Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ali! Ali! Ali!

Earlier this month I saw on television that Muhammad Ali, self-styled "The Greatest," was not doing well, far worse than his family was letting on. I took a pause, figuring he would last a while, maybe years, and wondered how I would take it when he had died. I had a number of heroes when I was young and Muhammad Ali had ranked high among them. I never analyzed why. Like many other great athletes, I just idolized them. I grew up in, until recently, a far more racially defined era. My parents, who were definitively Democrats and liberals, were prejudiced in subtle ways that would probably shock them now to recognize it had they still been alive. Though some people I know these days think white people are always prejudiced against blacks, I do remember how many of my childhood sporting heroes (all athletes back then) were black - not just Ali, later Sugar Ray Leonard, but Jesse Owens, Gale Sayers, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bobby (not Barry, his son) Bonds, Nate Thurmond (not Bill Russell for some reason), Oscar Robertson and others.

Derailed myself already. Amazing. Anyway, the day after I heard he was sick, he died. It hit me a bit. I can't say I bawled at all or even got teary. But, I did spend a lot of time thinking about it and felt a whole range of emotions. I wasn't sure what it meant, but I knew that a lot of people, especially guys in my age group, were feeling it too. There was something very special about Ali. Not just superior athletic ability and what we call heart, but he was so emotive and personable that you felt some connection with him that you didn't with other athletes. 

I'm 57 this month. I was born at the very end of the '50s and grew up in the '60s and '70s. Basically, I was born near the end of his amateur care career and graduated high school ('76) when he was reaching the end of his most productive years. He won gold in Tokyo in '60 and beat Frazier to win their rubber match in '75. He continued on for years, but he was never truly the Greatest after that. Like Joe Louis before him and other champions, he hung on too long and tried to come back too often.

You can read about Ali's life in many places and I have no interest in trying to write my own mini-bio here. I just want to go over the fights I remember and give my impressions about him and what he meant to me. I pulled up Ali's record to help me with the order of matches (boxrec.com is a great website), but the memories are my own and I am surprised myself how much came rushing back when I looked and how many of his fights I remember to one degree or another back to when I was a little kid. For example, I remember he fought and beat a not too important fighter named Alfredo Angelista, but I have no idea what round or how. My strong memories of him are not surprising. Back then I and my friends, mostly Bear, were big boxing fans.

I wasn't born when Ali was winning 100 fights in Golden Gloves and amateur competition, and I was about 1 when he won a gold medal in the Olympics. He turned pro and won numerous fights before facing the tough and frightening Sonny Liston in '64 for the championships. I doubt I saw the fight at the time. Frankly, I cannot remember if I saw many Ali fights live (on tv). It was a different technological era. Often I learned what happened by reading the New York Times the next morning. If you were lucky you could see a great fight on Wide World of Sports weeks after it was fought, but there was no video, so if you missed it, you missed it. I've seen a number of them online in the last few years, including the Liston fights, some perhaps for the first time.

The '60s and '70s was a golden age for heavyweight fighters, maybe the last golden age for them.  I can think of the list of these fighters off the top of my head and it is long. Ali heads any list, but he fought most of the rest of them. Some were great and some very good. Few were bum of the month material. Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Ernie Terrell, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Oscar Bonavena, Buster Mathis, Jimmy Ellis, Joe Bugner, Karl Mildenberger, Jimmy Young, Bob Foster (really the light heavyweight champ), Archie Moore (though in his twilight), Henry Cooper (not a big name, but one of the few to knock Ali down) and so on. Some he fought more than once like Frazier, Chuvalo and Norton. Many of his fights were brutal. The two with Chuvalo were punishing. After one fight, Chuvalo likes to brag, though he lost, he went dancing and Ali went to the hospital. Norton broke Ali's jaw in their first fight and all three went the distance, then 15 rounds. In my opinion (and Ali's), Norton won at least 2 if not all of them, though officially, only the first. He was just a perfect match up for Ali, even if not as great overall. The three Frazier fights were classic slug fests, In the first of them Frazier took Ali out. It is considered one of the all time great fights.  Ali includes in his list of his toughest fights (which he admitted he changed every time he was asked) some fighters you wouldn't have thought were so tough, like Bugner, Cooper, Bonavena, Mildenberger and others. At one point or another though, he probably had twenty fighters in the list.

