4

Muhammad Ali: Hero and villain

In a tribute to muhammad_li

In a tribute to the late Muhammad Ali I am reblogging this excerpt from my book Rope Burns, which is to be republished in September 2016.

By now you should not be remotely surprised to learn that one fine evening back in 1980 I somehow conspired to find myself perched on a stool in front of a small television set in my local pub watching a delayed ITV transmission of Muhammad Ali’s foolhardy attempt to win a fourth world title. Of course, it did not matter to me at the time that I had already learned the result of the fight in the newspapers and, were it not for the fact that I, like too many others, was what can only be described as bewitched by Ali’s enormous charisma, it should have been no particular revelation to discover that The Greatest turned out to be just as mortal as the rest of us. Apparently, he was human after all: as capable of bleeding, of bruising, and of succumbing to the debilitating effects of Father Time as the man who had served me the beer that I was having great difficulty swallowing.

Naturally, the benefit of hindsight allows me to contemplate the dismemberment of the Ali legend with a sense of reluctant and undeserved smugness. One does not have to be a boxing expert in order to be able to look back at the circumstances surrounding this invidious spectacle and conclude that Ali had no possible chance of winning the fight. He was thirty-eight-years-of-age by then and for the past couple of years newspaper picture editors had been taking an almost puerile delight in regularly demonstrating to their readers that the body beautiful was not what it used to be. Like those pictures of Elvis taken in the months leading up to his death, in which the bloated singer, with vacant George A Romero stare, slouches onto stage wrapped in sequins and rolls of blubber, photographs of the new – enhanced – Ali were appearing in the tabloids on an almost weekly basis. There was New Ali sitting at the ring apron of some title fight or other, accompanied by a dwindling entourage and a stomach that could have belonged to a pregnant woman. There was New Ali at the dinner table, filling his cheeks with food in the way that Satchmo would once fill his own with air. It was clear that the Ali we were all familiar with was no more; the person who was once described as the most beautiful man in the world had mutated into something else. Ali had become Fat Ali.

No longer forced to endure the endless torture of early morning runs, gym callisthenics and constant sparring sessions, in two years out of the ring Ali had developed rather too much of a liking for the burgers that he had taken to endorsing on television. In horticultural terms, he had gone to seed. However, unlike his former victim George Foreman, whose unexpectedly successful ring comeback in the late-eighties was, if we are to believe the boxer, fuelled by a mountain of Big Macs, it was apparent that Ali’s extra weight would provide no additional advantages when the lure of the ring – as it inevitably would – became too much for his ego to bear.

This is not to say that Ali did not do a good job in extending his own rather extravagant interpretation of reality. Indeed, even the most qualified of observers – Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee amongst them – found themselves rubbing their eyes in wonderment when he began training for his doomed attempt to wrench the heavyweight title from his accomplished successor Larry Holmes. As the extra poundage was sweated away and the Fat Ali persona was exposed as an apparent impostor, fans and critics alike found themselves drawn inexorably into the dream. The rebirth of Ali may have been achieved, as we were to learn later, with the help of prescribed diet pills that left him dangerously dehydrated, not to mention the odd flask or two of black hair dye, but it seemed at the time as if the Master Conjuror had somehow managed to transform himself back into the beautiful, dazzling young athlete whose streamlined features had made his the most recognisable face on planet earth. By the time that he was ready to climb back into the ring and receive the hiding of a lifetime, Ali’s weight was exactly as it had been when he had first fought Sonny Liston back in 1964. More than the Rope-a-Dope in Zaire, more than the Ali Shuffle or the ‘Butterfly’ punch that put down Liston in their second fight, this astonishing re-attainment of youth was the fighter’s greatest feat of illusion.

Personally, I had no doubts at the time as to who would win the fight: even though I was not naïve enough to consider broadcasting my ill-conceived loyalties to the illusion, deep down I was sure that Ali would prevail. There was no logical reasoning behind this conclusion; it was not as though one could run an eye down the statistics for the fight and pinpoint any particular flaw in Holmes’ not inconsiderable armoury. Although he was by no means The Greatest, Holmes was set to become one of history’s more distinguished heavyweight champions. At thirty-years-of-age he was in his prime and, were it not for the fact that it was his misfortune to have been appointed the impossible task of filling the tasselled boots of the man who had once employed him as a sparring partner, Holmes would certainly have become one of the premier stars of the eighties. Yet somehow it seemed to me that Ali would find a way to beat his protégé; it might take a miracle, but then Ali always seemed to have first refusal whenever anybody up there was doling out miracles.

