Pure Art: Remembering William Nack

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when I was growing up in my cherished, long-lost Deerfield, Illinois, two magazines always got my attention when they arrived in the mailbox: Time and Sports Illustrated, both published by Henry Luce’s Time-Life empire. Time fascinated me long before I could understand much of what was in it. Its title alone haunted me, and all those presidents and Arab sheikhs and Cold War missiles—who could puzzle it out?  I tried. Sports Illustrated was, on the surface, more accessible—I knew these folks, Pete Rose and Terry Bradshaw and Nadia Comaneci and Muhammad Ali—but reading about them in the pages of SI opened up a different world. Literate, allusive, and narratively irresistible, the best SI features read like short stories, investing the athletes with depth and meaning that they may or may not have earned; either way, the writing made it stand up. Back in the days before the Internet, a weekly sports magazine with lush color photography and top-of-the-line writing was an indispensable institution; there was Sports Illustrated and there was everything else. (In an act that must have been repeated across the United States, one of my older brothers detached a few years' worth of covers and wallpapered his room with them.)

In a time when reasonably normal people still followed boxing, the magazine always sent its best to cover the big fights. When I started reading, that usually meant Mark Kram. I was just old enough to read, over and over, his now-famous account of the third Ali-Frazier fight, in Manila. (The sports-obsessed, polymathic comedian Dennis Miller is said to have memorized it, word for word.)  After Kram left the magazine, Pat Putnam started covering the late Ali fights. I remembered particularly his account of Ali’s 1977 twilight struggle with Earnie Shavers, which Ali won on a 15-round decision after a bruising and sometimes harrowing battle (the final round saw the last flashing embers of Ali’s greatness). “The world wanted Ali,” Putnam wrote, and “he gave them Ali but, Lord, not for very long.”

But of all the SI writers, the best was William Nack, who died this weekend at 77 after a long battle with cancer. Nack’s deepest love was horse racing—he once got up on a table at a Christmas party and recited the names of every Kentucky Derby winner, starting with Aristides in 1875—but boxing ran a close second, and most of my favorite SI boxing stories are his. His prose was elegant, even literary, but also plainspoken and compulsively readable, immune to Kram’s weakness for obscurity. Above all, his work exuded commitment to his subjects, showing the mix of empathy, insight, and analysis that we seek in the best character portraits.

Here is Nack telling you most of what you would need to know about the 1983 Marvin Hagler-Roberto Duran fight by getting to the heart of what made the two men tick:

It was a strange fight, with small eddies and currents that made it difficult to score, but fascinating for what it revealed about the personalities of its leading men. Duran is an imaginative actor onstage, an original who creates ring drama by the mere feint of his head. Hagler is a stoic, without creative urgency or flair. He’s a stalker, conservative and cautious, almost insecure, whose ring presence can be likened to that of a mechanic in a garage—speak softly and carry a big wrench.

In a profile of Duran before that fight, Nack managed to identify the Panamanian’s true goal in facing Hagler, while concluding on a note of lyricism:

Most logic stands against Duran in this bout, but perhaps there’s something more compelling here than logic. For Duran, the themes are larger, more passionate. Hagler is involved in a career, while Duran is involved in a quest. Hagler is fighting to retain his title, while Duran is fighting for history. He believes, if he wins, that he will be considered the greatest fighter of all time. “I’m going to be it,” he says. “I am, and I will be it.” He believes, too, that if he wins, his dream of [Sugar Ray] Leonard returning will remain alive. You see, he is really fighting Hagler to get to Leonard. “That is true,” Duran says. There’s no other way home.

That ending meant something if you were familiar with where Duran had been in recent years—to the peak of boxing glory and then down into the pit of shame and humiliation. Nack had been there with him. He’d covered Duran’s greatest victory—as great a victory as any fighter will ever enjoy—when he defeated Ray Leonard in Montreal in June 1980. That story, “Right on for Roberto,” is a good example of what was special about Sports Illustrated’s boxing writing—you didn’t read it for intricate pugilistic analysis, necessarily. You read it for its character analysis, for its recreation of a drama, for its insight into people engaged in great and dangerous endeavors, and for elevated, sometimes hypnotic descriptions of those endeavors. Here is Nack on the thirteenth round in Montreal, the climactic round of a breathless bout:

Duran hooked the champion into a corner, but Leonard escaped. Duran landed another left hook, and shortly thereafter a hard right. Leonard struck home with a right, snapping Duran’s head to the side, and then they came together. Near the end of the round, Leonard threw three lefts to the body, two rights to the head. Not in all his life had Leonard reached more deeply—this was the finest moment in his bravest fight—and not even so tenacious a fighter as Duran could find the bottom to the man. Suddenly the 13th ended, almost with a gasp, as if for three minutes Leonard and Duran had struggled underwater and at the bell broke to the surface and gulped air again.