But, as the King said, "Begin at the beginning, go on till you come to the end: then stop." The first fight he had that I am conscious of remembering was with a relatively unheralded Brit, at least in our country, though a European champion, Henry Cooper. Ali, not yet the champion, won easily (as he also did a few years later). He had predicted he'd beat Cooper in five. He seemed to be carrying him but just before the bell to end the fourth round, Cooper knocked him down. Ali's glove was split and Dundee sought of helped it along a bit with his finger, but the times keeper said Ali only got an extra 40 seconds to change it. In the fifth, Ali beat Cooper so severely that his face was a bloody mess when the referee stopped the fight. I remember the fight, that Ali was knocked down, but I'm not sure at less than 4 years of age how much I could have known about boxing or what a match entailed.

I certainly understood what a boxing match was in '64 when Ali fought Liston next for the championship. I knew Liston was heavily favored to win. Clear as glass I remember my mother telling me that that they were rough men and not to admire them. I did anyway. I know I rooted for Ali but I don't remember why? I was not much past four and a half? I doubt I knew that Ali pretended to freak out at the weigh-in and that everyone thought he must be terrified or crazy. I doubt I knew of his ebullient and brash character or that he was a 7-1 underdog. I doubt I knew what odds were. Maybe I did, but I don't remember. What I do remember is that when I heard Ali won it made me think of David and Goliath. Or maybe I heard someone say that. I did know who they were. If anyone approximating them actually lived, it was 2500-3000 years ago, but I heard about them all the time in my young life. Ali beat Liston again the next year, knocking him out this time, but I have no independent memory of the fight, only knowing now what I've read. 

I don't know how much I paid attention to him after that before but before 1968. Probably quite a bit. As a young man I had a huge appetite for athletes and sports and was learning more and more about them as I got older and started playing them myself. Ali beat Floyd Patterson, who Liston had also destroyed, but a former champ himself, and he beat Chuvalo, a Canadian champion, for the first time just after his draft board problems started. Ali won easily on points but at the time said Chuvalo was the toughest fighter he had ever fought. I don't doubt it. I've written about Chuvalo before and though he was not an all time great, he was uncommonly steadfast. You could beat him, but not stop him. 

I remember Ali beating Mildenberger, which I found interesting at the time - probably because he was European and I found that exciting, but can't remember anything of the fight. I do remember Terrell, who angered Ali by not using his Muslim name (Terrell claimed that he hadn't meant anything by it). I didn't like Terrell for it, whether he was guilty or not. But Ali pounded Terrell, just not quite finishing him, carrying him the distance. Many people found it quite cruel and I think I was a little disappointed to hear it.

There was another fight against Zora Folley, who Ali beat fairly easily. Again, I remember the fight, but no specifics. Then a three and a half year lay off because Ali refused to go to Vietnam. The story of his fight with the U.S. government, his courage in losing his livelihood, although he made some kind of living giving speeches, and his eventual victory is a post in itself, but I will only say a little more below.

Ali came back against Jerry Quarry, who was a small heavyweight, much later a cruiser weight when that category was created, very popular and scrappy, usually losing only to the best fighters, though also beating very tough guys like Lyle and Shavers. He was several times the no. 1 contender and was never knocked out. But in three rounds Ali cut him and it was over. Quarry fought for a long time and suffering from dementia, died young. His worsening condition, along with that of another semi-great fighter, Wilfredo Benitez, in the 1990s, were the first times I remember being conscious of the terrible toll boxing takes on its athletes, particularly those who fought a long time.

Ali had to fight Oscar Bonavena, the number one contender before Frazier. Bonavena was certainly far nastier to Ali than Terrell had been, if Terrell had been at all, taunting him for not going to war and calling him a chicken. Ali only stopped him in the 15th round and once again called it his toughest fight. But, next he was going to fight Frazier, who had won the championship tournament held in Ali's absence, and that's what I cared really cared about. Bonavena was good, and I was worried about Ali getting passed him. But he was no Frazier, who had already beaten Bonavena twice. 

I know I did not see the first Ali-Frazier fight, though it was broadcast all over the world on tv. I was not aware back then, in fact not for decades, that Frazier had befriended and tried to help Ali while he was banned, even lending him money. Still, Ali taunted Frazier mercilessly. It was billed as the Fight of the Century, though it was not the first time that century a fight was so named. I went to bed that night knowing Ali would win. I was wrong. It was not the first time I had been devastated by a sport's upset, but I remember feeling it hard. Frazier had knocked him down and won a unanimous decision. I saw the fight myself some time afterwards, possibly on Wide World of Sports, and before their next fight. Frazier had won it decidedly. It was not surprising. Frazier was a great fighter. And though he was to lose two out of three to Ali and then get destroyed by George Foreman twice, no one can take that first one away from him. Both went to the hospital, Frazier for weeks. Sometimes it is said that Ali was not ready to fight for the championship yet after his time away. I can't agree. He had beat two top fighters on the way to the Fight of the Century, and the second one was a war.

Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court ruled decisively in Ali's favor in his fight with the government over his conscientious objector status (CO Status). I will say this, which is not the standard line you will read on what transpired.  It is often said that Ali "won," defeated the U.S. government while what point he "won" on is never stated. The truth is, the decision was first tentatively 5-3 against him, then 4-4 (one justice, ironically the only black justice, recused himself, because he had been solicitor general when the matter began). A tie would have sent Ali to jail - as it would have affirmed the lower court order against him. Justice Stevens worked out a unanimous decision which gave Ali a procedural win, declaring that the draft board had failed its requirement of stating the reasons for denying his conscientious objector status. Reading the case, and applying the law at the time (with which I do not agree for several reasons), it seems to me that Ali was guilty as charged, for he did not oppose all war, as was required for CO status. He clearly agreed with "holy war," or Jihad, that is he would be part of a war he felt was declared by Allah, and thus we would expect that was approved of by his spiritual leader. In present times, you have to wonder if this would not have played out differently in the media, with the public and with the court, given global jihad.  But, all this I learned decades later. At the time all I knew was that Ali would fight again and that once again David had beaten Goliath.

But, Ali and Frazier were soon to be outshone by George Foreman, at least temporarily. He won the Olympic gold in 1968, and soon cut a swath through the professional ranks, knocking out almost everyone and usually fairly quickly. He was only 3-0 when he came up against Frazier, who was still champ and the heavy favorite. Foreman bounced Frazier off the canvas so many times the referee stopped it in the second round. He destroyed Norton as quickly.

Before Ali fought Foreman for the championship after losing to Frazier, he had 14 fights (I counted), including some against top fighters like Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis, Chuvalo again, the old champ, Patterson for the second time, the light heavyweight champ, Bob Foster and frankly, a couple of nobodies whose names on his record drew a blank from me. He lost only once, to Norton, then beat him, his jaw healed, in the rematch, another split decision. Maybe Ali really deserved to win. I'm not sure and memory has faded. But, I don't think he did.

Then Ali, having avenged himself against Norton, avenged himself against Frazier in their second fight, which was also the least dramatic of the three. They had a wrestling match, maybe real, on Howard Cosell's show during the build up because Ali called Frazier "ignorant" for saying (probably joking) that he was "resting" in the hospital after their first fight. Ali won a unanimous decision against the aggressive Frazier, but held an awful lot, which, if legal, does not impress me much.

Though Foreman destroyed Frazier and Frazier beat Ali once, Ali was still the natural fight for the championship against Foreman. Nothing could draw like it. They fought in Zaire in what was dubbed the "Rumble in the Jungle." The fight is legendary, including the run up to it, which is the subject of books and at least one movie and I'm sure more documentaries. I'm not going all through it, because I can't do it justice here. Did I see the fight as it happened? I don't remember. Was I listening on radio? Maybe. Though I can remember which fights I saw as they occurred starting in the early '80s, I just can't remember earlier. In some part, that is because they simply started showing more big fights on tv as time progressed, at least soon after they were held, and probably partly because it is closer in time and easier for me to remember them.

The Rumble was one of the greatest fights I ever saw. I put it up there at the top near multiple Sugar Ray Leonard fights (at least 6 of them would make my top 20), Ali-Frazier I and III, Arguello v. Pryor I and II, Danny Lopez v. Mike Ayala, Lopez v. Sanchez I and II and Matthew Saad Mohammad v. Yaqui Lopez. There were many fights I did not see and many years I paid no attention at all. Really not much since the '80s, particularly after Sugar Ray Leonard defeated Marvin Hagler, establishing himself as the greatest fighter of his generation.  But, that doesn't change anything. You like what you like and few people can see all that many fights. Even journalists who cover fights can only see so many.

Two things stand out from the "Rumble."  First, how much almost everyone thought Foreman was going to kill Ali, including me. Foreman and his crew prayed in the locker room he would not literally do so. The most memorable aspect though was rope-a-dope, which meant Ali lying on the ropes absorbing punch after punch from Foreman. Wait, I must have seen the fight, right? I can remember screaming at the tv, sure Ali had panicked and couldn't fight back. Or . . . maybe that was later. I wish I could remember. Dundee was in the corner begging him to get off the ropes. But, Ali knew himself better than any of us. He let Foreman punch himself out and Big George finally went down, seemingly more from exhaustion from throwing his own fists, than receiving Ali's, in the 8th round. Ali had shown he was smarter, braver, more heroic than most everyone else. After the fight, I was sure that he "discovered" rope-a-dope after panicking and almost giving up, when he realized that Foreman wasn't hurting him enough and that eventually he would punch himself out. Apparently not. He had in fact practiced it. And, James Brown, the NFL great and Ali friend, said that Ali actually winked at him during the fight, indicating everything was under control. In any event, David had slain one more Goliath.