Almost two decades on from that dreadful evening there are several memories that stubbornly refuse to fade. For any trivia fans out there I can inform you that the beer I was endeavouring to drink as the massacre ensued cost the princely sum of thirty-seven new pence a pint. Similarly, I can divulge that a packet of twenty cigarettes was available at the bar for under 50p. Even more trainspotterrishly, I can reveal that the pub’s solitary arcade machine was one of those table-top versions of Galaxians, featuring the usual collection of badly rendered sprites descending through a beer-clouded space and accompanied by an assortment of pings, whistles, fizzes and pops, at a cost to your pocket of ten new pence a game. If you are wondering why I appear determined to waddle in this paddling pool of consumerist nostalgia I need merely point out that Muhammad Ali, in payment for what was, admittedly, to be the worst night of his life, was collecting a fee of $8 million. In modern day terms Ali’s purse for the fight was in excess of $30 million, a truly staggering amount of money for a portly middle-aged ex-champ whose talents had been in steady decline since the early seventies. Another reminder, for those of you out there who weren’t around when Ali was busy putting us all under his spell, of just how enormous a name his was. Ali was the superstars’ superstar: bigger, bolder, brasher, louder, prettier and better paid than any athlete or entertainer in history.

The evening was also memorable in that it was the first occasion I can recall someone using the word ‘fuck’ during a televised prime time sporting event. At the beginning of round ten, as Muhammad Ali slumps into his stool and prepares to drag his heaving body back into the centre of the ring to be used as target practise by a saddened and visibly embarrassed Larry Holmes, the diminutive figure of Angelo Dundee could clearly be heard telling Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown ‘Fuck you! No! I’m stopping it!’ as the other man implores Ali to resume participation in the beating that is placing the boxer’s life in considerable jeopardy. It was also the first (and only) time that I can recall a television boxing commentator actually pleading for a fighter to hit the canvas: “Come on Ali… Either throw a punch or go down! He really can’t linger like this… It’s quite pathetic!” cried the weary voice of Reg Gutteridge who, like the rest of us, was clearly not enjoying the spectacle of Ali’s public execution.

Boxing completists will already be aware that the only stoppage defeat of Ali’s long career was not, in fact, his last fight. The dubious honour of being the last man to defeat the Greatest belongs to Canada’s Trevor Berbick, Commonwealth Champion at the time but himself a future holder of the WBC heavyweight title (Indeed, as well as Larry Holmes, it is Berbick who provides a precarious link between the Ali era and the Mike Tyson era, being in the opposite corner on that night in 1987 in which Tyson became boxing’s youngest ever heavyweight champion). In real terms, however, the Holmes fight was the last hurrah. It was the final full stop at the end of the last sentence of the closing Chapter of a story that had managed to both illuminate and transcend boxing.

At the risk of appearing overly sentimental, those images of Ali’s public pain and humiliation were enough to send me scurrying into the toilets with tears welling up in my eyes. I was a skinny eighteen-year-old by then and to this day I cannot find any rational justification for my reaction. Although it was true that Ali had been around in both the background and foreground of much of my life, it has to be said that he was well down on the list of what I considered important at the time. He wasn’t female, he didn’t come in a glass and there were certainly no portraits of Queen Elizabeth II printed about his torso. However, in common with countless people in every corner of the globe, whatever special quality or combination of special qualities it was that Ali possessed was somehow able to touch some deeper part of me; a part of me which the usual mixture of instinct and social conditioning ensured was usually happily hidden away.

Some twenty years after the horrors of Ali’s final curtain call, the fighter still has a kind of hold over me that I cannot really explain. I am not alone in this, of course: even the most cynical and world-weary of those who follow, write about or indulge in the sport of boxing tend to come over all misty-eyed whenever Ali’s name happens to crop up in conversation. Yet whilst it is certain that Ali as a twentieth century icon seems to exemplify the more positive and heroic aspects of boxing, there have been many fighters – some of whom I have known personally – who have completely failed to move me in circumstances which should have had even the most stony-faced of us reaching for the Kleenex.

Yet Ali was not without his flaws. The occasional unforgivable cruelty that he bestowed upon his ring opponents is often buried away in the hyperbole surrounding his battles with the US government and his human rights campaigning. Moreover, not only did Ali sometimes appear to take pleasure in humiliating and, one might even argue, actually physically torturing opponents who were patently inferior athletes (his contests against Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell are particularly brutal examples of this spiteful and malicious aspect of Ali’s personality) but the personal insults that he meted out to rival Joe Frazier were apparently sufficient to reduce the great heavyweight champion’s children to tears.

