Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ali - Part VI - The Last Image.

Muhammad Ali versus Ernie Shavers - The Final Statement.

Muhammad Ali was at last through the fires of 'The Fight of the Century' and 'The Broken Jaw Fight' and 'The Rumble in the Jungle' and finally, 'The Thrilla in Manilla.'  He now found himself in an odd position:  there was no one left to beat.  It was early 1976 the Frazier saga was over and, if one goes back and looks at The Ring Magazine Top Ten listings for that time, he had soundly and definitively beaten ALL ten of the fighters listed except for Ernie Shavers.  But Shavers was listed number eight on the list.  He was what is called a "spoiler" in the boxing biz.  A guy that fighters don't want anything to do with.  Not because he was such a great fighter; he wasn't.  But he had a rocket of a right hand and the highest knockout percentage in the heavyweight division.  Other fighters, like Jerry Quarry and Ron Lysle, tough, rough fighters, claimed Shavers had the hardest punch in the division, even harder than Foreman.  But he also carried a whole gaggle of losses on his record.  By 1976, at the age of 32, Shavers had already lost ten fights.  But he was a slugger.  A guy that could end a fight at any time.  His right cross was legendary in boxing gyms around the country.

So Ali's handlers decided to give him some easier pickings first.  He casually ran through fighters like Richard Dunn (former British Champion) and Alfredo Evanglista (Latin American Champion from Uruguay) and Jean-Pierre Coompan (Belgian Champion), beating them all without too much effort.  In fact, looking back on those fights, watching them on DVD, they allowed Ali to do what he does best: be Ali.  They're more like exciting exhibitions rather than actual contests.  Even though none of those fights are ever in doubt of who might win, they're enormously entertaining simply to see Ali show, like a magician displaying a whole trunk full of old tricks, all of his greatest hits.  One moment we see the storied left jab, right hand dangling at his side, then we see the Ali Shuffle, then he shows us the impossibly quick combinations, then he plays with his opponent, joking, talking to the crowd, playing possum and then slapping the man at will, and incredibly he seems to win the fights as good-naturedly as possible.  There is never any anger, no focus, no drama.  It is Ali on tour, saying, in effect, "Remember this one?  Here's one you might recall.  Oh, yeah, and don't forget this old trick..." 

I don't see the need to recount the 76 rubber match with Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium.  And here's why:  Norton was only a good fighter on his best day.  His great moment came in 1972 with that early shot that broke Ali's jaw.  He was not and never would be in the same league as Formean and Frazier and Ali.  While all of his fights went the distance with Ali, they were not epic fights.  Yes, they were all very close, but not because Norton was remotely of the same calibre Ali was, but because he quite simply had a style - that cross-armed, crab-like, forward shuffle - that confounded Ali.  In their trilogy of fights they faced each other over 42 rounds.  Ali won 28 of them.  And not one moment of real drama occurred.  Norton never once took the fight to Ali.

So Muhammad Ali finally faced Ernie Shavers, if for no other reason than he was the last man left to fight.  Even at 36, Ali was clearly the best fighter in the division (although there was a young, up-and-coming, straight jab artist by the name of Larry Holmes who was looking awfully good, but he was still a few years away from being taken seriously). 

The Ernie Shavers/Muhammad Ali fight itself is not one for the diary.  Ali was comfortably ahead on points going into the 15th round.  Shavers had landed some great shots (in fact, later Ali was to say, "Everytime Ernie landed it felt like a mule had kicked me." Fortunately for Ali, Shavers didn't land that many shots).  The champion had fought a smart and conservative fight.  Clinching when necessary, pulling Shavers head down when he could, staying at long range and stinging Ernie with the jab and occasionally launching those famous flurries of combination punches too fast for Shavers to get away from.  Another win from a coasting Ali.  The novels had been written, these were just short stories.  But then something inexplicable happened.

It's as if Ali knew somehow that this would be his last moment of glory in a career filled to the brim with glorious moments.  All he had to do was stay away from Ernie in that last round, coast through it, just keep him off and take the fight.  Instead, following the uneventful 14th round, he refused to sit in his corner between rounds.  He stood and stared at Shavers across the ring.  He clearly seems to be ignoring the yapping advice from his corner.  He is in his own world.  Looking back at the tapes of that fight, Ali seems to be a little disgusted with himself at that moment, although he was way ahead of Shavers on points. 

When the bell rang he went straight at Shavers, flat-footed, planted, weight forward.  And he doesn't back up.  Unbelievably, he has chosen to go toe to toe.  And so he does.  Shavers starts throwing bombs.  He lands several shattering punches to Ali's head.  He drives him across the ring.  He throws and lands a right cross that has Ali wobbling.  And instead of grabbing Shavers and clinching his way out of trouble, Ali uncharacteristically fires back.  And suddenly, halfway through the round, both men are standing stock still in the exact middle of the ring trading cannon shots.  Ali throws one and then takes one, throws one and then takes one.  Shot for shot.  No dancing, no moving, no angles, no quick, peppering jabs, no head movement, no combinations.  Just tit for tat.  And then, as the entire arena stands and screams in disbelief at the unexpected development, Ali begins to beat Shavers back.  Ernie starts backing up, he takes massive shots to the head, one to the mid-section, another to the temple, a hard right hook to the jaw.  He stops trading blows and starts covering up.  Ali is overwhelming him.  He is, amazingly, out punching the puncher.  And these arĂ©n't typical Ali stinging shots.  They're the big guns, the Howitzers, these are shots thrown from the hips, not the shoulders.  At the bell, Ernie Shavers is leaning on the ropes, gloves up, eyes glassy, head down.  He is moments from being knocked to the canvas.  He is beaten.  Beaten at his own game.  The bell rings.  Ali stays in the middle of the ring and looks around the arena.  The full house of on-hand spectators (22,000) going bat shit nuts.  He glares at the media in the first row.  He raises his arms above his head and simply stands there.  It is as though he is saying, "This is it.  This is the last of me.  I am and always have been the greatest." A look of stern defiance on his face.  This is not a portrait of the smiling, joking, poet-king of the past fifteen years, this is an unforgiving, rageful stance, a tableau of the best fighter of the era silently telling the world, 'I have beaten everyone.  There is no one left.  There is only me.'

It is the image I often think of when I picture Muhammad Ali in my mind.  His final, wordless statement to the world, a statement not about what he stood for as a political, social, historical figure of the times, but rather his final declaration of who he was as a fighter.  The best in the world.  Possibly the best there ever was.  He is, conciously or not, stating to all, you can take away everything else, you can add all you want, you can turn me into any symbol you might conjure, you can even make me the lightning rod for all that America wants in this generation, but what you can't do is say I can't fight.  

Shavers was the last of the top ten fighters left to fight.  He had beaten them all.  Sometimes twice.  He had dominated every heavyweight alive for two decades.  He stood alone at that moment in 1977 as the best fighter on the planet.  There was, literally, nothing left to prove.  In my mind, it was his finest hour.

See you tomorrow.