11 JULY 1987, Page 35

A rider on the stand

Jeffrey Bernard

ON BOXING by Joyce Carol Oates

Bloomsbury, £9.95

There shouldn't be anything much more extraordinary about a woman writing a book about boxing than there is about a man designing women's clothes, but there is. Joyce Carol Oates has set out with two severe handicaps. In the first place she is too distant from her subject, as a woman must be, and secondly she teaches Eng Lit at Princeton University, so proclaiming herself to be a bit of an intellectual, and that leads to the inevitable speculation.

The book is an idle romance. It is a celebration of a violence. as remote to her as is childbirth to me. I have seen a baby being born and I have been flattened in the ring and you will be delighted to hear that my reminiscences of childbirth are not going to be submitted to the Bloomsbury Press. Mind you, Miss Oates is a damn sight cleverer than I am but there is a world of difference between a punch on the nose as viewed from a ringside seat and one as recieved in the souped-up, hyped-up ring itself.

What draws Miss Oates to the fight business is that it is American National Theatre at its best. Nightly heroics and tragedies performed from coast to coast to an audience of thousands. But is it as theatrical to the protagonists as it is to the author? For most of the fighters I have known over the years it is about as untheat- rical as was Noel Coward's advice to a young actor, 'Remember your lines and don't bump into the furniture.' It isn't all cake. There's a lot of bread and butter to be got through first and before you get to be a champion you have to finish up all your greens. Years ago, I was chatting to Henry Cooper one afternoon and he said, 'Look, I must dash. I'm working tonight.' A big fight at Wembley.

And it was even less theatrical then when most fighters had daytime jobs — Cooper was a greengrocer who took time off to train. Jack Dempsey to Miss Oates was a John Barrymore and the greatest of them all, Ali, is now touring in a produc- tion of Pagliacci, poor sod. And it must be an exceedingly glamorous kind of relief to sit in an expensive ringside seat to watch a physical game of chess between two men 'who have to think standing up' after a long day at Princeton trying to explain Jane Austen to a load of numbskulls.

As a book on the psychology of boxing it is unnecessarily illustrated. Badly too. Text books on the workings of the human mind don't need portraits of the nuttiest nuts ever to have been certified. But it has to be said — and the Bloomsbury Press are welcome to quote me out of context — that speaking as a sports freak it is a book I wouldn't do without. Not that I need it. If Chris Broad wrote a book about what it feels like to stand up and bat against Malcom Marshall or Holding I would buy it but I think I already know what it might feel like. Miss Oates is what they call in racing 'a rider on the stand'. That is a spectator who thinks he knows better than a Lester P.

I also think that Miss Oates is a trifle confused about the so-called killer instinct. That fascinates her. I've never met any fighters who wanted to kill anyone; they just wanted to win because the idea of losing is frightening. People like Roberto Duran who fought like a psychopath are really not a lot more than dogs straining on the leash when they go walkies. You may as well berate a cobra for having a killer instinct as it tries to bite you. No, they are not killers, these great fighters, but perfect tear driveth out all love. There are mo- ments when a boxer's back suddenly feels the hemp ropes and he knows in a moment that he is on the slide. That is the moment when 'killing' his opponent becomes his first priority. He doesn't need a psycholo- gical explanation or a prompt from Miss Oates. Another great psychologist, Jack Dempsey, put most of it into one nutshell, 'When you're fighting you're fighting for one thing: money.' And there is a black equivalent of that uttered by Larry Holmes. 'It's hard being black. You ever been black? I was black once — when I was poor.'