Ali was more than half done, but not quite. He beat Chuck Wepner, a great big journeyman fighter with an okay record but no chance. Ali dominated, but at one point Wepner kind of knocked him down (he stepped on his foot and hit him) and then Ali battered him until he went down in the 15th, a bloody mess (the Bayonne Bleeder was, after all, his nickname). Next he beat a heavy puncher, Ron Lyle, who had to that point only lost to Jerry Quarry and a future champion, Jimmy Young. But, Ali toyed with him too and then in the 11th round knocked him so blooey, Ali himself signaled to the ref to step in. He beat another pretty good journeyman, Joe Bugner, who he had beaten before, but again could not stop him and got a decision.

I won't even really discuss his "fight" with the professional wrestler, Antonio Inoki, which, though real enough, was a little ridiculous (most Inoki just lay on the floor and kicked Ali in his legs). There are a lot of rumors about who thought it was fake and when, but it doesn't matter. How stupid.

And then the third fight with Frazier, again one of the greatest fights ever. Frazier lost 4 times in his career - twice to Ali, twice to Foreman (do we count his last fight, when he came out of retirement 5 years later to draw with a nobody muscleman who would lose his next 5 fights? Let's not and say four in his real career.)

The fight was famous for its preliminaries in Manila, the Philippines, partly for Ali's partying, his vicious and ungrateful taunting of Frazier and not least, his continued affair with a ring girl from Zaire that drew his then wife, to come to the Philippines to try to break up the two of them. She didn't succeed and Veronica Porché later became his third wife, and is the mother of Laila Ali, probably the greatest female boxer of all time. The fight, took place in great heat, as in Zaire, and was as brutal as any he had fought. Ali had thought Frazier was done, and even whispered to him during the fight, "they told me you were washed up," to which Frazier replied, "they lied." But, perhaps the heat caught up to Joe and Ali pummeled him in later rounds. Frazier's trainer threw in the towel before the 15th round against Frazier's wishes. But his eyes were virtually closed and he would have likely been knocked out. Ali collapsed after the fight, but got up and declared in an interview that Frazier was the best fighter in the world after himself. He may have been right, although Foreman had clobbered Frazier and would again. But Ali himself was never the same after that fight.

I don't remember two of his next fights against ordinary fighters, but he beat both, and in between beat Jimmy Young, a pretty good fighter - in his prime anyway (his later years were a disaster) - and who the next year beat both Lyle and Foreman (something only Ali had managed so far; the loss to Young essentially retired Foreman for ten years, after which he made his own astonishing comeback). But Young didn't show up for his fight with Ali, and actually kept ducking his head out of the ring. No one found it funny.

And then in his fourth fight of '76, the year I graduated high school, he fought his rubber match against Norton, who had beat him the first time, breaking his jaw. Norton was a great fighter who lost only to Ali and Foreman to that point. You can argue he didn't exactly fight a who's who before the first Ali fight, but he knocked almost everyone out. Not surprisingly, he lost later in his career to a few others - they almost all hang on too long. I know I saw this fight broadcast live, as it was played at the movie theater I then worked at, which had well over a thousand seats. It was a unanimous decision for Ali, but I try to be objective even when I favor one fighter over another. I desperately did not want Ali to lose the rubber match, but I thought he did, in what Ring Magazine rated one of the most disputed fights in history. I don't think Ring or I was wrong as Ali himself eventually said,  "Kenny’s style is too difficult for me. I can’t beat him, and I sure don’t want to fight him again. I honestly thought he beat me in Yankee Stadium, but the judges gave it to me, and I’m grateful to them."

He should have retired then with that gimme. He fought Alfredo Evangelista next, and though I barely remember that one, easily beat him, without really trying, in a fight that kind of let everyone know his time as a fighter was just about up.

But, he didn't stop. He next fought Ernie Shavers, still a powerful and dangerous man, but who other than one good punch (Ali said it shook his kinfolk in Africa), couldn't touch the champ. But, it was another decision.

