Saturday, June 4, 2016

Muhammed Ali - gone but unforgettable

a moment, a motion that took me out of my seat...
Today is a tough day. Tough, rather than shocking, to hear the news of the death of Muhammed Ali. Tough to order my memories and gather words that are worthy of the man, his story, his understandable fame, his abilities and how the admiration of fans such as myself (hardly unique) became a part of the legend.
So much has changed. I describe his fame as understandable, but perhaps I am just revealing my age and the context of the time. Boxing was a huge sport. Heavyweight boxing was the top dog of the boxing game. Everyone knew who the champ was and the heavyweight champ was the king of the world. 

Now, I could not tell you who the heavyweight champ is. I would not care to see him or anyone else fight. It all seems too brutal now. Perhaps that was a huge part of the Ali mystique, that he combined charisma and charm with brutal and vicious fighting skills. Of course, the mystique gave away to the Ali tragedy, his uncanny ability to take a punch, to slip a glancing blow, ended with a life marred by decades of Parkinson's.

Ali was a boxer, but he was also a media star (television without Ali and Howard Cosell would have been so dull) and an almost accidental political figure (defending religious freedom, seeking dignity in the African-American/ civil rights struggle and the defiance of US military policy regarding the Vietnam War). You could not be a teen pretend hippie and not be entranced with Muhammed Ali. After all, I had spent 72 and 73 with a George McGovern bumper sticker attached to my jacket. My liberal credentials were at stake.

Then came 1974. George Foreman was such a strong man that when he knocked out Joe Frazier, Frazier actually bounced. I can remember students at my high school telling me that Foreman was going to kill Ali. He had no chance. I might have argued strongly for Ali, but had my secret doubts.
Never one to avoid an uphill battle, I saw this as a case of sticking with a hero despite the odds. 

Back then tickets were sold for closed circuit television broadcasts. Maple Leaf Gardens had sold out, so a second location at the CNE Coliseum was established. We bought tickets to watch the fight there, we being myself, my stepfather Nick Valenti and my good friend George Sperduti. George was an even more determined Muhammed Ali fan than I.

I re-watched the fight today on Youtube and I can highly recommend the documentary "When We Were Kings" about the 74 Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle". Watching today brought back memories of just how worried an Ali fan could have been that night. Foreman was a monster and you were relieved every time Ali tangled him up or launched a flurry of punches to stem the tide. 

When Ali finally made his move in the eighth round (pictured above), when the monster Foreman had become a tall tree ready to be toppled, it unveils itself to me as a still thrilling moment after all these years (42 come October!).  That moment of victory, that moment when the tide finally turns, almost has nothing to do with athletics or fighting or tactics. It has to do with wisdom and nobility overcoming power and brute force. 

In 1974 the Toronto area had a less diverse population than you would find today. I remember the significant black presence in the crowd that night and the joy that overflowed when Ali knocked old George Foreman out. I felt the joy, but was also thrilled to see the singing, dancing, hollering that grown men displayed in the arena that night.  Ali vs Foreman might have been, logically speaking, just two men fighting in a ring. Yet also, in the larger cultural context, it was proof that the world could be a beautiful place. The rightful king had returned to the throne.

1 comment:

Mark Kennedy said...

Just a postscript because I realized, after re-reading, that I left an important part of the story dangling.
My friend mentioned in the blog post, George Sperduti, died suddenly while still in university back in 1979. It was a tragic, unexpected end and it is difficult to recall the Ali v Foreman fight without getting emotional. I was emotional then and now grow more emotional when I recall what an important part George played in this story. Cold comfort indeed, but George never experienced the Parkinson's disease ravaged Muhammed Ali.
My stepfather Nick Valenti died 20 years ago. He was a great fellow and supported me in ways I never truly appreciated while he was in my life. When I try to find the words to describe that era when boxing was the all American sport, I find myself recalling my stepfather, an American, and all he did to introduce me to his understanding of the world. A world view that started from Brooklyn.
I am not one to believe much in spiritual after-lifes and cosmic interactions and interceptions, but I will make an exception this time around. Wherever the spirit of Ali is tonight in the universe, it it connecting with Nick and George somehow...