Shadow Box

An Amateur in the Ring


By George Plimpton

Foreword by Mike Lupica

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George Plimpton makes his riskiest foray into participatory journalism — stepping into the ring against a champion boxer — in Shadow Box, repackaged and including never-before-seen content from the Plimpton archives.

Stepping into the ring against light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, George Plimpton pauses to wonder what ever induced him to become a participatory journalist. Bloodied but unbowed, he holds his own in the bout — and lives to tell, in this timeless book on boxing and its devotees, among them Ali, Joe Frazier, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer.

Shadow Box is one of Plimpton’s most engaging studies of professional sport, told through the eyes of an inquisitive and astute amateur. From the gym, the locker room, ringside, and even in the harsh glare of the ring itself, Plimpton documents what it is like to be a boxer, an artist of mayhem.


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Author's Note

August 1993

I suppose one should not be predisposed in this matter, especially an author, but I am inordinately fond of Shadow Box—very likely because Muhammad Ali, the most colorful athlete of our times, dominates its pages. It was very hard to write about him without a book coming alive. After Shadow Box was published, Norman Mailer—I believe I must have written him for a blurb—asked me to have lunch with him. He wanted to discuss the book. He had many nice things to say about it, but he felt I had not put enough of myself in its pages. I remember saying that I wasn't much good at introspective, self-analytical prose—perhaps my New England background was to blame—and besides, the cast of characters was rich enough to carry everything along quite nicely.

The focal scene in Shadow Box is the great Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, Africa. Norman was there. He wrote a fine book about it called The Fight, so anyone interested can see how he went about it. There is a lot of him in it.

Muhammad Ali quit the ring in 1981, far too late for his health, as everyone knows. I covered some of the later fights—exulting when he won, though sportswriters are not supposed to be as biased, and in despair when he lost. Three years after he retired, out in Los Angeles to cover the Olympics, I paid him a visit in his home there. I regretted it. He was a shadow of his former self—his voice slow and slurred, his step a shuffle. He was gracious, of course. He showed me some magic tricks—not only performing them but then explaining how they worked, very much against the magician's code! He said that his Muslim teachings didn't allow him to hoodwink anyone. All of this, though, was carried on at a pace I found despairing, remembering how quick of mind and body he had been in his great years.

After the visit I quit covering the fights for good, much less going to them for pleasure. Every time I saw Ali on television, usually sitting silently ringside at a championship bout, I was reminded that Oscar Wilde truly had it wrong: you don't kill the thing you love (which is what he said), but rather what you love kills you.

In early 1993 Ali turned up in New York to introduce a new line of clothes at Macy's. His photographer friend, Howard Bingham, came around to see me and to talk about old times. He said, "Hey, you ought to come down and see the champ this afternoon at the store. He'd like to see you."

I shook my head. "He wouldn't remember," I said. "It's been too long a time. He's forgotten."

"Oh no," Bingham said. "He'll remember. He called you 'Kennedy' 'cause he thought you looked like one."

I laughed and said that sometimes he called me "the author." He'd say "put the author in the front seat of the car" and we'd drive off somewhere.

I had lunch with friends in midtown that day, and afterwards I changed my mind and dropped into Macy's… just for a glimpse. Outside, a thousand people by my estimate were waiting for him to come out of the store. The word had swept through the neighborhood that he was in the vicinity. Inside, the fashion show was over and Ali was leaving, which on such occasions is a lengthy process since he slowly moves through the crowds, signing autographs, passing out his picture and tracts promoting Islam. It's a wonder he ever gets out at all.

I stood at the outer edge of a ring of people, perhaps twenty deep, Ali in the middle, slowly working his way toward the exit. On the far side of the crowd I spotted Bingham, cameras dangling from his neck. He grinned and waved.