Ali’s ambiguous treatment of women also left much to be desired: during his infamous 1974 appearance on the BBC’s Parkinson show, for example, the newly-recrowned heavyweight champion arranged for a group of Muslim women to sit out in the audience as an example of how the female form should be, in his words, ‘properly dressed’. Clad in simple cotton gowns designed to hide the contours of the figure, and wearing head scarves that left only the hands and face exposed, these women were the focus for a startlingly incoherent lecture on Muslim ideology by a frenzied Muhammad Ali.

Not, one might say, entirely unexpected behaviour from a man who had attached himself so securely to the Moslem movement that he had been prepared to make the ultimate statement of reinvention and actually change his name. However, his actions take on an entirely different complexion when we realise that Ali, by then married to Belinda Boyd (having divorced his first wife, Sonji Roi, when she refused to discard her Western clothing in favour of her husband’s preferred attire) was involved at the time in an extra-marital affair with the decidedly un-Muslimesque Veronica Porche (Amazingly, whilst in the Philippines in 1975 for his third fight with Joe Frazier, Ali would actually introduce Veronica to President Ferdinand Marcos as his wife). Although Miss Porch would go on to become Ali’s third wife, such extra-curricular canoodlings were in direct contravention of the guidelines set down by the Nation of Islam.

The breaking of rules, however, was a distinctive and important feature of the Muhammad Ali mystique. After all, are we not talking about the man who literally rewrote the boxing rulebook? Was Ali not the fighter who eschewed boxing’s conventions and chose to dance around the ring with arms dangling and chin exposed rather than adopt the forward guard demanded by tradition? Similarly, was he not the self-styled poet whose charm and intelligence reduced us all to tears of laughter whilst simultaneously being classified ‘not up to current standards’ by the US draft board, after an aptitude test in 1966 which revealed Ali’s IQ to be only 78.

It is for reasons such as these that we, perhaps, should not be surprised if Ali’s interpretation of the doctrine of Elijah Muhammad was occasionally subject to a little surreptitious adjustment. Indeed, it would appear that Ali was actively encouraged to do so. The media coverage that was ensured by his involvement in the Muslim movement was apparently sufficient to enable its leaders to turn a blind eye to even the most fundamental of Ali’s behavioural transgressions. The Muslim decree which expressly forbids one man to commit violence on another could, it appears, be conveniently overlooked when you had Ali as a frontman.

Yet despite everything I – we – cannot stop loving him. I – we cannot help but shield our eyes in the radiant glow of the man’s achievements. Ali may have been the man who proclaimed that the white man was the ‘Devil’ whilst surrounding himself with a coterie of pale-faced acolytes; he may also have been the pacifist who was prepared to sacrifice both career and personal liberty for a principle whilst continuing to earn a living in the most brutal and deadly of occupations; he may have been the womaniser who refused to view his women as equals; and he may have been the spokesman of a generation whose words were all too often not his own, but somehow none of these things seem to matter.

Except, of course, that they do.

The luxury of time has permitted me to conclude that in order to enjoy the vicarious friendship of Muhammad Ali you have to be prepared to compromise; you have to be able to turn away from his more baser indiscretions. In the end, you must to come to realise that even one such as he, so perfect in so many respects, was not, in fact, perfect.

It’s a similar predicament that one faces when one finds oneself in a situation in which a friend or work colleague suddenly comes out with a racist or sexist statement that appears totally at odds with the person you had imagined them to be. On such occasions you have to very quickly decide how you are going to react. There are, I believe, two basic alternatives: you can either do the right thing and tell the other person that you find their comments offensive and would they mind very much not repeating them again. Or you can do the more cowardly thing and pretend that you haven’t heard them call a black man a nigger or smile uncomfortably and attempt to change the subject. In my case – if I am honest – I can tell you that on those instances in which I have found myself in such a circumstance I have been known to offer both reactions – I have been both righteous and a coward. Yet not forgetting more obvious considerations such as how much bigger and how much stronger the offending person is than you, the deciding factor in such an dilemma is usually not solely determined by whatever value you place on your moral being, it is more to do with how much you are prepared to put up with in order to remain in the company of the offending person.

In the case of Muhammad Ali I am willing and able to put up with everything that he is prepared to throw at me. If I was, for example, to pick up a newspaper tomorrow morning and discover that Ali is a mass murderer with a propensity for fucking Teddy bears I doubt that the news would in any way dim my blind, dumb admiration for the man. He’s inside me, I’m afraid. When I talk about him and I talk about his deeds, I’m talking about that little part of me I mentioned earlier. The one that is a subconscious contributor to Ali’s many achievements. The little piece that is lodged under my flesh like shrapnel. And however much it itches and threatens to come to the surface, I know that it will never leave me.

