Monday, January 18, 2010

"He has spent his life being underestimated..."

People seem to like it when old guys make a comeback.  I remember when I was in high school and Muhammad Ali had taken, late in his career, a fight with a killer named Ernie Shavers.  As a rabid Ali fan I was concerned.  Everyone was.  What was he doing?  He didn't need to prove anything.  He was Muhammad Ali, for God sakes.  He had been to the mountain top a dozen times; Liston, Frazier, Foreman, Norton.  He was 38 - ancient in the world of professional boxing.  And now, inexplicably, he had taken a fight with one of the premier knock-out artists of a generation.  The bald-headed gladiator, Ernie Shavers.

I watched that fight in my childhood home back in Missouri.  I was alone that night for some reason.  Just me and the TV.  I could hardly breathe.  Please, I kept praying, please don't let it end this way.  Not after all the miracles.  Don't let Ali be knocked out as an old man in the ring with this guy who's only gift was a punch like a horse-kick.  A guy that didn't belong in the same sentence with this idol of mine who had rocked the world so often in the past.

The fight went all fifteen rounds.  Ali, no longer in possession of his greatest gift, his remarkable speed, held onto Shavers, punching in flurries, being careful, rope-a-doping now and then, snapping his still formidable left jab and generally calling upon all his hard-gotten ring skills to stay ahead.  And Shavers just couldn't tee off on him.  Ali was too slippery, even at thirty eight.

And then the fateful 15th round came.  Ali was comfortably ahead on points.  His corner was telling him to just get through the round.  Don't take any chances.  But Ali was a champion. Perhaps the greatest champion in the history of the sport, in fact, and he had no intention of just "getting through it."  I watched in shock as he strode to the middle of the ring, waved the neanderthal Shavers in, and unbelievably, started trading big guns with him.  This was suicide, plain and simple.  Shavers was a beast.

And the world watched something astonishing.  Ali and Shavers stood toe-to-toe.  Spine shattering punches.  No quarter.  Neither backed up.  Ali threw shots as hard as he had in his entire career.  Shavers lined up his cannons and prepared to take Ali out.  And with thirty seconds left in the fight, Shavers started backing up, and stumbling, knees wobbling, and finally Ali, in a complete reversal of all that is holy, had him on the ropes and was bombing away. Shavers was barely hanging on.  The arena was in a frenzy.  I was literally shaking with pride. 

The bell rang.

Ali stood in the middle of the ring and arrogantly stared at the crowd as if to say, "Never. Never. Never underestimate me."  Shavers barely made it to his own corner.  The old lion had beaten him like no one had ever beaten him.  The dancing master had turned into a heartless thug right before our eyes.  The kingdom still belonged to the king.

I can't wait to get back on stage.

See you tomorrow.