A BOXER ON THE COVER

~ Posted by Tim de Lisle, June 15th 2012

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

In this issue we join a distinguished tradition and give it a twist. For decades, magazines have been bewitched by boxing. American Esquire’s most famous cover showed Muhammad Ali studded with arrows like St Sebastian. Editors ran boxing stories from leading novelists such as Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer. A.J. Liebling of the New Yorker coined the phrase “the sweet science of boxing” and seemed to write about little else. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker today, has written a book about Ali. Part of the attraction for these big hitters is that boxing is so entwined with machismo, which is where we can depart from tradition. Women’s boxing is part of the Olympics for the first time this year, and our cover star is one of its leading exponents, the five-times world pinweight champion Mary Kom. She comes from India, which, for all its teeming population and love of sport, has only ever won one solo Olympic gold.

We too commissioned a novelist, Rahul Bhattacharya, from Delhi, who won the Hindu Literary Prize last year with his first novel, “The Sly Company of People Who Care”. I used to edit Rahul’s copy when he was 20 and writing for Wisden, the cricket publisher (he was one of several young talents discovered by Sambit Bal, who also appears in this issue). His job was to bash out match reports for the web, which could easily have been formulaic, but he made them sparkle: in one of his first pieces, he said that the West Indian star Chris Gayle had “fireworks in his pants”, an observation that still rings true 12 years later. Rahul was clearly going places. He wrote an acclaimed book about India’s vexed relationship with Pakistan, seen through the lens of cricket, before ascending into fiction.

Over Christmas I read a short piece in the Times about Mary Kom, which made me want to read a long one, because of the battles she had already won. I e-mailed Rahul, asking for a piece that told a strong story, “showing the obstacles Kom has overcome, and getting inside the experience of boxing in the classic Esquire/New Yorker tradition, but with a tremendous twist—no tedious machismo”. It’s a lot easier to write a brief like that than to fulfil it, but Rahul delivered just what I had hoped for: a real magazine piece, detailed and evocative, that takes you deep into a different world. In May, Rahul flew to London as one of the nominees for the Ondaatje Prize for the best sense of place in a book—his novel is set in Guyana, where he lived for a year. To his tearful astonishment, he won, so we have one winner writing about another.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life