Gay Talese, an Icon of the ‘New Journalism,’ Wrote Extensively About Boxing


By Rick Assad
Rejected by every college and university he applied to except one, Gay Talese is one of the most celebrated and decorated American writers over the last seven decades.

Beginning at Ocean City High in New Jersey where he wrote for the student newspaper and later the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger, Talese, 92, went to the University of Alabama where he worked on the student newspaper, the Crimson White, and after a stint in the Army, wrote for The New York Times, Esquire, The New Yorker and numerous magazines.

Not wasting time, Talese has published more than a dozen books, including "The Kingdom And The Power" (1969), "Honor Thy Father,'' (1971), "Thy Neighbor's Wife" (1980), "Unto The Sons,'' (1992) and "A Writer's Life," (2006).

Talese, who earned his bachelor's degree in journalism, wrote what many consider the finest magazine profile ever published, his magnum opus for the April 1966 issue of Esquire, titled "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,'' which the magazine proclaimed its greatest feature during the magazine's 70th anniversary.

In July 1966 and for the same publication, Talese wrote another classic, "The Silent Season Of A Hero,'' about New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio in retirement.

Talese's interests are many and so are his subjects, including profiles of three boxing luminaries, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson.

To say Talese writes with a light touch and a careful eye to detail is an understatement and his penchant for listening and simply hanging around have served him well and brought his subjects to life in what became known as New Journalism. (Practitioners of the New Journalism adapted the writing techniques of the novel to non-fiction storytelling, often immersing themselves in the narrative. Famous writers identified with the genre include Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and Talese.)

In one of Talese's most enduring boxing features, he shined the light on Ali. It ran in the September 1996 issue of Esquire, slightly less than two decades before Ali’s passing in June 2016 at age 74.

The title is "Ali In Havana," and it captured the essence and luminosity of the three-time heavyweight champion after the lights dimmed.


This section by Talese comes early in the piece: “Although Muhammad Ali is now fifty-four and has been retired from boxing for more than fifteen years, he is still one of the most famous men in the world, being identifiable throughout five continents. As he walks through the lobby of the Hotel Nacional toward the bus, wearing a gray sharkskin suit and a white cotton shirt buttoned at the neck without a tie, several guests approach him and request his autograph. It takes him about thirty seconds to write 'Muhammad Ali,' so shaky are his hands from the effects of Parkinson's syndrome; and though he walks without support, his movements are quite slow, and Howard Bingham and Ali's fourth wife, Yolanda, are following nearby.”

Talese adds a short while later: “On the bus, as always, Ali is sitting alone, spread out across the two front seats in the left aisle directly behind the Cuban driver. Yolanda sits a few feet ahead of him to the right; she is adjacent to the driver and within inches of the windshield. The seats behind her are occupied by Teofilo Stevenson, Fraymari [Stevenson's wife], and the photographer Bingham. Seated behind Ali, and also occupying two seats, is an American screenwriter named Greg Howard, who weighs more than 300 pounds. Although he has traveled with Ali for only a few months while researching a film on the fighter's life, Greg Howard has firmly established himself as an intimate sidekick, and as such is among the very few on the trip who have heard Ali's voice. Ali speaks so softly that it is impossible to hear him in a crowd, and as a result whatever public comments or sentiments he is expected to, or chooses to, express are verbalized by Yolanda, or Bingham, or Teofilo Stevenson, or even at times by this stout young screenwriter.”

Talese slides this nugget into the feature:

