Tuesday, June 7, 2016


For anyone of my vintage the passing of Muhammad Ali brought back memories.  I can think of several.

--I am in junior high school and Ali was about to fight a guy named Doug Jones.  It was a big non championship fight in part because Ali, then Cassius Clay, was-go figure-bragging before the bout and Jones was a formidable foe.  Jones actually staggered Clay in the fight, but Clay prevailed with a disputed split decision.  Who knows where Clay goes if he loses that fight which launched him as a contender.

--I am watching the Jack Paar show with my folks. This was in Paar's first revival during the mid 60s. Paar had been Johnny Carson before Johnny Carson. Then he returned to do a show on Friday nights only.  (He did another tour in 1973). In this particular Friday night show, Clay was a guest.  He was making the, er, rounds before his first fight with Sonny Liston and was--go figure--bragging about how he would win--even though he was a very heavy underdog.  At the end of his stint with Paar Clay recited one of his poems about his predicted upcoming victory. The poem ended with the following verse.

"And noone knew//
when they put down their money//
that they would see//
 a total e-clipse//
of the Sonny."  

I remember my mother laughed and thought he was a joy but said something like, "Too bad he is going to lose."

It's late on the night that Liston and Clay are engaged in their first fight.  It is past our bedtime, but my brother and I are listening clandestinely to the fight on a transistor radio.  When Clay prevailed we thought we would take the heat for violating the lights out--go to bed--edict. We went downstairs to tell our folks that Clay was the new heavyweight champion.  They were so stunned by the victory that their complaints about our violating the bed time rule were muted.

It is ten or so years later.  The Thrilla in Manilla. I am living in Buffalo and I have bought tickets to see the fight in a downtown Buffalo theater.  This was an extravagance as I was a graduate student then living on a grand total of 3,000 a year from a university stipend.  Still, this was the Thrilla in Manilla.  I went with a professor of mine and a roommate.  The theater was jammed.  I was actually rooting for Frazier as I thought, and still feel, that one thing that diluted Ali's greatness was how he derided Frazier in the weeks before the fight.  It did not seem right. Frazier wanted to be respected also and he was made out to be stupid by Ali.  Ali called him a gorilla. The fight, from my perspective, was boring until the end when Ali came out swinging and knocked Frazier's mouthpiece out in the 14th round.

My father commented on how Ali was a remarkable man well before it was popular to do so. Remarkable because Ali stood up for what he thought was important and this courage cost him his livelihood during the prime of his career. Also dad thought Ali was remarkable because of the smart way he boxed.  The way he beat George Foreman with the rope a dope strategy was brilliant. Nobody had done that before. Foreman all punched out did not, literally, know what hit him when Ali came off the ropes and knocked him out.

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