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The Harder They Fall

DARK TRADE: Lost in Boxing. By Donald McRae . Mainstream: 380 pp., $19.95 : MORE THAN A CHAMPION: The Style of Muhammad Ali. By Jan Philipp Reemtsma . Translated from the German by John E. Woods . Alfred A. Knopf: 168 pp., $21

March 01, 1998|JOYCE CAROL OATES | Joyce Carol Oates, professor of humanities at Princeton University, is the author most recently of the novel "Man Crazy" (Dutton) and an expanded version of "On Boxing" (Ecco Press)

In a fully civilized society, professional boxing would not exist. That it so profitably flourishes in the United States, where purses for highly publicized if unexceptional fights routinely involve millions of dollars, is a testament to both the flawed nature of our society and our dark fascination with this cruelest of sports. These two very different books, both in the way of memoirs by men long involved with boxing, may help to illuminate some of this fascination with what Mike Tyson has eloquently called "the hurt business."

Of the two, Donald McRae's lengthy, ambitious "Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing" is the more engaging and sympathetically rendered. While Jan Philipp Reemtsma is cerebral and analytical in his "More Than a Champion," McRae is emotionally direct; while the German Reemtsma's boxing experience seems, oddly, to be secondhand by way of television, tapes and books, the South African-born McRae, in thrall to a 30-year boxing addiction, has seen countless fights both minor and major in England and the United States, and is on friendly, even intimate, terms with a number of boxers and their associates and families. "Dark Trade" bears comparison with Thomas Hauser's classic "The Black Lights: Inside the World of Professional Boxing" (1986), but though Hauser concentrated on the ascendant career of the promising but limited super-lightweight Billy Costello, "Dark Trade" is more picaresque in form, taking the reader ringside to vividly rendered, in several cases graphically brutal, matches involving such well-known boxers as heavyweights Tyson, Frank Bruno and Evander Holyfield; middleweights Chris Eubank, Michael Watson (whose September 1991 match with Eubank ended with his collapse and brain damage), Roy Jones and James Toney (McRae's closest boxer-friend); lightweights Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez; and featherweights "Prince" Naseem Hamed and Steve Robinson. McRae brings to the highly charged, obsessive world of professional boxing a novelist's eye and ear for revealing detail and convincingly recalled dialogue. This is an impassioned book, and something of a confession, for McRae fell under the spell of boxing in the 1960s, in the era of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali--a heroic figure whose worldwide celebrity helped forge a spiritual bond between the South African middle-class white boy and his black contemporaries, who at that time were politically disenfranchised by apartheid. Partly out of disgust with South African politics, McRae emigrated to England as a young man, where he became involved in boxing as an ardent observer and commentator. If "lost" in boxing, McRae also found his metier, or, as a typically fatalist boxer might say, his destiny.

Instead of the mordantly revealing title "Dark Trade," McRae's original title for this book was the more ebullient "Showtime":

"In the beginning I wanted to celebrate boxing. I planned to write about the bravest and the most skillful fighters, describing their big heart and sparkle. . . . I thought there was something beautiful and poetic in the solitary way they both prepared for a fight and then, afterwards, held each other in relief. . . . Yet these stories now touch as much on death. It was not meant to end up this way." McRae questions the morality of his involvement in a sport that some of its own practitioners would not call a "sport" but a trade that deals in brutality and hurt. And though a famous boxer like Tyson, though conspicuously past his prime, may earn as much as $140 million for six undistinguished fights within 16 months of his being released from an Indiana prison as a convicted rapist--a testament less to the connivance of boxing promoters than to the inexhaustible gullibility of the public--most boxers, including such great champions as Joe Louis and even Ali, are victims, exploited by managers, promoters and their own dreams of grandeur and immortality. "Deep down, they know that they're fated to lose. They are not 'losers' in terms of their character but, rather, in the more overpowering sense of destiny being stacked against them. . . . In the end, no matter how hard they train or abstain, boxing gets them."

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