Tuesday, 7 June 2016


The Greatest 1942 - 2016

Do I have to type his name? Do I even have to type his name!?

It doesn’t matter who’s in your corner, if you choose to climb into a boxing ring or fight the Government of the United States, you are alone. I only came to this understanding long after Muhammad Ali’s retirement as the best heavyweight there ever was. Ali was louder than life and he hit his opponents way harder than the hard knocks all of us experience over time.

Heavyweight boxing is now a fringe sport, still groggy from its cannibalistic and farcical Mike Tyson nadir. It’s hard to believe it used to drip with drama and glamour. My limited schoolyard brat appreciation of the sport grew from the photography in Sports Illustrated, a fighter reeling from a punch, his sweat flying like a sheet of rain, frozen. And the photographs were taken in exotic locales around the globe, places where someone like James Bond went. My big brother and I shared a subscription to Sports Illustrated and, in retrospect, it seemed like Ali was on the magazine’s cover at least once a month. Beyond the pictures, he made for some compelling reading.

Recess the morning after an Ali fight was a violent hell. Last night’s match was restaged, restaged, restaged and restaged. Every boy wanted to be Ali. I don’t know that the colour of his skin ever occurred to us and, anyway, everybody in the United States of America was an equal – especially since the end of the Civil War (there’s one hell of an oxymoron) – and everything was fine down there, right? We knew he’d changed his name for religious reasons, but hadn’t we all chosen names of apostles and saints for our Confirmations in 1967? And maybe his religion was weird, but our catechism had a guy in a whale’s belly and in a lion’s den and a Holy Trinity and a Virgin Birth. After Ali lost his first bout with Joe Frazier in 1971 our schoolyard shock was palpable, the result seemed as improbable as the Second Coming or our nun teachers conducting classes naked.

Ali had that magical, Everlast charisma; he transcended his sport, and the politics and the pop culture of his time. Maybe he created the pop culture of his time. He was just 74 when he died, an age that doesn’t strike me as all that old these days. When the stars in our parents’ universe winked for the last time, well, who cared? That was their generation. But the tide will always turn. I am not thinking about punches to my face in the schoolyard, Ali’s epic bouts, his rhymes, his evangelicalism or even his philanthropy; I am thinking that if life has the nerve to cease the breath and the words of a man like him, it must surely snuff me, a mere aged fan.

No comments:

Post a Comment