This was is excerpt from my 1999 book Rope Burns, published by Headline

4

Muhammad Ali – Hero And Villain

muhammad_li

By now you should not be remotely surprised to learn that one fine evening back in 1980 I somehow conspired to find myself perched on a stool in front of a small television set in my local pub watching a delayed ITV transmission of Muhammad Ali’s foolhardy attempt to win a fourth world title. Of course, it did not matter to me at the time that I had already learned the result of the fight in the newspapers and, were it not for the fact that I, like too many others, was what can only be described as bewitched by Ali’s enormous charisma, it should have been no particular revelation to discover that The Greatest turned out to be just as mortal as the rest of us. Apparently, he was human after all: as capable of bleeding, of bruising, and of succumbing to the debilitating effects of Father Time as the man who had served me the beer that I was having great difficulty swallowing.

Naturally, the benefit of hindsight allows me to contemplate the dismemberment of the Ali legend with a sense of reluctant and undeserved smugness. One does not have to be a boxing expert in order to be able to look back at the circumstances surrounding this invidious spectacle and conclude that Ali had no possible chance of winning the fight. He was thirty-eight-years-of-age by then and for the past couple of years newspaper picture editors had been taking an almost puerile delight in regularly demonstrating to their readers that the body beautiful was not what it used to be. Like those pictures of Elvis taken in the months leading up to his death, in which the bloated singer, with vacant George A Romero stare, slouches onto stage wrapped in sequins and rolls of blubber, photographs of the new – enhanced – Ali were appearing in the tabloids on an almost weekly basis. There was New Ali sitting at the ring apron of some title fight or other, accompanied by a dwindling entourage and a stomach that could have belonged to a pregnant woman. There was New Ali at the dinner table, filling his cheeks with food in the way that Satchmo would once fill his own with air. It was clear that the Ali we were all familiar with was no more; the person who was once described as the most beautiful man in the world had mutated into something else. Ali had become Fat Ali.

No longer forced to endure the endless torture of early morning runs, gym callisthenics and constant sparring sessions, in two years out of the ring Ali had developed rather too much of a liking for the burgers that he had taken to endorsing on television. In horticultural terms, he had gone to seed. However, unlike his former victim George Foreman, whose unexpectedly successful ring comeback in the late-eighties was, if we are to believe the boxer, fuelled by a mountain of Big Macs, it was apparent that Ali’s extra weight would provide no additional advantages when the lure of the ring – as it inevitably would – became too much for his ego to bear.

This is not to say that Ali did not do a good job in extending his own rather extravagant interpretation of reality. Indeed, even the most qualified of observers – Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee amongst them – found themselves rubbing their eyes in wonderment when he began training for his doomed attempt to wrench the heavyweight title from his accomplished successor Larry Holmes. As the extra poundage was sweated away and the Fat Ali persona was exposed as an apparent impostor, fans and critics alike found themselves drawn inexorably into the dream. The rebirth of Ali may have been achieved, as we were to learn later, with the help of prescribed diet pills that left him dangerously dehydrated, not to mention the odd flask or two of black hair dye, but it seemed at the time as if the Master Conjuror had somehow managed to transform himself back into the beautiful, dazzling young athlete whose streamlined features had made his the most recognisable face on planet earth. By the time that he was ready to climb back into the ring and receive the hiding of a lifetime, Ali’s weight was exactly as it had been when he had first fought Sonny Liston back in 1964. More than the Rope-a-Dope in Zaire, more than the Ali Shuffle or the ‘Butterfly’ punch that put down Liston in their second fight, this astonishing re-attainment of youth was the fighter’s greatest feat of illusion.

Personally, I had no doubts at the time as to who would win the fight: even though I was not naïve enough to consider broadcasting my ill-conceived loyalties to the illusion, deep down I was sure that Ali would prevail. There was no logical reasoning behind this conclusion; it was not as though one could run an eye down the statistics for the fight and pinpoint any particular flaw in Holmes’ not inconsiderable armoury. Although he was by no means The Greatest, Holmes was set to become one of history’s more distinguished heavyweight champions. At thirty-years-of-age he was in his prime and, were it not for the fact that it was his misfortune to have been appointed the impossible task of filling the tasselled boots of the man who had once employed him as a sparring partner, Holmes would certainly have become one of the premier stars of the eighties. Yet somehow it seemed to me that Ali would find a way to beat his protégé; it might take a miracle, but then Ali always seemed to have first refusal whenever anybody up there was doling out miracles.

