Muhammad Ali, senior citizen
Gawd, I feel old. My boyhood idol turned 65 today. Muhammad Ali obviously has been “old” for many years now, because of the Parkinson’s disease, but becoming Social-Security age is different. Particularly since if your boyhood idol is an athlete, what you value them for disappears with youth. Peter O’Toole can still get on the stage or screen at 75 and get all sorts of awards buzz. His age affects what roles he can play, sure, but it could still be meaningful to say that “O’Toole is as good as ever.” Not an athlete.
Ali in particular gave his fans a very painful reminder of advanced age in his last two fights — against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. The objective effects of age are underlined by the contrast with what made Ali stand out even beyond his boxing skill — that brash persona; the Louisville Lip, nominating the rounds he would KO his opponent; the poetry. I can still give myself gits and shiggles with “You wanna lose your money / Bet it all on Sonny” and “It’s gonna be a killa, a chilla, a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila.” And been known to give gits and shiggles to others with my imitation of Ali doing his boasting poetry. Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano may (MAY) have been greater fighters in the ring, but neither’s persona had the flamboyance that could be affected by age. They were already low-key, in other words.
But this is already feeling too much like an obit. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Muhammad Ali. The very fact that I was bookish meant that he represented the very opposite, everything I wanted to be because I wasn’t — the heavyweight champion of the world; the baddest man on the planet, etc. And he was brash and funny, too (that much I could at least reasonably aspire to). One of my most-treasured boyhood memories was watching Ali fight on TV and reading about him in books and magazines, even though I’m too young (born 1966) to remember Ali at his best. “His best” was probably this fight, in which he made short work of Cleveland Williams in an early title defense. Williams wasn’t Ali’s toughest opponent, but that fight was probably Ali at his absolute peak, cutting like a buzzsaw through Williams and making a legitimate contender and world-class fighter (whom Sonny Liston called the hardest puncher he ever faced) look like an overmatched schoolboy.
So, I only have boyhood knowledge of “late” Ali, though I’ve now seen most of his fights through endless reruns on ESPN Classic. But I remember like it was yesterday my experience of watching the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. The fight was on at about 1am or 2am in Britain. As I was only 8, I couldn’t stay up that late. But my father put me to bed early, and then got me up in time for us to watch the fight together. Here’s clips from WHEN WE WERE KINGS:
It’s easy now to think of Foreman as the avuncular fat guy hawking his hamburger grills with a smile on his face. At that time, Foreman was thought to be invincible, but my father was convinced Ali would win. He remembered the Sonny Liston fight and knew what Ali was capable of against this kind of opponent — the big-punching, clubbing bully who won most of his fights before the first bell rang through sheer intimidation. Who cause Howard Cosell to scream repeatedly in shock “down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” But Ali won the Foreman fight through attrition and psychology. Making Foreman miss, taking the punches on the arms and elbows, and leaning back on the ropes. If you watch Foreman, you see how amateurish his technique was becoming as the fight wore on — swinging arm-punches like a novice amateur; flailing around, from a mixture of fatigue and frustration. Foreman himself has said that at one point, he landed a clean punch, and Ali said “that all you got, champ?” Foreman said he said to himself “yep” and the fight was psychologically over at that point.
The other great fight from that era was the third fight with Joe Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila. This one I didn’t get to see at the time. It was not shown on British TV, but only via closed-circuit at movie theaters. It was the same overnight-in-Britain-for-US-primetime hour, and I think my father went by himself, probably not wanting a 9-year-old out at 3am on the streets of Glasgow. I’ve now seen it several times — the whole fight is available at YouTube, one round at a time.
What’s remarkable about the Thrilla in Manila is its sheer brutality, most obvious when seen in contrast with the first Frazier-Ali fight in 1971. Then, Frazier was clearly at his peak, and Ali was at his body’s peak age (though Ali obviously had ring rust from his period in exile). Both men were also then-undefeated. Here, in 1975, both men had been beaten, and were in their 30s. Still great fighters, unquestionably, but they had both lost a step and could be hit more easily, and Joe’s swarming style was not quite so fast and thus “handcuffing” of his opponent’s offense (Frazier was a great defensive fighter only in the sense that a great all-pressure offense can be the best defense). Ali-Frazier I might have been a better technical boxing match; but Ali-Frazier III was the greatest “gut-check” long-fight in history. And it folded out so neatly into three acts, with Ali, then Frazier, then Ali again each dominating for a 4-5 round period, until the end, when Frazier could hardly see and his corner kept him in his stool. Ali said of the end of that fight “was a feeling close to death.” Before the fight, Ali and Frazier put a $1 million side bet from their purses on the outcome in their trilogy’s rubber match, as if to emphasize that this fight was as much for the heavyweight championship of each other as for some sanctioning-group’s belt. When reminded of that after the fight, Ali waived the bet: “Joe don’t owe me nothing. We’ve paid all the debts we’re ever gonna owe each other.”
And that was a side that wasn’t often obvious about Ali — that he had more class than his arrogant public persona would have you think. For example, in a coffee-table book that I had as a teenager about the world heavyweight champions, author Henry Cooper said that Ali hated to be introduced to his opponent’s family before a fight. Cooper said he knew of several cases where Ali learned that the other guy’s kids saw him take a beating at his hands and that he sought out the children to have a few words with them afterwards. In the book, Cooper, a former British heavyweight champion who fought Ali twice, called himself “an Ali man” and said all the boasts “were all for the box-office. Boxing has never had anybody like him for promoting his own fights.”
But by 1996, and the spine-tingling moment when a shaky-handed Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, he had become as universally beloved as any athlete alive. On two separate occasions, I asked conservative Vietnam veterans why they thought Jane Fonda was still, decades later, hounded by veterans groups over her trip to North Vietnam, posing on the anti-aircraft gun and all that; while at the same time it was as if Muhammad Ali had never said “I don’t have nothing against no Viet Cong. They never called me nigger” and had never become, as much as any individual, the public face of draft resistance. I said “you can make minor distinctions about the details of their conduct, sure, but that can’t explain the size of the gap between the hatred for Fonda and the love for Ali.” Neither man disputed my point that Ali was loved by vets, but they instead offered explanations that had the following common thread: “Ali had the courage of his convictions and paid for them (implicitly: Fonda didn’t). Ali stayed out of the ring for years, the years of his athletic peak and lost millions of dollars (implicitly: Fonda didn’t).” One of the two, elaborating on Fonda’s privileged background, added words to the effect that Ali was helped by the point of fact the Viet Cong never did call him nigger. The resentment in a case like Ali is obviously going to be less than one like Fonda.
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