Just then, Ali caught sight of me and began pushing through the crowd. At first, I thought he was heading for someone else, but then a few feet away he put out his arms and pulled me to him. He whispered in my ear, "Hey, hey, Kennedy." I was enormously touched; indeed, I am not ashamed to say my eyes filled with tears.

So that's that. I suspect that Bingham told him I was coming and prepared him, reminding him of the old days. No matter. It was a memorable moment. And then there's always Shadow Box on hand to refresh my mind on how vital and rare he was…


I never understood boxing. When I was a boy, I think if my family had pointed out a famous prizefighter in the same restaurant, I would have stared at him, but out of curiosity, not admiration. Certainly I never liked the art itself. At school, once a month, we were required to box down in the gym—paired off, with enormous gloves tied to our pipestem arms. When the master blew his whistle, we strained and lifted up these monstrous pillows to push and flail them at each other. It was the worst time of the month. Sometimes you could make an arrangement with your opponent. "Let's pretend," you could whisper nervously, and if he nodded wide-eyed at the temerity of the suggestion, you could have a reasonably good time. You could throw a tremendous stiff-armed haymaker, miss, and fall down on the wood floor. But there were always many in the class—just about everyone, it occurs to me—from whom you could never hope for any such accommodation. You could see it in their eyes. The thought of trying "let's pretend" would linger, but only until the master's whistle would blow.

These, who liked to sock and who listened carefully to the master's instructions as to how to do it better, went on to be admirable people, I suppose: abstract expressionists, scratch golfers, bond salesmen, police chiefs, bagpipe players, defensive tackles, most members of the New York Yacht Club, taxicab drivers, military men, of course; and they married young, and a lot of them were politicians, contractors, deep-sea fishermen, insurance salesmen, certain types of tennis players who play doubles very close to the net, daily columnists, duck hunters, citizens'-band users, Little League coaches, just about everyone in the repair business, short-order cooks, and goat ranchers. There are many others.

The author poses at Stillman's Gym, hoisting his fist next to that of a fellow fighter. (Herb Scharfman)

The other category—the nonpunching types—is large, too. I am not good at lists of this sort, but I do know that the latter category includes all apartment-house doormen, a group who have agreed very early to accommodation, to "let's pretend." They are supposed to be custodians, the grandest of them in brown greatcoats with gold buttons in a long row down the front, and occasionally they help unload a taxi. They rock back and forth on their heels. Everyone who lives in the apartment house must pass by. But, in fact, in the cells of the high rises that rear up behind them a huge range of activity—some of it splendid, much of it humdrum, some of it traumatic—goes on over which the doormen have no control. Like deaf zoo-keepers they stand at the entryway to all this. "Yes, madam, the Zuckermans live on the fifth floor." They are custodians, but they are not committed, which is why on occasion in New York City doormen submit with great ease to having adhesive tape pasted over their mouths by armed robbers with satchels going up to fleece the Zuckermans. The doormen are quite docile about it. Later, they are discovered seated, tied to the finely polished oak benches in the lobby. Their eyes roll above the tape.

As a youngster I came home past a doorman. He was very large and important-looking, but even at a young age I knew that he was a nonbelligerent. He was a polite Englishman. When he blew a whistle for a taxi, he never gave it a furious blast the way a policeman would—or an abstract expressionist, or a goat rancher. His name was John.

"John, we boxed today," I told him.

"I see you are unscathed," he said. "You are either very nimble, or the other poor chap is a ruin."

He said that every month.

Outside of those gym sessions at school, I never hit anyone when I was growing up. Once, down on Lexington Avenue and Ninety-sixth Street, my younger brother and I were accosted by a pair of kids a couple of years older, perhaps eleven or twelve. They were nervous about what they were going to do. We were coming back from Sunday School. They demanded our money, backing us against a wall, and my brother shot his fists up—they were about the size of plums—in a classic old-time-fighter's stance, like a miniature Jem Mace in the boxing prints, but I said, No, no, no, and I forked over the twenty cents that was left over from busfare. The shame of it lasts to this day. My brother and I never talked about it. I didn't say anything to John, the doorman, when we went up to the apartment. I told Mother. I told her that I had tried to trick the thieves by handing over what I thought was an empty fake-leather change purse, thinking that the twenty cents was in my other pocket, but I heard the coins click inside when I gave it to them, and they turned and ran. So they got everything.

