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Book Review: Sorcery At Caesars

Sorcery At Caesars:
Sugar Ray’s Marvelous Fight
Inkwater Press 233pp

Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, is fundamentally dramaturgical, an intersection of conflicting epics. And every fighter becomes, thus, a kind of document of his movement through a mosaic of collected stories. Strangely, however, these stories are often inscrutable to the fighters themselves. In his extraordinary new book, Steve Marantz explores the puzzling, secret narrative of Sugar Ray Leonard’s historic 1987 bout with Marvin Hagler and decodes, for us, the bout’s complexities which have, in the years since, alchemized into lore and fractured mythology. Sorcery at Caesars is a singular achievement, splendidly written and subversively inventive.

Marantz’s provocative thesis is that Leonard’s improbable victory was, in fact, the final turn in a carefully conceived, elaborately-staged performance of the Dark Arts. Indeed, we find in Marantz’s clever analysis a very real commitment to the idea of metaphysics in boxing: he fully understands the intricacies of psychological warfare, the centrality of ritualized display, and the magic of a counterintuitive sensibility.

That Leonard has now become one of boxing’s elder statesmen is, of course, a received view; but Marantz’s vision, far more radical and fascinating, reveals Leonard in his full range of coordinated contradiction. Tracing each fighter’s arc, as they curve inexorably toward a collision, Hagler emerges as the rogue parvenu and Leonard, the cool cosmopolitan. He is, at once, a creature of public consciousness, a confidence man, a worldly sophisticate but also a privately reflective student of the Self and its shifting identities. It is precisely this close attention to detail and the monastic ambience of his conjuration that distinguishes Leonard in his luminous moment. Marantz writes:

“Now materialized the specter of an outcome decided by three judges. Hagler’s inability to stop Leonard in the 9th diminished the likelihood of a knockout. Thoughts turned toward the three men with pencils [ … ] Leonard’s willingness to hold and Hagler’s refusal to complain underscored the finesse gap between the two. Leonard’s finesse also was seen in the ebb and flow of his attack. [ … ] Indeed, the 10th, essentially an even round, was ‘stolen’ by Leonard.”

From the remote, Greek concept of the pharmakeus, mystery and magic have imputed their influence to boxing through the tradition of cut men. But with this remarkable, eminently readable, and prodigiously learnèd book, Steve Marantz has conceived a language for speaking about the deep modalities of the Sweet Science as a space for narratological representation and mystical experience. Sorcery at Caesars is a major contribution to the literture of boxing, intellectually rigorous, engaging, funny, and brilliantly imagined. The show and the trick, to be sure, were Leonard’s, but the sorcerer is Marantz himself.

Scott Wilkerson
Columbus State University
Research Associate,
Halawaukee Studio for the Arts

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