Almost two decades on from that dreadful evening there are several memories that stubbornly refuse to fade. For any trivia fans out there I can inform you that the beer I was endeavouring to drink as the massacre ensued cost the princely sum of thirty-seven new pence a pint. Similarly, I can divulge that a packet of twenty cigarettes was available at the bar for under 50p. Even more trainspotterrishly, I can reveal that the pub’s solitary arcade machine was one of those table-top versions of Galaxians, featuring the usual collection of badly rendered sprites descending through a beer-clouded space and accompanied by an assortment of pings, whistles, fizzes and pops, at a cost to your pocket of ten new pence a game. If you are wondering why I appear determined to waddle in this paddling pool of consumerist nostalgia I need merely point out that Muhammad Ali, in payment for what was, admittedly, to be the worst night of his life, was collecting a fee of $8 million. In modern day terms Ali’s purse for the fight was in excess of $30 million, a truly staggering amount of money for a portly middle-aged ex-champ whose talents had been in steady decline since the early seventies. Another reminder, for those of you out there who weren’t around when Ali was busy putting us all under his spell, of just how enormous a name his was. Ali was the superstars’ superstar: bigger, bolder, brasher, louder, prettier and better paid than any athlete or entertainer in history.

The evening was also memorable in that it was the first occasion I can recall someone using the word ‘fuck’ during a televised prime time sporting event. At the beginning of round ten, as Muhammad Ali slumps into his stool and prepares to drag his heaving body back into the centre of the ring to be used as target practise by a saddened and visibly embarrassed Larry Holmes, the diminutive figure of Angelo Dundee could clearly be heard telling Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown ‘Fuck you! No! I’m stopping it!’ as the other man implores Ali to resume participation in the beating that is placing the boxer’s life in considerable jeopardy. It was also the first (and only) time that I can recall a television boxing commentator actually pleading for a fighter to hit the canvas: “Come on Ali… Either throw a punch or go down! He really can’t linger like this… It’s quite pathetic!” cried the weary voice of Reg Gutteridge who, like the rest of us, was clearly not enjoying the spectacle of Ali’s public execution.

Boxing completists will already be aware that the only stoppage defeat of Ali’s long career was not, in fact, his last fight. The dubious honour of being the last man to defeat the Greatest belongs to Canada’s Trevor Berbick, Commonwealth Champion at the time but himself a future holder of the WBC heavyweight title (Indeed, as well as Larry Holmes, it is Berbick who provides a precarious link between the Ali era and the Mike Tyson era, being in the opposite corner on that night in 1987 in which Tyson became boxing’s youngest ever heavyweight champion). In real terms, however, the Holmes fight was the last hurrah. It was the final full stop at the end of the last sentence of the closing Chapter of a story that had managed to both illuminate and transcend boxing.

At the risk of appearing overly sentimental, those images of Ali’s public pain and humiliation were enough to send me scurrying into the toilets with tears welling up in my eyes. I was a skinny eighteen-year-old by then and to this day I cannot find any rational justification for my reaction. Although it was true that Ali had been around in both the background and foreground of much of my life, it has to be said that he was well down on the list of what I considered important at the time. He wasn’t female, he didn’t come in a glass and there were certainly no portraits of Queen Elizabeth II printed about his torso. However, in common with countless people in every corner of the globe, whatever special quality or combination of special qualities it was that Ali possessed was somehow able to touch some deeper part of me; a part of me which the usual mixture of instinct and social conditioning ensured was usually happily hidden away.

Some twenty years after the horrors of Ali’s final curtain call, the fighter still has a kind of hold over me that I cannot really explain. I am not alone in this, of course: even the most cynical and world-weary of those who follow, write about or indulge in the sport of boxing tend to come over all misty-eyed whenever Ali’s name happens to crop up in conversation. Yet whilst it is certain that Ali as a twentieth century icon seems to exemplify the more positive and heroic aspects of boxing, there have been many fighters – some of whom I have known personally – who have completely failed to move me in circumstances which should have had even the most stony-faced of us reaching for the Kleenex.

Yet Ali was not without his flaws. The occasional unforgivable cruelty that he bestowed upon his ring opponents is often buried away in the hyperbole surrounding his battles with the US government and his human rights campaigning. Moreover, not only did Ali sometimes appear to take pleasure in humiliating and, one might even argue, actually physically torturing opponents who were patently inferior athletes (his contests against Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell are particularly brutal examples of this spiteful and malicious aspect of Ali’s personality) but the personal insults that he meted out to rival Joe Frazier were apparently sufficient to reduce the great heavyweight champion’s children to tears.

