It is interesting that of the two Muhammad Ali anniversaries which have just passed, in early October, only one received major attention. The first of the month brought the 40th birthday of the Thriller in Manila, the Louisville Lip’s trilogy ender with Joe Frazier, widely regarded as one of the most epic heavyweight encounters of the twentieth century. This garnered column inches in several national newspapers and a flurry of retrospectives across the internet. Meanwhile October 2nd marked 35 years since Ali stepped out of a brief retirement to take on new champion Larry Holmes, his friend and former sparring partner. Other than a couple of lonely tweets, this date passed by unmarked.
The likely explanation is that having blown their beans 24 hours earlier, respected print journalists were unable to justify further paper space the following day on something similar. It is undeniable too that the Thrilla is a far more famous contest. But it is also not a fact easily escaped that the Ali v Holmes tale is much darker, more sordid and less inclined to mythology. And for the media and most of us, that’s what the life of Muhammad Ali has come to be – a myth.
I have always been fascinated by the way the media takes token images of things, often very superficially and then keeps throwing them back at us to reinforce narratives. We don’t really need to investigate or learn about World War Two, for example. We’ve seen clips of the Battle of Britain, the bodies at Belsen, Hitler shouting, the attack on Pearl Harbour. We’ve seen lots of movies which contain fictional recreations of the same bunch of images, so that will do. Through selective snapshots we reduce complex events enacted over long periods to soundbites, then the soundbites come together to create an easily digestible, usually marketable, simplified and contrived version of the story.
Muhammad Ali is one of the most famous people of the twentieth century, in or out of sport. And in much the same way that Professor Norman Finkelstein controversially referred to the way World War 2 history has been manipulated, packaged and sold to the public as ‘the Holocaust Industry’, within sports media, there is undoubtedly an ‘Ali industry’. As he has withdrawn from public life, clearly suffering the after-effects of all those titanic battles, retreating into a neurologically-damaged shell, he has become more and more deified. Books and movies about him continue to be made, many of which are only interested in revering him as a kind of semi-divine being.
After Manila, in 1975, Ali (and Frazier) were never the same again. Ali reportedly described feeling “as close as it’s possible to be to death” after the fight. Fourteen humid rounds against a bitter rival at the age of 33 pretty much finished him off. There was talk of retirement, as there had been after he had dethroned George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, but talk was all it was. The talk went on for 6 more years.
Of the ten ill-advised bouts Ali had after the Thrilla, his recapturing of the title from hapless Leon Spinks, in 1978, at the age of 36, is perhaps best remembered. It firmly established him as an all-time great and the first fighter to achieve the feat of winning the heavyweight championship three times. His subsequent retirement lasted 2 whole years, before a potent combination of stubborn arrogance and financial necessity convinced him to challenge 30 year old Larry Holmes.
Holmes had already racked up an impressive 7 defences since winning the WBC title stripped from Spinks. He had defeated Ken Norton (who always gave Ali kittens), Earnie Shavers (who many felt had beaten Ali in ’77, only to be robbed by the judges) and KO’d Spinks in 3, when Spinks had gone 12 rounds with Ali twice, winning the first time.
It is incredible now to recall that many knowledgeable insiders gave Ali a good chance, despite the fact he was clearly punchy. The media cheer-led for the fight to be made and the man himself, ever quotable, fanned the publicity flames. “I’m dedicating this fight to all the people who’ve been told, ‘you can’t do it’. I’m gonna whup Holmes.”
He had been written off before, against Foreman and Liston and prevailed both times. That’s what my Dad told me as we sat to watch the fight. I was just seven years old.
I already knew a bit about the fight game, despite my tender years. I had been well-educated by the old man. Although I’d watched clips and bits with him, it would be the first bout I would watch in its entirety, on TV in our living room in Croydon.
At the time, the name Muhammad Ali to me was a name like Superman or Flash Gordon. I half expected him to fly into the ring and zap Holmes with laser beams from his eyes. When the programme started and Ali was interviewed in the pre-amble, I remember feeling let down. He had a fleshy, moon-face. His eyes were glassy, his voice thick and unclear. Was this ‘The Greatest’?
While the MC introduced the fighters, he clowned and made me laugh and I started to believe again. “He always does that sort of thing.” Dad told me, laughing too. Then the fight started.
