George Plimpton, the famous participatory sports journalist, also wrote a lot about sports he didn’t participate in at all. Sure, Plimpton played with the Detroit Lions and made the inimitable Paper Lion out of his experience. He pitched an inning at Yankee Stadium against the MLB All Stars. He played the Apollo Theater too, but that’s another story. But Plimpton’s very best book was about boxing, which fit with his notion that sportswriting got better as the ball got smaller. (Boxing had no ball at all!)
In Shadowbox Plimpton fought an exhibition match with Archie “The Mongoose” Moore, but it is his coverage of Muhammad Ali — The Champ, The Greatest — that sets the book apart. Plimpton put Ali together with the great modernist poet Marianne Moore and they jammed out some verse together — Moore was, of course, charmed. But Plimpton was most won over by Ali’s special skill of language choice for intimidation. This was most evident when Ali took one word to intimidate basketball giant Wilt Chamberlain, with whom he was scheduled to fight. Chamberlain was considered among the world’s strongest men. He had 50 pounds on Ali and stood a foot taller. Asked how the fight would go, Ali simply said “Timber!” The fight was cancelled.