I have always been a boxing aficionado. The heavyweights. I have hundreds of heavyweight fights on DVD, transferred over from VCR tapes which have been transferred from sixteen millimeter film. I have old, forgotten fights on DVD from Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Jack Johnson, Max Baer, Max Schmeling Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and, of course, Muhammad Ali. In fact, here's a great trivia question you can ask next time you're sitting in a pub having a beer. Name the only two heavyweight champions to retire undefeated? The obvious answer is that there was only one heavyweight champion to retire undefeated - Rocky Marciano. It's a trick question and will, without fail, win you a beer in a bar. The other is Cassius Clay. He was forced to retire and he was undefeated. When he came back he was Muhammad Ali. Pretty good, huh?
One of my favorite people in the world and one of my best friends is a Catholic priest in Brooklyn. He saved my life once many years ago but that's another blog for another time. Back in the day, whenever a major fight was on TV or cable or PPV, we would meet up, find a seat at a bar a couple of hours before the fight began, start sipping beer and talk endlessly about fighting. The history of fighting. His knowledge and expertise in the area is nearly equal to my own and he's seen a lot more fights in person than I have. There was a place on 33rd Street in NYC back in those days called Mulligans, a little place off Third Ave. They always showed the big fights. It was a boxing bar and one I loved. So we'd get there early, as in the case of the Tyson/Holmes fight in 1988, order up some beer and shots and start debating. I remember, in fact, on that particular occasion, he'd come straight from some Catholic thing and still had his collar on. His name is Bob and he is a worthy conversationalist about the sweet science. So we're sitting there getting a little tipsy before the fight talking about boxing...who was the best, who had the best hook, what would have happened if these two had met, etc. And he kept going back to Joe Louis. Bob is a lot older than I am and remembered Louis. Finally, I remember saying, sort of exasperated, "would you please stop bringing up Joe Louis? He got old and slow and and frankly, I don't see the big deal around him." He stared off sort of wistfully for a second and said quietly, "ah, but you don't understand, Clif. He was so BEAUTIFUL when he was young." Today, when I talk to younger boxing enthusiasts I sometimes use that same phrase about Ali. He was so beautiful when he was young.
Last night I was rehearsing for one of the one-acts I'm doing in SANITY, the night of short plays I'm doing with NoHo. In the play with me is a much older actress who had an entire career in Italy when she was younger. She actually worked with Fellini and some other icons in Europe. Anyway, in the play, she plays an aging actress and the set should have old posters of her in past plays. So she brought in some old photos of herself when SHE was young, perhaps to blow up and use in the play. She was stunningly beautiful in the photos. She was proud to show them to us. But there was something else there, too, something not so much sad as resigned. Something gentle and wistful.
I think I know how she feels. We all do, really.
Poets and songwriters and novelists and playwrights have been trying to tell me my whole life to stop and appreciate my youth. GB Shaw famously said it is wasted on the young. Of course, none of us heed. We're too busy being young. For me, anyway, it was always nearly inconceivable to be old. But it happened, it happens.
The trick is to do it gracefully. I don't know that trick. But I know ABOUT it.. It is a sub theme in my play, Praying Small and a major theme in my play Bachelor's Graveyard. A time to set aside childish things, I believe is how the bible phrases it. Move on, Sondheim says. It was a very good year, Sinatra says.
Who is this bald guy shaving, I ask myself some mornings. I'm not sure I know this guy. This is a theme I dwell on a lot these days. In my work and in my life. How did we get here, is a question asked often in my play, From the East to the West. We just did, is the answer. How do we reconcile the pictures of our youth with the people we've become, sometimes struggling with addiction or cancer or diabetes or relationships or any number of unforseen, metaphorical potholes in our lives? How do we try and tell that glossy, beautiful photograph taken thirty years ago about the unimaginable loss and fatigue that lie ahead? How do we connect the dots from twenty five to seventy? The proof is right before us, in our hands, in the very pictures we hold. Most of us took it all for granted.
I don't know about you, gentle reader, but I want to do it all again.
"Time it was and what a time it was, it was a photograph. Preserve our memory. That's all that's left me."
Now I get it, Father Bob. Took me a little while. But now I get it. Ah, he was so BEAUTIFUL when he was young.
See you tomorrow.