“Stevenson did not actually explain that it had been merely another photo opportunity, one in which they sparred open-handed in the ring, wearing their street clothes and barely touching each other's bodies and faces; but then Stevenson had climbed out of the ring, leaving Ali to the more taxing test of withstanding two abbreviated rounds against one and then another young bully of grade-school age who clearly had not come to participate in a kiddie show. They had come to floor the champ. Their bellicose little bodies and hot-gloved hands and helmeted hell-bent heads were consumed with fury and ambition; and as they charged ahead, swinging wildly and swaggering to the roars of their teenaged friends and relatives at ringside, one could imagine their future boastings to their grandchildren: On one fine day back in the winter of '96, I whacked Muhammad Ali. Except, in truth, on this particular day, Ali was still too fast for them. He backpedaled and shifted and swayed, stood on the toes of his black woven-leather pointed shoes, and showed that his body was made for motion - his Parkinson's problems were lost in his shuffle, in the thrusts of his butterfly sting what whistled two feet above the heads of his aspiring assailants, in the dazzling dips of his rope-a-dope that had confounded George Foreman in Zaire, in his ever-memorable style, which in this Cuban gym moistened the eyes of his ever-observant photographer friend and provided the overweight screenwriter to cry out in a voice that few in this noisy Spanish crowd could understand, ‘Ali's on a high! Ali's on a high!’ "

Talese penned a touching and poignant portrait of Louis, the "Brown Bomber" in the June 1962 issue of Esquire. The title is "Joe Louis: The King As A Middle-Aged Man."

Early in the profile, Talese wrote this of the beloved former champion: “Though his tax difficulties have eradicated all his assets - including two trust funds he had set up for his children - Joe Louis is still a man of great pride. He refused the money that hundreds of citizens sent him to help with his government debt, although he still owes the government thousands and could have used the cash. Last year Joe Louis earned less than $10,000, most of it from refereeing wrestling matches (he earns between $750 to $1,000 a night), and from endorsements or appearances. The last big money he made was the $100,000-a-year guarantee he got in 1956 for wrestling. He won all his matches - except those in which he was disqualified for using his fists - but his career ended not long afterward when the 300-pound cowboy Rocky Lee accidentally stepped on Louis's chest one night, cracked one of his ribs, and damaged some of his heart muscles.”

A little later in the feature, Talese penned this: “And on and on it went, as Louis walked down Broadway: Cab drivers waved at him, bus drivers honked at him, and dozens of men stopped him and recalled how they once traveled 130 miles to get to one of his fights, and how they'd put their heads down to light a cigarette in the first round, then before they could look up, Louis had flattened his opponent and they had missed everything: or how they'd had guests at the house that night to hear the fight, and while they were struggling in the kitchen to get the ice out, somebody came in from the living room and said, ‘It's all over! Louis knocked 'im out with the first punch.’ “

In the March 1964 issue of Esquire, Talese, who wrote thirty-seven stories on Patterson, the onetime youngest heavyweight king, authored a gem titled, "The Loser."

Midway through the feature, Talese wrote, “One hour later Floyd Patterson was jogging his way back down the dirt path toward the white house, the towel over his head absorbing the sweat from his brow. He lives alone in a two-room apartment in the rear of the house and has remained there in almost complete seclusion since getting knocked out a second time by Sonny Liston.

"In the smaller room is a large bed he makes up himself, several record albums he rarely plays, a telephone that seldom rings. The larger room has a kitchen on one side and, on the other, adjacent to a sofa, is a fireplace from which are hung boxing trunks and T-shirts to dry, and a photograph of him when he was the champion, and also a television set. The set is usually on except when Patterson is sleeping, or when he is sparring across the road inside the clubhouse (the ring is rigged over what was once the dance floor), or when, in a rare moment of painful honesty, he reveals to a visitor what it is like to be a loser.”

A short while later, Talese adds: “Now, walking slowly around the room, his black silk robe over his sweat clothes, Patterson said, ‘You must wonder what makes a man do things like this. Well, I wonder too. And the answer is, I don't know ... but I think that within me, within every human being, there is a certain weakness. It is a weakness that exposes itself more when you're alone. And I have figured out that part of the reason I do the things I do, and cannot seem to conquer that one word - myself - is because ... is because ... I am a coward.’ He stopped. He stood very still in the middle of the room, thinking about what he had just said, probably wondering whether he should have said it.”

In all three features, Talese steers clear of mythologizing and allows the reader to decide the merit and quality of each man.

They were all supremely gifted in the ring, but each had their foibles and flaws outside the squared circle. That is, they, like everyone, were merely human.
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