"It wasn't very good thinking in the first place," my mother had said, "since the purse was worth a dollar." She got a detective up to the apartment from the local precinct station and suggested, as he was writing up his report, that he hang around the local cigar stores where these sorts of kids lounged around, to see if he could, as she put it, "hear anything."

I could have gone peaceably enough through life without taking a poke at anyone or being poked at, but then, when I became a writer for Sports Illustrated, in the late fifties, and got involved in "participatory journalism"—that ugly descriptive—friends would say, "Well, now that you've played professional baseball and are writing a book about it, and you're thinking of basketball and football and playing the tambourine in some music group, and all those things, when are you going to fight a professional fighter? When are you going to fight Sonny Liston?"

The author practices his form with James Dickey. (Herb Scharfman)

"Well, I'm not going to fight anyone," I said. "I am going to play tennis. Perhaps I am going to sing. Would it not be interesting to sing in the Metropolitan Opera?"

It was not that my friends turned away and shamed me, or kept badgering me, but finally that I realized that boxing was perhaps the ultimate confrontation, certainly the most time-honored one—one man versus another in the most basic terms—and that I could hardly go on as a participatory journalist without investigating the sport.

I began considering how to go about it. My notion became to persuade a champion fighter to box a three-round exhibition for which I would train extensively, learning as much as I could about the profession and its practitioners as I went along. I decided to write a letter. Floyd Patterson was the heavyweight champion then, just a few pounds over my weight. He might have been a better fighter to contact for what I wanted to do, since, as Red Smith once wrote about him, he looked like a man who wanted to carry an opponent and didn't know how. He could have practiced on me. But a friend pointed out that things were going to be difficult enough without my trying to fight out of my class, especially up in a heavier division. "If you're going to box someone in another division," he said, "pick the bantam-weights."

So I sat down and wrote an extremely polite letter to Archie Moore, who was in the proper weight classification and was then the light-heavyweight champion of the world. The little I had read or heard about him suggested that he was exactly right for my purposes. Quite unlike the withdrawn Patterson, Moore was a flamboyant and gregarious champion; he was a favorite of journalists for his liveliness of mind; he was certainly a distinguished figure in his profession, being a sly craftsman (one of his monikers was The Mongoose) who had knocked out more people than anyone else in ring history. Everything I read and heard about him (except perhaps the latter) I liked. I had seen him fight Rocky Marciano in the Polo Grounds—the only prizefight I had attended. Moore suckered the champion into the wrong moves, but he didn't (though he knocked the champion down once) have the power to capitalize on them. By the eighth round, he was in awful trouble. The reports were that the ring physician, Dr. Nardiello, came and looked at him in his corner; he found him battered, one eye nearly closed; he leaned forward to look at matters more closely, and he heard Moore whispering, "Don't stop it, Doc; let me try once more with a desperado," and the doctor let him.

In my letter I asked Moore if in the cause of literature—a phrase I underlined once or twice—he would be willing to come to New York to fight a three-round exhibition. He wrote back promptly on a letterhead which included a head portrait of himself, a montage reproduction of a few representative newspaper clippings extolling his virtues, and an embossed announcement down one side of the stationery that the missive was from the "Offices of the Light-Heavyweight Champion." He told me that he would be delighted to participate. There was barely enough room left on the letterhead for him to say this.

