By Rick Assad
A man for all seasons, there are few subjects that award-winning sportswriter Richard Hoffer can’t handle. Whether covering a college football game that decided the mythical national champion, penning long-form features, or insightful essays, Hoffer always delivered the goods.
But it was ringside chronicling the sweet science where Hoffer, first with the Los Angeles Times for a decade, and later Sports Illustrated for two decades, truly shined.
Hoffer’s thoughtful prose is lyrical and expressive, and it has left an indelible imprint on the literature.
The author of five books that range from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who won 10 titles in 12 years, or gambling in America, Hoffer’s most recent offering, “Bouts of Mania: Ali, Frazier, Foreman And An America On The Ropes,” may just be his best.
In it, Hoffer, who still contributes to Sports Illustrated, details the classic bouts involving Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman that took place between 1971 and 1975, and feature the “Fight of the Century,” the “Thrilla in Manila,” and the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
“Bouts of Mania,” has received excellent reviews, and the book, brilliantly researched, should be on every boxing fan’s shelf. Hoffer recently agreed to do a Q&A over the Internet.
What prompted Hoffer to write this book? “The whole point of my book is that, for a few years there, there was one epic spectacle after another,” he said. “One after another! A Thrilla, a Rumble. They kept coming. You didn’t have to look for them, they just rolled you over.”
While boxing books are usually excellent reads, they can be tough to get published. “Boxing books are a notoriously hard sell,” Hoffer explained. “A real problem for publishers (and would-be authors). But I kept coming back to some kind of Ali project, figuring his charisma trumped the literary unpopularity of the sport. As I noodled around with the idea, trying to find some unexplored angle (there’s been a ton of stuff on him), it occurred to me that it wasn’t an Ali story so much as it was a slice of Americana, a story about a few riotous years and a few colorful characters.”
Hoffer went on: “The fact that it was so neatly bookended by the country’s social and political dysfunctions helped give me a logical timeline in what might be an arbitrary series of fights.”
Ali is now 72 years old and battling Parkinson’s disease, Frazier passed away in 2011 at 67, while Foreman is 65 and seemingly thriving. All three held the heavyweight title and each captured an Olympic gold medal. But does one stand out?
“That has to be Foreman, a man who has reinvented himself over and over,” said Hoffer. “When I was doing this book, I worried that I was just contributing another Ali enterprise. But by the time I finished and realized that, out of all the chaos I had just documented, there was only one true survivor, I thought, have I just done a Foreman book. He’s not just an intriguing athlete, but a fascinating person.”
Many believe that boxing is healthier than ever, given the money that’s being made. But is it?
“I have to admit I haven’t paid attention to boxing since I covered my last fight, five years ago,” said Hoffer. “I don’t know many who have. It’s become such a niche sport, catering to a few demographics, whatever support PPV (pay-per-view) buys, that it’s difficult to even think of it as a sport any more. It’s just a special event every now and then. When I started there were weekly fights, at more than one location in Los Angeles, all contributing to a kind of background noise. Now? As far as I can tell the sport exists to support a few mega-fights each year. It’s just dropped off everyone’s radar. Well, mine.”
Hoffer, whose first book on boxing was, “A Savage Business: The Comeback And Comedown Of Mike Tyson,” believes the sport will eventually fall by the wayside.
“Boxing ultimately will be abolished,” he explained, “but not because it’s a rogue sport. This is the curmudgeon in me, but I don’t see a future for a sport that no longer attracts youth, either as participants or fans. We talk about this every four years when we realize how paltry our Olympic boxing pickings are. It’s been a long time since those U.S. teams regularly graduated champions. Ali, Frazier and Foreman were all famous amateurs who inspired yet more amateurs. Now, without any accessible role models in boxing, I’m afraid our young athletes are employing their talents elsewhere.”
The biggest name in the sport is Floyd Mayweather Jr., the pound-for-pound best in the world. Undefeated in 46 bouts, Mayweather, who will fight Argentina’s Marcos Maidana at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 13th, makes as much news out of the ring as in the squared circle.
“I like Mayweather. He’s a consummate athlete, a dedicated boxer and a genuinely crazy person,” said Hoffer. “Certainly the best of his time. And yet, I can’t recall a singular moment from any of his fights. That’s not his fault. But he lacks his Frazier, his Foreman, someone to test him, or at least reveal him. I guess I wish his fights were half as exciting as a night on the town with him.”
Even now many fight fans still want to see Mayweather face off against Manny Pacquiao. Will this ever come to pass?
“They probably won’t meet and, if they do, under unpalatable circumstances,” said Hoffer. “Mayweather is 45, coming out of retirement, whatever. Once this could have been the kind of fight that restored, however briefly, some interest in the sport. It feels to me that the window has closed on this one.”
Though he’s covered hundreds of fights, Hoffer doesn’t have a favorite. “I’m not one of those guys who ranks fights, or even remembers them very well,” he said. “Stories, that’s another matter. I covered lots better fights than Tyson-[James] Douglas, but I doubt I ever had more fun writing one of them.”
That fight took place in Japan’s Tokyo Dome in February 1990, and ended with Douglas knocking out Tyson, a 42-to-1 favorite in the 10th round.
The loss was startling given that Iron Mike came in with a 37-0 record, and was a human wrecking ball.
“I sometimes feel bad for Tyson, because he’s going to be remembered as this psychotic burn-out,” said Hoffer. “He was not nothing. In that brief, and highly orchestrated prime of his, he was one of the most exciting attractions the game has had. And he wasn’t bad. Not great, of course, but for that little period of time, pretty damned astonishing.”
Hoffer said a couple of former boxers were both fun to watch and easy with a quote. “I tend to remember them in terms of personality, how story-friendly they were. Guys like Randall (Tex) Cobb or a long-forgotten fighter like Bobby Chacon remain more vivid to me than all those champions that passed in front of me.”
Cobb, a heavyweight who finished his career with a 42-7-1 mark and 35 knockouts, battled some of the best in the division like Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, while Chacon, a super-featherweight who fashioned a 59-7-1 record with 47 knockouts, likewise slugged it out with such titans as Alexis Arguello, Ruben Olivares [three times], Danny Lopez, Ray Mancini, and Chucho Castillo.
No, they don’t make them like Cobb and Chacon any more. Nor do they come any better than Hoffer.