Ali came out wide eyed, moving gingerly on the balls of his feet, trying to dance, as Dad said he would. Holmes just went at him and hammered him. He was twice as quick and three times as sharp. It was two minutes before Ali managed to throw a punch. By the end of the round, he had landed twice, while Holmes had hurt him repeatedly to head and body.
During the next couple of sessions Ali stopped trying to dance. He still moved a bit, but the famous feet were flat. Occasionally he pawed a jab or flapped with the right. Holmes still picked him off at will.
By the end of the third, Ali was leaning on the ropes, holding a high guard. “He does this sometimes” Dad said. “He calls it rope-a-dope. It’s how he beat Foreman.”
“But how he’s going to win?” I asked. “He’s not doing anything.”
“He’s waiting for Holmes to get tired” Dad said. “Then he’ll do something.”
So I waited.
But Ali never did anything.
The young champion used him as a heavy bag for ten rounds. Sometimes Holmes would wave the referee in, begging him to stop it. He still cared for his old friend. Halfway through the ninth Holmes hurt Ali to the body. According to biographer Thomas Hauser, Ali screamed, literally screamed in pain.
It was a grim, pitiless spectacle that seemed to go on forever, like watching a python suffocate a dog. For some reason I kept watching. Even as Ali’s resistance fizzled into nothing I still thought he might pull it out, somehow. During the tenth, commentator Reg Gutteridge said of Ali, “he needs to go down or throw a punch or do something. He can’t just linger like this. It really is quite pathetic.”
Back in the corner, Angelo Dundee agreed and retired his man at the end of the round. The feet had dragged, the arms had been heavy – all Ali had left was the durability to withstand a sustained beating.
Dad didn’t say a lot. I didn’t either. Muhammad Ali wasn’t superman. He was a casualty, prematurely old and on his way to infirmity.
Even Holmes was upset, admitting to Howard Cosell after the fight that he cried in the changing room. Hardly the response expected from a victorious champion.
So why did Ali come back for that travesty? (He even had one more, a year later against Trevor Berbick). According to several sources, 3 months prior he had attended a physical exam at the Mayo clinic, where he had been unable to co-ordinate well enough to touch a finger to his nose and lost balance when asked to hop on one foot. Despite this, Nevada licensed him to fight.
Dr Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s personal physician said afterwards. “All the people involved in this fight should have been arrested. This fight was an abomination, a crime.”
It was a Don King promotion with a ten million dollar purse, of which Ali made 7. One wonders whether King or any of his entourage told him it was madness, or whether most had percentages in their eyes. The public are guilty too. Our guilt was born of gullibility. We bought in to the media hype and called for the fight. He would dance and dance! He would play with Holmes! He was The Greatest! Ali had been too vain and perhaps, greedy to refuse. The pride that once made him special now served him up as a sacrificial lamb.
Many have said it was actually Frazier who finished him off. That although Smokin’ Joe lost their rubber match in Manila, the damage Ali sustained that night rendered him the shuffling wreck he would later become. Frazier even believed this himself. Such was the enmity he felt, born of all those ‘Gorilla’ and ‘Uncle Tom’ jibes that he carried a deep loathing to his grave. He took pride in seeing Ali’s condition and being the “man who had done the job” on The Greatest.
Muhammad Ali deserves his place in the pantheon of boxing legends. And he was truly a brave man, in and out of the ring. But the hagiographical storytelling that now surrounds his life is a money driven obscenity, just like the circus that kept dragging him back for more brain damage. It is not born of real affection or truth, but brand-reinforcement and profit.
It is unpleasant to consider, but undoubtedly true, that there will be people in offices, with shares of his image rights, who will rub their hands together when he eventually passes on. They can use the same media who told us he could beat Holmes to orchestrate global outpourings of grief and sell box-sets of everything bearing his name.
This is the problem with soundbites and snapshots. Muhammad Ali was a complex character who lived a life far more nuanced than simple heroism. He was manipulated, sometimes foolish, sometimes cruel as well as being a principled, charming, athletically gifted champion. Yet to us in the modern world, he is only a slogan, a motivational poster, a T-shirt. That’s what so much of the media does. It reduces everything. I think he and we, deserve better.
Through unfortunate timing, Ali was never a real hero of mine. I was born too late. But when I did watch him fight, against Larry Holmes, I learnt some very important lessons, about boxing and also the way we are fed images of important figures and events.
I will always thank him for that.