My feelings on receipt of his letter were mixed: one, a fine sense of anticipation, of curiosity; the other, a foreboding, a vision of opening a door and stepping across the sill into a terrifying place, a Bedlam, not unlike what years later Muhammad Ali described so brilliantly as the "Near Room," a place to which, when he got into trouble in the ring, he imagined the door swung half open and inside he could see neon, orange, and green lights blinking, and bats blowing trumpets and alligators playing trombones, and where he could hear snakes screaming. Weird masks and actors' clothes hung on the wall, and if he stepped across the sill and reached for them, he knew that he was committing himself to his own destruction. As for me, I had indeed stepped across the sill. It had been done. I had no illusions about what happens when a professional boxer, with his mind on his job, finds an amateur in the ring with him. The professional is invariably in complete control, and only his temper and his state of mind dictate what he is going to do to the fellow pawing nervously at him… the latter's status just a jot or so above that of a mouse being cuffed around by a finely conditioned cat.

But with all of it so far away I allowed myself the luxury of imagining that somehow I was going to… well, startle my opponent. Mark Twain once wrote, "The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second-best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do, and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot."

John, my old doorman, would have understood that. Even if he had been rocking back and forth on his heels in front of a place as mysterious and sinister as the Near Room, he would have bowed slightly and smiled, and if I told him I was going in there to fight against the light-heavyweight champion of the world, he would have declared, with his gentle optimism, "Oh yes, how nice, how very nice.… The other poor chap will be a ruin."


I had two months in which to get a quite questionable apparatus ready for the confrontation with Archie Moore. I am not properly constituted to fight. I am built rather like a bird of the stiltlike, wader variety—the avocets, limpkins, and herons. Since boyhood my arms have remained sticklike: I can slide my watch up my arm almost to the elbow. I have a thin, somewhat fragile nose which bleeds easily. Once, in my military days, I brought up my hand in a smart salute which banged the tip of my nostrils and started a slight nosebleed there in ranks, a bead of blood quivering at the end of my nose, like a drop at a shot bird's beak, before it fell to the dust of the parade ground. A lieutenant colonel stared at me solemnly. He sighed slightly and went on down the line.

Also, I suffer from a condition which the medical profession refers to as "sympathetic response," which means that when I am hit or cuffed around, I weep. It is an involuntary reaction: the tears come and there is nothing I can do except dab at them with a fist.

Charley Goldman, Rocky Marciano's famous, gnomelike trainer, once said of fighters built along my lines, "You know them fighters with long necks and them long, pointy chins. They cost you more for smellin' salts than they do for food."

Yet, I knew the first step in getting ready for Moore was to find a trainer like Charley Goldman willing to take me on. I reached a man named George Brown. I had been introduced to him by Ernest Hemingway, who always spoke of him with highest regard—as a boxer who could have been a champion fighter if he had been able to accept the idea that he was going to be hit once in a while. But having classic features better suited, perhaps, to an Irish dandy sitting astride a hunter, he stayed on the periphery of boxing, as the proprietor of a famous gymnasium on Fifty-seventh Street, where he sparred with a fancy New York clientele, if they were of a mind to try it, and where he taught boxing. Hemingway spoke of his skills with awe, saying that he could never remember having landed a good punch during a sparring session with Brown.

The author, in his corner and as-yet unscathed, enjoys a laugh before the fight. (Herb Scharfman)

So I telephoned Brown. After I had explained what I wished of him, he said no, he was taking a job on the Isle of Pines, off Cuba, and wouldn't be able to help me train for the fight. He admitted that the idea of preparing a "tiger" to go against the light-heavyweight champion intrigued him, but frankly, and he hoped I didn't mind his saying so, he felt that in his future he'd be better off in Cuba—despite the fact that Fidel Castro's forces were beginning to work down from the Sierra Maestra and the place was in a political uproar. He was very polite about it and jocular at the same time.

"Well, what am I going to do, George?" I asked. I told him I had been advised by Martin Kane, of Sports Illustrated, to go down to Stillman's Gym, on Eighth Avenue, and get myself a trainer—I mentioned Charley Goldman and Joe Fariello—and work out in that crowd for at least a month.

