Why the literati love Muhammad Ali

Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times:

ScreenHunter_1742 Mar. 02 17.35Liebling was drawn to boxing, but so were Joyce Carol Oates and William Hazlitt, neither of whom is easily pictured doing high-speed pad work amid buckets of bloodied spit in a basement gym. George Bernard Shaw wrote a novel about the sport (Cashel Byron’s Profession, 1882). James Baldwin covered Floyd Patterson’s 1962 fight with Sonny Liston. Current New Yorker editor David Remnick published a book about Muhammad Ali (King of the World, 1999) in between lighter subjects such as Barack Obama and Russia. All but one or two of Norman Mailer’s novels cringe with inadequacy next to The Fight, his account of Ali’s 1974 showdown with George Foreman in Zaire. Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson: all thrived at the intersection of professionalised violence and literary journalism.

The first rule of fight club is that you write about fight club, a lot. No sport has been chronicled in greater depth or quality than boxing. There is some famous baseball prose by Don DeLillo, among others. Cricket yielded a great book (CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary, 1963) and tennis a great essay (David Foster Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience”, 2006). Football has amassed something of a canon over the past 20 years but nothing commensurate with the game’s imperial presence in the world.

Boxing does not vie for the attention of writers with other sports, but is on another plane with war and romance. It is clear that just one exponent of ringcraft — Ali, nowadays forced by Parkinson’s disease to let others tell his story — has inspired a more distinguished bibliography than entire human pursuits.

More here.