Ali’s ambiguous treatment of women also left much to be desired: during his infamous 1974 appearance on the BBC’s Parkinson show, for example, the newly-recrowned heavyweight champion arranged for a group of Muslim women to sit out in the audience as an example of how the female form should be, in his words, ‘properly dressed’. Clad in simple cotton gowns designed to hide the contours of the figure, and wearing head scarves that left only the hands and face exposed, these women were the focus for a startlingly incoherent lecture on Muslim ideology by a frenzied Muhammad Ali.

Not, one might say, entirely unexpected behaviour from a man who had attached himself so securely to the Moslem movement that he had been prepared to make the ultimate statement of reinvention and actually change his name. However, his actions take on an entirely different complexion when we realise that Ali, by then married to Belinda Boyd (having divorced his first wife, Sonji Roi, when she refused to discard her Western clothing in favour of her husband’s preferred attire) was involved at the time in an extra-marital affair with the decidedly un-Muslimesque Veronica Porche (Amazingly, whilst in the Philippines in 1975 for his third fight with Joe Frazier, Ali would actually introduce Veronica to President Ferdinand Marcos as his wife). Although Miss Porch would go on to become Ali’s third wife, such extra-curricular canoodlings were in direct contravention of the guidelines set down by the Nation of Islam.

The breaking of rules, however, was a distinctive and important feature of the Muhammad Ali mystique. After all, are we not talking about the man who literally rewrote the boxing rulebook? Was Ali not the fighter who eschewed boxing’s conventions and chose to dance around the ring with arms dangling and chin exposed rather than adopt the forward guard demanded by tradition? Similarly, was he not the self-styled poet whose charm and intelligence reduced us all to tears of laughter whilst simultaneously being classified ‘not up to current standards’ by the US draft board, after an aptitude test in 1966 which revealed Ali’s IQ to be only 78.

It is for reasons such as these that we, perhaps, should not be surprised if Ali’s interpretation of the doctrine of Elijah Muhammad was occasionally subject to a little surreptitious adjustment. Indeed, it would appear that Ali was actively encouraged to do so. The media coverage that was ensured by his involvement in the Muslim movement was apparently sufficient to enable its leaders to turn a blind eye to even the most fundamental of Ali’s behavioural transgressions. The Muslim decree which expressly forbids one man to commit violence on another could, it appears, be conveniently overlooked when you had Ali as a frontman.

Yet despite everything I – we – cannot stop loving him. I – we cannot help but shield our eyes in the radiant glow of the man’s achievements. Ali may have been the man who proclaimed that the white man was the ‘Devil’ whilst surrounding himself with a coterie of pale-faced acolytes; he may also have been the pacifist who was prepared to sacrifice both career and personal liberty for a principle whilst continuing to earn a living in the most brutal and deadly of occupations; he may have been the womaniser who refused to view his women as equals; and he may have been the spokesman of a generation whose words were all too often not his own, but somehow none of these things seem to matter.

Except, of course, that they do.

The luxury of time has permitted me to conclude that in order to enjoy the vicarious friendship of Muhammad Ali you have to be prepared to compromise; you have to be able to turn away from his more baser indiscretions. In the end, you must to come to realise that even one such as he, so perfect in so many respects, was not, in fact, perfect.

It’s a similar predicament that one faces when one finds oneself in a situation in which a friend or work colleague suddenly comes out with a racist or sexist statement that appears totally at odds with the person you had imagined them to be. On such occasions you have to very quickly decide how you are going to react. There are, I believe, two basic alternatives: you can either do the right thing and tell the other person that you find their comments offensive and would they mind very much not repeating them again. Or you can do the more cowardly thing and pretend that you haven’t heard them call a black man a nigger or smile uncomfortably and attempt to change the subject. In my case – if I am honest – I can tell you that on those instances in which I have found myself in such a circumstance I have been known to offer both reactions – I have been both righteous and a coward. Yet not forgetting more obvious considerations such as how much bigger and how much stronger the offending person is than you, the deciding factor in such an dilemma is usually not solely determined by whatever value you place on your moral being, it is more to do with how much you are prepared to put up with in order to remain in the company of the offending person.