Brown was appalled. "Stay out of Stillman's," he said. "You'll get some awful disease fooling around there. Stillman and his people don't know what a mop looks like, much less how to push such a thing through the crud in that place.…"

"How about the trainers?" I asked.

Brown sounded very concerned on the other end of the phone. "Listen," he said, "most of the trainers you'll find in Stillman's don't have the brains God gave a goat. Maybe they'll give you one lesson—how to lace on the gloves—but then they'll get you up there in the ring for their bums to maul you around so you 'learn experience.' You'll get ruined. Listen," Brown said, "if you have to go to Stillman's, go and work on the light bag, the heavy bag, but don't get yourself pushed into the ring if anyone else is fooling around in there. Go into the ring when it's empty—alone—shadowbox, get the feeling of the canvas, and get out if anyone starts climbing through the ropes. I don't care if it's Lou Stillman himself, or someone who looks like your grandmother… get out!"

"They'd really tee off on me?" I asked.

"In the ring with those guys you're fair game," Brown said. "Those guys'll hit anything moving—the timekeeper, if he got in there; a handyman sent in to check the ring posts; anybody. And as for a writer, those guys'd smack a writer on the beak just to see what would happen."

Brown heard me whistle softly over the phone; he said, "Don't forget, in the ring friendship ceases; and as for fooling around with Stillman's crowd, you'd be better off jumping into a bear pit. Wouldn't smell as bad."

With George Brown warning me sternly away from physical contact with the trainers in New York's gyms, I fell back on the theory that I could teach myself what to do from books and a self-imposed training program. I paid a visit to the library of the Racquet Club, on Park Avenue, where a small section of the shelves was devoted to boxing. I looked through the titles for a manual and arbitrarily selected one of a number—a thin volume which produced a fine aroma of mold when removed from the shelf. The Art and Practice of English Boxing, the volume was called, first published in 1807. I took it off to one of the library's large leather chairs, settled myself down, arranged a wooden footrest under my feet, reached up then and switched on a reading lamp—all this with a genuine sense of accomplishment, of getting underway. Around me, unaware that a fellow member was starting his preparations to fight the light-heavyweight champion of the world, quite a few members dozed in their chairs. One of them, in an adjoining chair, slept with a thin page of the Wall Street Journal over his face, the paper rising and falling barely perceptibly to his gentle snores. The library is used for sleeping as much as for reading. But it was peaceful that afternoon, some of the leather chairs occupied but quiescent, a fire murmuring in the grate the loudest sound in the room, and so I opened up The Art and Practice of English Boxing and began.

The first paragraph, devoted to some general remarks, included a reassuring sentence: "Both parties," the line read, referring to contestants in the ring, "should keep in the best humours possible." How this was to be done was not specified, but at least the inference was that George Brown's dictum that friendship ceases in the ring was not inflexible. I shifted comfortably in my chair and read on:

"One of the chief studies of a pugilist of character is to know where he can most successfully plant his blows. The parts of the body in which a blow is struck with the greatest probability of terminating the battle, are on the eye, between the eyebrows, on the bridge of the nose, or the temporal artery, beneath the left ear, under the short ribs, and in the pit of the stomach… a blow under the left ear forces back the blood which proceeds from the head to the heart [I shifted uneasily in my chair]… so that the vessels and sinews of the brain are overcharged, particularly the smaller ones, which being of too delicate a texture to resist so great a change of blood, burst… and an effusion of blood succeeding from the aperatures of the head completes his business.…"

My footrest fell over with a crash. In the next chair the member under his Wall Street Journal gasped and came awake; panic seized him under the pale sheet of the paper and he fought for air, batting feebly at the Journal with his hands; a foot flew up and his footrest toppled over. The library stirred and heads came up over the backs of those deep chairs and revolved suspiciously, bridling and haughty, before sinking again from view. Some throats were cleared. I heard the click of a pocket watch being snapped shut. The library began to settle down. My neighbor and I reached for our footrests; I returned somewhat gloomily to my reading.

