There's rain in Moscow and the press horde has gathered in a giant half-empty sterile cage of a fight palace, some late-Communist figure-skating beast of a dome. And the old writer is tired. The flight from Boston dragged cruel on his body and yes the old writer is tired. The look of this place has him more tired still, dying animal tired, anxious for onion soup and a long rest in the dull sunset shadows of the Kremlin and its soft-spoken new Czar, the same castle that once haunted thermonuclear fantasies had on whiskey stained New York sheets. He had run through the bush with Ali in '75. Now this. Norman Mailer is in Moscow for 12 rounds if Holyfield is lucky. And he is tired.
Only the old ex champ is more tired than the writer. "The People's Champion," he touchingly still calls himself in the face of hydra-headed reality, only weeks from 45, the four-time belt holder turned soldier for Jesus who, on the road to becoming undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, sent anonymous pizzas to Buster Douglas' Vegas hotel room every night to fatten the victim before the ritual devouring. Now, the writer and the boxer were tired, together, like their country, unable to muster much at all in the face of one more challenge, one more check that instinct yearns to cash but cannot for fear of its own reflection, out of time like the Pharaohs.
Holyfield, slayer of Tyson and Holmes and Ruiz, he of the iconic missing ear tip, mustached creature of another decade, was seeking big belt number five in the slouching twilight of a career that should have ended in Atlantic City, in the TKO glow of a prone Hasim Rahman. But there was another, yet more dour follower of the Warrior Prophet in his future. The People's ex-Champion, Mr. Real Deal, born into the brick churches and bait shacks of Atmore, Alabama, was in Moscow to stand against and lean in on the Sultan Igrabimov, the undefeated hill kid champ with a blazing right paw from the badlands of Russia's Muslim underbelly of grazing goats and homemade gunshot.
At weigh-in there was age if not wisdom in the challenger's face, but the body was a spiritual fact, a book of Revelations fact. Poems of warning etched in muscle and tendon and the promise of speed, waiting--for what? Like Ali, there is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. The Professional Boxer is always in danger of being our Most Beautiful Man and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth. A champ, even an ex-champ, is the Prince of Heaven--so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.
The Russian enters. Rounder and squatter with a short shock of blonde, a touch of haggard Hollywood, nothing to indicate the Koran in his locker. Holyfield gave the tv preacher a quarter of a million dollars and told the--who remembers this now?--Muslim Mike Tyson that "his god was the only god." A clash of civilizations in the ring before being transferred to the sinister wall maps of Arlington, Virginia. There is no energy for this in Moscow. Not now. No one mentions the other gods entering the ring. When the writer tries to engage a pretty Russian journalist on the subject, breasts like half-apples for the touch, she does not understand him, or pretends not to. He is too tired to care; his loins notice nothing. They sleep. The rain outside makes his bones ache.
Fight night. Through most of the 12 rounds, we wait for the fight to begin. Holyfield and Igrabimov circle and jab, circle and jab. Only twice does one man wobble, Holyfield both times the staggering victim. The Russian's artillery to the solar plex in the 10th the closest thing to punishment from Allah. When it is done, mercifully done, the writer agrees with the judges in their unanimous decision by points. The fight writers, too, are correct. It is time for the ex-champ to hang up the gloves on a sturdy nail, to retreat to home and hearth and church in Atlanta, where the sacred canvas circle of past battles can loop in memory before finally coming to rest in the promise of sleep.