Each genre of books — whether literature, history, or even sports — has its classics. When it comes to sports in general or boxing in particular, Sting Like a Bee: The Muhammad Ali Story by Jose Torres is unquestionably a top-ranked contender for that designation.
First published in 1971 after the first Ali-Joe Frazier bout in March of that year, the book focuses in large part on Ali's return to the ring after having been suspended from boxing for refusing induction into the U.S. military. Torres, who died in January at the age of 72, brought a professional's eye to the subject — that of a champion boxer. After winning a silver medal in the light-middleweight division at the 1956 Olympics, Torres fought professionally from 1958 to 1969. He won the light-heavyweight championship in March 1965, which he successfully defended three times before losing it in December 1966. Torres retired with a a record of 41-3-1. He became interested in writing and this was his first book.
Now reissued by Bison Books, Sting Like a Bee shows some age but not enough to undercut its strengths. As then, the book is divided into three parts. The first looks at Ali's bouts after his return to the ring and prior to "The Fight of the Century," as the first Ali-Frazier fight was called. The second is a more general biography of Ali before part three returns to and focuses on the Ali-Frazier fight.
While that may not be the structure of choice today, that breakdown helped serve as a peg for readers who were getting their hands on the book essentially on the heels of Ali-Frazier bout. As Norman Mailer, who befriended Torres, explains in a preface, the first and third parts were written by Torres in June 1971. The middle section is the combined work of Torres and Bert Sugar, the publisher and editor of Boxing Illustrated magazine. The difference is noticeable.
Torres' writing at times mirrors boxing. Particularly in his description of fights, Torres throws a lot of quick jabs, mixing in almost staccato-like sentences that help reflect the pace of the fight. He also throws some hooks and straight rights and lefts, particularly in describing a boxer's mindset and training, calling frequently on his own knowledge and experience. Nor does he fear letting go with an occasional haymaker. For example, in describing Frazier's robe and trunks as he enters the ring, Torres says "he looks ridiculous." In reflecting the feelings Ali engendered by joining the Black Muslims and refusing to be inducted, he writes of the Ali-Oscar Bonavena fight: "The sleeping crowd has awakened. The white man is hitting the nigger."
Underlying it all is the fact Torres tends to tell the story from his eyes, giving the book the sheen of the so-called "new journalism" that arose in the 1960s. Part two, in contrast, is a more plodding style, something telegraphed from the outset. After becoming accustomed to Torres' style, it opens with the following clunker: "Late in Capricorn, coming near to Aquarius, Cassius Clay (six pounds, seven ounces) was born in Louisville at 6:35 p.m. on January 17, 1942." While this section is fairly essential to getting a complete picture of Ali, the drawback is that it reads like a standard sports biography. Yet even here Torres' influence shows through. For example, in discussing Ali's March 1967 fight against Zora Folley, the number-one ranked contender, he calls Folley "the first experienced fighter I ever saw looking terrified."
Plainly, Torres is not just style. As in boxing, he had enough punch to back up the style. With his keen, analytical eye, he takes us inside the gym, inside the locker room, and even inside the psyche of the boxer in the ring. He explains the feelings, including fear and exhaustion, that all boxers, even Ali, experience prior to, during and after a fight. This makes Sting Like a Bee more than a valuable insight into a significant period in the career of a boxing legend. It is also a benchmark against which to measure other boxing books, if not sports literature in general.