But I kept to it, afternoons on end. I read everything I could find—manuals, histories, autobiographies. Sometimes in my reading—to my relief—I turned up chronicles which made me feel much more comfortable about the world I was entering; for one thing, it was not entirely occupied by killers: there was "Fainting Phil" Scott, an English heavyweight who survived a twelve-year career in the ring (1919–1931) with very little ability. He was actually the heavyweight champion of England for a while, but writers referred to him as the "'so-called' heavyweight," very often as the "Horizontal Heavyweight," and on occasion as the "Swooning Swan of the Soho." His particular maneuver was to sink to the canvas at the first suggestion of a low blow and cry, "Foul!"—hoping that the referee would award him the fight on a technical ruling. He tried this for nine fights in a row; the referees finally caught on, and after the Jack Sharkey fight in 1930, in which Scott, as usual, claimed from the canvas that he had been hit in the groin, the referee announced, "Scott is the yellowest bum I ever saw. For ten cents I'd take him into any cellar and give him a licking myself."

Even after Scott left the ring he continued to elicit waggish comments. One writer said that the common practice of setting a retired boxer up in his own pub would not have worked with "Fainting Phil," since every time Scott heard the bell on the cash register he would have doubled over and stretched out on the bar. In one of the books I found a picture of him in boxing togs—a thinnish fighter… with a build not unlike mine… with rather elegant, slightly startled features who looked as if he were sniffing something as he peered out over his upraised fists.

There were a few others like him. I kept notes on them, as if they could keep me company. One of my favorites was Jack Doyle, who was known as the Irish Thrush for his habit of singing in his corner before a bout. He was an awful fighter. Once, while he was singing "Mother Machree," a friend sighed, "Ah, if he could only fight her instead of sing her."

Naturally, the books I concentrated on were the manuals, trying to imagine as I sat in the deep leather chairs how I could transpose what I read to my solitary exercises in the club gym. The most arresting of the books was one by Jack Dempsey; its first words were as follows: "What would happen if a year-old baby fell from a fourth-floor apartment onto the head of a burly truckdriver standing on the sidewalk?" As if this stunning opening were not enough, it was accompanied by an illustration: it showed a truckman in uniform, wearing a cloth hat, and striding purposefully along, his features suggesting a personable fellow lost in thought—perhaps what he was going to have for supper that night—thoughts that could not have included an awareness of his imminent and peculiar doom. Two or three feet above his head was the baby, diapered, its mouth ajar, descending from an upstairs fourth-floor apartment at a sharp speed indicated by a broken black arrow pointed violently downward and labeled "gravity."

I cannot recall any book I have read which started off with such panache. I hurried on. "It's practically certain," I read, "that the truckman would be knocked unconscious. He might die of brain concussion or a broken neck. Even an innocent little baby can become a dangerous missile when its bodyweight is set into fast motion."


  • "Excellent sports reporting. The chapters on Muhammad Ali are delightful, and Ali is not easy to write about."—Time
  • "A delight--more entertaining, if possible, than I remembered... the reader leaves George Plimpton's wide world of sports with deep reluctance.... His prose is as elegant and seemingly effortless as Ted Williams's swing or an Arnold Palmer iron shot.... His teammates recede--like the old baseball players vanishing into the cornfield in Field of Dreams, taking their magical world with them but living on in fond memory."—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal
  • "Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton's books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era."—Nathaniel Rich, New York Review of Books

On Sale
Apr 26, 2016
Page Count
368 pages

George Plimpton

About the Author

George Plimpton (1927-2003) was the bestselling author and editor of nearly thirty books, as well as the cofounder, publisher, and editor of the Paris Review. He wrote regularly for such magazines as Sports Illustrated and Esquire, and he appeared numerous times in films and on television.

Learn more about this author