The Greatest

Muhammad Ali died last night, after a long, twilight struggle with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease.  His death was a reminder of an era that ended long, long ago.

fistAli was my favorite boxer — hell, he was just about everyone’s favorite boxer — but of course his influence transcended mere sport.  Although he was the greatest fighter I ever saw, his words and conduct had a much more profound impact than he could ever make with his fists.  Ali was one of those crucial cultural figures of the ’60s and ’70s who moved the needle and shifted the context.  He did it when he rejected his “slave name,” spoke out against racism in America, adopted Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali to proclaim his freedom from the old ways of the Jim Crow South.  He did it again when he refused to fight in Vietnam after being drafted, saying he had “no quarrel” with the Viet Cong.  His anti-war stance cost him the prime years of his boxing career, but his words captured, in that special Ali way, the growing American unease with the fighting and dying in southeast Asia.

And, of course, Ali changed the national zeitgeist through sheer force of personality.  He was the flamboyant black man who was unabashedly loud and proud, the sports star who wasn’t afraid to bluntly speak his mind on the issues of the day, the quick-thinking, silver-tongued marketing genius who mocked his opponents, traded gibes with Howard Cosell, and built his fights into worldwide phenomena, and the boxing great with the astonishingly quick hands, the dancing, tasseled feet, and the grit and determination to always fight to the end in some of the greatest matches ever staged.  For a time, he was the most famous man on the planet, and his style and entourage and antics changed the world of sports and celebrities forever.

All of this made an indelible impression on me and every other kid, regardless of race, color, or creed, who was growing up in the America of the 1960s and 1970s.  We all wanted to have the same brilliant flash and dash, the same glibness, as Muhammad Ali.  He was as magnetic and mesmerizing as any national figure I can remember — which made the shaky, diminished Ali of later years, ravaged by his disease, so difficult to see.  The days when the world would stop to focus on one man and one battle in a boxing ring are long past, but Muhammad Ali of that era will live on in memory, and in our cultural history.

Float Like A Butterfly, Age Like A Bee

Today is Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday.  The recent years have not been kind to the former Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World, who once was the most famous man in the world, known on every continent and in every nation.

During Ali’s prime in the ’60s, he became the greatest celebrity athlete of the television age.  Tall, handsome, and sculpted, Ali was glib, funny, and immensely quotable, whether he was verbally sparring with Howard Cosell or taunting Joe Frazier or explaining why he would not go to fight in Vietnam.  The camera absolutely loved him.  And his performance backed up his talk.  Anyone who recalls Ali wheeling around the ring, lurking and looking for an opening, and then springing forward and launching lightning-quick combinations at his opponent’s head will never forget the sight.  How could you not admire the guy?  He was — and I don’t use this word lightly — awesome.

Now Ali is suffering the ravages of age, Parkinson’s Disease, and a few too many punches in a ring career that lasted a few bouts too long.  It is difficult to see this frail older gentleman when the mental images of his youth remain so very sharp.

For those of us who revered him in our youth, however, there is a deeper aspect to Ali’s current condition.  If age can do this to a man like Muhammad Ali, we think, what chance do we mere mortals have?

Joe Frazier, R.I.P.

I was saddened to read of the death of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, one of the great fighters during last years of the golden age of boxing.

Frazier won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics and held the world heavyweight title for three years, from 1970 to 1973.  He was best known, however, for his three titanic bouts with his nemesis, Muhammad Ali.  Frazier won the first, and lost the last two, but all of the fights were legendary clashes.  It is almost impossible to overstate the excitement and anticipation for each of those fights — especially now, when boxing has retreated far into the back pages of the sports sections of daily newspapers — but the entire sports world focused on Frazier and Ali as they trained, traded verbal jabs, and then stepped into the ring to fight for real.  I always rooted for Ali, but I respected Frazier because you knew that Smokin’ Joe was going to give every fight his very best.

For those of us of a certain age, Frazier also is remembered for his performance in an early version of a reality show called Superstars and carried on ABC.  The show pitted athletes from different sports against each other in a series of events, like the 100-yard dash or bowling.  Frazier is vividly recalled for his classic floundering, near-fatal efforts in the unfamiliar environs of swimming pool.

Frazier, who died of liver cancer, was only 67.  He will be missed.  With Smokin’ Joe dead, Muhammad Ali shaky and hobbled by Parkinson’s syndrome, and George Foreman selling cooking equipment, the golden age of boxing seems very far away.

The Steady Retreat From Fandom

The other day I realized, with a start, that baseball season is underway.  I haven’t been paying attention, candidly.  The fact that the Tribe is expected to be lousy again this year is probably part of the reason; the fact that the Indians’ roster is largely peopled by players I’ve never heard of also is a contributing factor.  (Seriously, who are these guys?  The Tribe has players named Lou Marson, Vinnie Pestano, and Jack Hannahan, among others.)

The reality, however, is that I’ve been steadily losing interest in sports for a few decades now.  I haven’t watched a boxing match since the 1970s and the heyday of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.  I don’t follow the Summer or Winter Olympics and don’t really care if the U.S. wins the most medals.  I stopped paying attention to the NBA in the early 1990s, and you really couldn’t pay me to watch an NBA game these days.  In golf, I’m down to maybe checking out parts of the four major tournaments.  I also feel my interest in the NFL and major league baseball ebbing away, to the point where I have only a vague understanding of which teams are doing well and which aren’t.  I still care passionately about college football and college basketball, but that’s about it.

Why is this so?  Part of it has to do with the fact that the Cleveland baseball and football teams that I follow have been putrid lately.  It’s hard to maintain interest when your team is out of the running before the season is even half over.  But the broader issue is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that being a sports fan — other than with respect to OSU football and basketball, of course — is kind of a waste of time and energy.  I’d rather play golf than watch it.  Taking a walk or reading a book or catching up on the news is preferable to spending hours in front of a TV watching a game.  And sports talk radio is too insipid for my tastes.

For some reason, this trend bothers me.  I actually feel kind of guilty about it.