Nack had a touch for endings, a way of tying up monumental stories with an image or anecdote that got to the heart of all that had gone before. His report on Duran’s second battle against Leonard—the infamous No Mas fight, in which Duran inexplicably quit fighting in the eighth round, making himself a target of ridicule and scarring his boxing reputation—is my favorite ending to any SI story:

There had been one more scene on the night of the fight that, while played out in private, was perhaps a more revealing climax than the one 25,000 spectators and batteries of television and still cameras had recorded. After a press conference, Duran climbed into the shotgun seat of his gray van parked just outside the door of the Superdome. For several minutes, completely motionless, he stared through the windshield. And then here came Leonard once again. His jubilant entourage was leading him into the press room. Leonard spotted the van and saw Duran sitting behind the tinted glass. Leonard waved. Slightly startled, Duran raised his right arm and waved back. His smile was thin. Then Leonard was gone. Duran returned his eyes to the windshield, expressionless as stone. He still had Panama to face.

Nack wrote about other sports, too, including football and baseball, and his best work is collected in My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, And The Sporting LifeIt's a book of gems, from his homage to the 1929-1931 Philadelphia A's to his examination of the doomed turn-of-the-century catcher Marty Bergen to his epic search for reclusive chess master Bobby Fischer. When the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer came out, I assumed, wrongly, that it was based on Nack's 1985 story. 

Nack’s long-form portraits are his writing legacy. He did at least three historical ones that boxing aficionados should save on their hard drives: his examinations of Sonny Liston and of Rocky Marciano, and his stately retelling of the legendary Long Count battle between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney in Chicago, on that fight’s 70th anniversary in 1997. The Marciano saga has been well told in two good biographies, and another is due this summer, but if you want the whole story, warts and all, in one sitting, Nack’s “The Rock” provides it. On finishing it, the reader thinks of a word not normally associated with Marciano: mystery. The poignancy and compassion of Nack’s Liston treatment starts with his title—"O Unlucky Man.” It’s the best thing written on Liston, who has managed, since his death in 1970, to become both ill-remembered and over-mythologized. Writing about Gene Tunney, Nack noted that “Along the way he had truly reinvented himself, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and his marriage to Polly Lauder, a wealthy socialite, lifted him further, from the streets of Greenwich Village to the blue lawns of Greenwich, Conn.” The Gatsby reference was no idle touch: Nack was famous among his friends for reciting the final page of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, among other literary performances.

Yet for all his writing about the ring, Nack will be linked in history most closely with the great thoroughbred, Secretariat, long since mythologized himself as a breed apart from other horses—perhaps justifiably, in his case. Nack covered Big Red for Newsday during that epochal year of 1973 and wrote a “biography” of the horse, a work that eventually served as the basis for the Secretariat movie, which appeared in 2010. But it was “Pure Heart,” his 1990 essay, that is probably the horse’s great epitaph. Nack’s closing paragraph, in which he gets the news of Secretariat’s passing and weeps, he realizes, for the first time since his father’s death years earlier, is justly celebrated. What I'll remember best, though, is a brief scene on the morning of the Belmont Stakes, at which Secretariat would win the Triple Crown with a pulverizing, never-to-be-equaled performance. Nack was so consumed by his story by then that he had slept overnight at the track on the night before, a dramatic reminder to all writers that there is no substitute for commitment to the subject—immerse yourself, or don’t bother:

I slept at the Newsday offices that night, and at 2 a.m. I drove to Belmont Park to begin my vigil at the barn. I circled around to the back of the shed, lay down against a tree and fell asleep. I awoke to the crowing of a cock and watched as the stable workers showed up. At 6:07 Hoeffner strode into the shed, looked at Secretariat and called out to Sweat, “Get the big horse ready! Let’s walk him about 15 minutes.”

There was no bigger horse than William Nack in sportswriting, but writers of any stripe would do well to give him chase.  

 

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