $21.95, 288 pp.)

THE TIMES SQUARE GYM, Photographs by John Goodman, Text by Pete Hamill (Evan Publishing, $24.95, 80 pp.)

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