I wish he stopped. But he didn't. He was no longer David with the slingshot, but the old legendary king and his time was up.  He fought an Olympic light heavy champion named Leon Spinks, who with his afro and gap tooth smile, was a sight and not even the best fighter in his family. His light-heavyweight brother Michael was. The brothers both fought on one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Olympic boxing team ever. Still Ali was a 10-1 favorite. Either he couldn't do it anymore or he didn't try hard enough. Spinks became the first heavyweight to win the title in a decision since James Braddock (Cinderella Man). He was gracious, saying "I'm the latest, but he's the greatest." There was a rematch and Ali, who worked hard to get ready, took his title back, but in another decision. And he did win in my view, if anyone did, but it was not impressive. I wasn't sure Spinks even wanted to keep the title. He later said that Ali was still his idol.

And then thankfully, winning his third title, he retired. He should have remained so. Two years later, he came back and fought the new champ, a great fighter always in Ali's shadow, Larry Holmes (who, of course, also stayed on too long until he was clobbered by all the young studs in the next generation). Holmes did not want to fight Ali, but how do you turn away millions of dollars which you probably couldn't earn in any other fight? It ended after the 10th when Ali's team threw the towel in before the 11th. Ali was a shadow of himself.

Over a year later, he fought once more, this time against Trevor Berbick, a ranked fighter (actually, the Canadian champ too) who would not have been top 20 in the '60s or '70s, but was young, and that was enough. He did everything he could to hold Ali up and not hurt him. Ali lost a unanimous decision and thankfully, retired for good.

Ali had a fantasy before the fight that when he easily beat Berbick, he would fight again for the championship, against a one punch wonder, Mike Weaver. Weaver had won the championship, after getting the tar beat out of him for 15 rounds, by knocking out the champ, John Tate, with one lucky punch. The glory days of the heavyweight division were over and fighters like Berbick, Michael Dokes, Greg Page, Gerry Coetzee, Donovan Ruddock, Carl Williams, etc., none of who you will find in the boxing Hall of Fame, were the big names until Tyson lit up the division for a while.

In any event, that was it for Ali. The love and amnesia for his faults (his unfaithfulness, his sometimes stated hatred of white people, his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad, his turning his back on Malcolm X when he reformed, much if not all of which he later regretted) that people now have for him was not quite there. It is hard to say what came first - his slow surrender to Parkinson's Disease or his more amiable and easy to love personality. But, no doubt, in 1996, when, arms shaking, he managed to light the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta, he became beloved here as he already was the world over. It truly was an emotional moment.

One of the big questions always is - was Ali the greatest ever? I don't know. Like in all sports, the athletes usually get better and better and it is hard, if not impossible, to judge between eras. That being said, I don't think there has been a heavyweight champion since him, other than Tyson, who could have beat him - and I don't know that Tyson would have either until Ali's later years. Ali is the greatest heavyweight in my lifetime, and probably the greatest boxer period in that time frame, although I think Sugar Ray Leonard and perhaps a few others might contest that. In their own eras I'd have to say that other heavyweights were also in his league - Dempsey, Tunney, Louis and Marciano, for sure. Perhaps Jack Johnson in his brief prime. He was a prototype for Ali more than people know in his boxing style and personality.

At this time in my life, my feelings for Ali are far more positive than negative. Isn't that what happens when people get old an mellow (I mean him, not me). He was a hero to me when I was young, and though he certainly would acknowledge many character flaws, who doesn't have them? I can't say facing discrimination as he did, I would not have acted in much the same way. His unfaithfulness to his wives is not attractive, but, given the temptation he faced as world champion and perhaps the most famous person in the world, it is easy for anyone else to say they would have been more faithful. I can't excuse the unkindness with which he treated Frazier in particular, but I don't know that in Ali's mind it all wasn't marketing either.

In any event, the Greatest is gone and it meant something to me, perhaps the passing of a symbol of my youth and also a great example of what someone could make of themselves against great odds. 

6 comments:

  1. The first Ali Frazier fight was the first "big" sporting event I remember seeing because it was at a simulcast at the Calderone (I think) theatre in Hempstead. It may have also been one of the first events broadcast like that. An early version of pay per view I guess. I was rooting for Frazier mostly because I liked his nickname- Smokin Joe. Hey I was a kid. Anyway, it was great.
    Unfortunately, the icons of our childhood and youth are starting to depart.

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  2. Well written, Frodo, I remember sharing quite a few of those fight viewings with you, and it was bittersweet to relive it as I read your blog. And I agree with your slightly ambiguous feeling about it all... how much of our memories are trustworthy? Good stuff.

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  3. And as we get older, those memories are either going to get worse or suspiciously better.

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  4. And as we get older, those memories are either going to get worse or suspiciously better.

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  5. And as we get older, those memories are either going to get worse or suspiciously better.

    ReplyDelete
  6. And as we get older, those memories are either going to get worse or suspiciously better.

    ReplyDelete

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .