Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Happy 70th Birthday Muhammad Ali
I grew up with a physically and emotionally abusive father. As most abusive parents, his abuse reached an apex when I was younger and smaller. As I grew up and got taller and bigger, the abuse slowed and eventually, when it looked as though I might be able to defend myself, it stopped altogether. This is not a new story.
I'm fifty years old. The first time I remember hearing the name Muhammad Ali was in Juanuary, 1971, when he fought Joe Frazier in New York's Madison Square Garden. The highly touted "Battle of the Century." I grew up in rural Missouri so the mere sound of the name Muhammad Ali grated on my ear. I didn't know a Muslim from muscrat. But I did know this: My DAD hated that "loud mouthed, draft dodgin' nigger." And I hated my dad. So I decided I loved Muhammad Ali.
Ali lost that fight. Frazier beat him fair and square. I collect fight films now as a hobby and I've seen the fight a hundred times. Frazier won it. And his monumental left hook in the fifteenth round should be featured in boxing textbooks.
But more to the point, I learned my first lesson in Growing Up from that fight: lose gracefully. Ali's response to the fight at the press conference, his jaw swollen literally to the size of a grapefruit: "Joe beat me. He's the champion. But I'll be back." Huh? What happened to "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?" What happened to "I am the greatest?" What happened to "If Joe even dreams he can beat me, he oughta wake up and apologize?" Lose gracefully. And never stop trying.
Some short time later I began to box myself. I joined Golden Gloves. I learned what I could of the sweet science. I competed. I was never really very good, but I won some. And I kept trying.
In 1972, Ali got his jaw broken in the first round against a former Marine that no one outside of California had ever heard of: Kenny Norton. Ali fought the next eleven rounds with a broken jaw. He lost that fight, too. The pain must have been nearly unimaginable. And the fight (which, again, I've seen many times) was VERY close. Another lesson from Ali on Growing Up: keep trying despite adversity. Endure pain. Fight THROUGH the pain. Never let 'em see you hurt. And above all, don't quit.
Later, as with Frazier, he came back to defeat Norton twice. Lesson number three: If at first you don't succeed...face your fears AGAIN. If you know you're better than your failure - take it on again and prove it to yourself.
In 1974, Muhammad Ali fought a real-life, living, breathing boogey man: George Forman. A giant of a man that had actually crippled other fighters in the ring. He'd decimated both Frazier and Norton in previous fights. He'd hit Frazier so hard he lifted him three feet off the mat. He'd knocked Kenny Norton asleep. He beat him like a rug the year earlier and Norton didn't wake up until he was in his dressing room. As often as the movies may portray that sort of thing, the truth is in professional fighting it's nearly unheard of, this knocking the man out thing.
And now Ali, at 32, way, way past his prime as a pugilist, was facing him on the dark continent - the Congo itself, Zaire. Never in a thousand years could anyone expect to find a more compelling match up between men. Foreman could barely put a sentence together back then - he usually just glared at people if he didn't feel like talking. Ali, on the other hand, had done the impossible over the past 10 years: he had gone from Most Hated Athlete in America to Most Adored Human on Earth. And, of course, he reveled in it. He talked about everything - tooth decay, racism, boxing, music, magic tricks, horror movies, shoes and boots, movie stars, politics...anything that caught his fancy. Smiling, laughing, giggling, chortling, merry-making his way through the sweltering pre-rainy season of Kinsasha. Not a care in the world. As the poet, Marianne Moore, called him, ‘the smiling pugilist.’
Of course, that wasn't true, though. Ali often wasn’t smiling in Africa. Ali was worried. Years later he acknowledged his fear in an interview with George Plimpton. "I was afraid for my children," he said, "I was afraid if maybe Big George broke my spinal column or something, how would I feed my children?" It is difficult to imagine the fear that must have enveloped him for those three months prior to the fight.
He fought "The Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman on October 31st, 1974, at three in the morning (prime time in America). He gave birth to the "rope-a-dope." He took back his title and knocked Big George to the canvas for ten seconds in the eighth round. He hit him with a series of lightning quick, sniper-like lefts and rights that were almost invisible to the naked eye in their fury and quickness. It was . . . magnificent.
Another lesson: Might isn't always right. Face your fears. Do your best. If you can't go over the wall...figure a way to go around it. Think on the spot. Don't be tied to a pre-arranged plan if it isn't working. Fear is sometimes just and only that - fear.
I met him in New York in 1989. Parkinson's Syndrome had changed him irrevocably by then. There was a hint of the old Ali smile. A glimmer in the eyes. I shook his hand in a diner on 37th and 3rd. He had very big hands. I leaned in close to him and said in his ear very quickly - there were many others trying to touch him - "You helped me grow up and be who I am today." He stopped what he was doing (signing autographs and shaking hands) for just a heartbeat, a blink, and looked full square in my eyes. I had tears in them. He said, "Boy, I was something, wasn't I?"