In the case of Muhammad Ali I am willing and able to put up with everything that he is prepared to throw at me. If I was, for example, to pick up a newspaper tomorrow morning and discover that Ali is a mass murderer with a propensity for fucking Teddy bears I doubt that the news would in any way dim my blind, dumb admiration for the man. He’s inside me, I’m afraid. When I talk about him and I talk about his deeds, I’m talking about that little part of me I mentioned earlier. The one that is a subconscious contributor to Ali’s many achievements. The little piece that is lodged under my flesh like shrapnel. And however much it itches and threatens to come to the surface, I know that it will never leave me.

This was is excerpt from my 1999 book Rope Burns, published by Headline

13

Five Kings: The majesty of Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Holmes and Norton

My first article on boxing since I retired from writing about the sport in 1998. It’s a tribute of sorts to the great fighter Kenny Norton, who died earlier this month. I’ve written it for http://www.britboxmag.co.uk. It’s a fairly new magazine that you really should take a look at if you’re a boxing fan. It has a very nice design and excellent articles. I hope they won’t mind me putting it here in its 3,500 word entirety. They’re sure to cut it considerably for their mag.

Five Kings

By Ian Probert

It’s a balmy sunny day in August 1970 and former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is sitting in the passenger seat of a gold coloured cadillac convertible. The grill and the hood are smashed in, testament to the ineptitude, recklessness and disregard for money of the vehicle’s driver, current heavyweight champion and sometime nightclub singer Joe Frazier. ‘I make like thirty thousand in less than about four five weeks just singing,’ boasts Frazier, as he drives unsteadily through the streets of New York.

‘Awww, you ain’t got that kind of money, man,’ says Ali, his eyes suddenly widening as the other man opens up his wallet and displays its contents. ‘Wow, you carry that much dough in your wallet?’

Frazier smiles. ‘Four, five hundred,’ he says. ‘Need some?’

‘How about a hundred?’ asks Ali. ‘I may stay overnight.’

‘Yeah, okay.’

‘Pay you next week,’ he says, pocketing the hundred-dollar bill that Frazier has just passed to him and staring into space as if in a daze. ‘I owe Joe Frazier a hundred dollars. Never thought the day would come when I’d owe Joe Frazier one hundred dollars…’

In September this year former WBC heavyweight champion Ken Norton died after a long battle with illness. Norton was an unusual fighter: not so much because of an awkward style that frequently gave technically superior boxers palpitations, but more to do with the fact that he remains the only heavyweight champion of the modern era never to win or defend his title in the ring. It’s an unenviable record and hints perhaps of good fortune or even corruption. But there was more to Kenny Norton than a Trivial Pursuit question. For Norton was an illustrious member of an elite quintet of fighters that lit up boxing in the 1970s in the same way that Duran, Hagler, Hearns and Leonard illuminated the sport in the 1980s.

I’m talking of course about Norton’s distinguished heavyweight contemporaries Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes. In all these five giants of the ring were involved in twelve separate contests. Holmes fought in two of these,  Foreman in four, Norton and Frazier in five, and Ali in eight. It was a rivalry that began with Ali in 1971 and ended with Ali in 1980. And during that nine-year period a worldwide audience of boxing and non-boxing fans were thrilled to be able to bear witness to a series of battles that scaled hitherto unheard of heights of drama and excitement.

Round One – Joe Frazier WPTS 15 Muhammad Ali, 08/03/1971

It was billed as the ‘Fight Of The Century’ and as if to give credence to this exotic claim Frank Sinatra was employed by Life magazine as a slightly starstruck ringside photographer. It took place in Madison Square Gardens and was the first and only time that two undefeated world heavyweight champions were to meet in the ring. It was a battle of contrasts. In one corner was reigning WBC and WBA heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Born in South Carolina in 1944 Frazier looked every inch what a fighter was supposed to look like. With massive shoulders honed from chopping wood and a face that looked like it had come shrink-wrapped with lumps and bruises in anticipation of it’s owner’s chosen career, Frazier presented an intimidating spectacle. In the other corner was Muhammad Ali: handsome, unmarked, brash, arrogant, the dictionary definition of an adonis. The very antithesis of what a boxer was supposed to be.

The background to the fight is well known but still worth repeating: Ali, Olympic Gold medalist in the light-heavyweight division in 1960 was then the most famous boxer on planet earth; later he was to become arguably her most famous person. After a rapid rise to prominence characterised by impossibly fast movement and reflexes in the the ring and an improbably fast mouth out of it, Ali – then known as Cassius Clay – had claimed the heavyweight crown in 1964 with a stoppage win over the brutish Sonny Liston. Immediately after the fight Ali had abandoned his given name and announced his conversion to Islam. This move mystified and frightened much of middle America. Three years later when Ali refused to to be drafted into the army he was stripped of his titles.

In retrospect, this was a terrible loss to the sport of boxing: Ali, who had proven himself peerless in making ten exquisite defences of his title, was at the height of his powers. While others sought to fill the gap left by his absence, Ali’s energies and rapidly dwindling finances were devoted instead to a lengthy legal battle to avoid incarceration.

But Ali’s loss was to be Joe Frazier’s gain. An Olympic gold medalist himself at heavyweight in 1964 Frazier had been on a collision course with Ali since turning pro. Frazier’s most powerful weapon was a juddering left hook, which saw him rattle through the opposition to claim Ali’s vacant title in 1968. And while it would certainly have been interesting to have seen what what would have happened if the pair had met with Ali as Champion and Frazier challenger, the closest we ever got to it was in their 1971 meeting.

Three years out of boxing, Ali had wisely attempted to rid himself of the ring rust with a couple of largely unconvincing tune-up fights. The ex-champion was the favourite but Frazier was buoyed by the confidence of his conviction that he was actually a better fighter than his rival. And in fifteen workmanlike rounds that never quite lived up to the fight’s billing Frazier proved that he had it within him to slow down Ali’s movement with body shots that resembled Stallone hitting a cattle carcass, hurting him in round 11 and finally felling Ali with that vaunted left hook in the final round. Ali had been down before, memorably back in 1963 in England by Henry Cooper, but in managing to regain his feet and complete the remainder of the round Ali had demonstrated that he had bravery enough to match the speed that at 29 was already a rapidly diminishing attribute. It was this bravery which would ultimately cost Ali more than any title.

Round two – George Foreman WTKO2 Joe Frazier 22/01/73

Enter George Foreman.

Born in Texas in 1949, Foreman was the third of the quintet to win the Olympic Gold medal, this time in Mexico 1968. But whereas Joe Frazier at 5’10” was a relatively small heavyweight, Foreman at almost 6’ 4” and weighing 218 pounds was a giant with a knockout punch to match. The jovial punching preacher from the grill commercials that we all know and snigger at today was definitely a thing of the future. In those days Foreman was a devastating puncher full of brooding menace. Since turning pro in 1969 Foreman had knocked out 34 out of 37. It has often been said that Foreman was the Sonny Liston of his day but he was was far more frightening. His movement may have been limited, his boxing skills possibly even more so but his punch made up for any such weaknesses. It truly was the great leveller, as a certain Michael Moorer was to find out 21 years later.

Frazier and Foreman met at the National Stadium in Jamaica with the champion being the bookies’ favourite. In the event the fight proved to be a complete mismatch. The challenger simply walking through whatever Frazier had to offer. Within two minutes Frazier was down from a clubbing uppercut. By the end of the round the champion had been on the canvas three times. Frazier hit the canvas twice more in round two, the final punch literally lifting the Philadelphian off his feet. It was a forbidding performance by the 24-year-old Foreman that redrew the heavyweight map.

Round three – Ken Norton WPTS12 Muhammad Ali

In retrospect the decision to match Muhammad Ali with handsome former marine Ken Norton was at the very least risky. Norton, who came into the fight with a record of 29 wins and one loss was hardly the stuff of journeymen. Even so, Muhammad Ali, on a run of ten straight wins since the Frazier loss was supremely confident, telling onlookers that Norton was an ‘amateur’.

Unfortunately for the ex-champion the ‘Amateur’ managed to throw a punch at a certain point in the fight that fractured Ali’s Jaw. ‘I was taking out the mouthpiece and there was more and more blood on it,’ recalled Ali. ‘My bucket with the water and ice in it became red…’ Ali claimed that the injury occurred in the early rounds but Norton maintained that it happened in the final round.

Whatever the truth, Ali managed to remain competitive while trying to protect his injury. The fact that he lost a split decision nursing such a profound disability is further evidence of his reckless bravery. For Ali, however, the loss was a disaster. If he was ever to fight new heavyweight king George Foreman for the title he now had two men to beat: Norton and leading contender Joe Frazier.

Round four – Muhammad Ali WPTS12 Ken Norton 10/09/73

Muhammad Ali waited six months for his jaw to heal before once more stepping into the ring with the fighting marine. The pair met in California where Ali struggled to achieve a points decision over his conqueror. Norton, it was becoming obvious, was Ali’s bogey-man. His herky-jerky style and habit of throwing the jab from the waist were qualities that Ali could never quite master. There could be no excuses this time: Norton had proven that he had what it took to take to stretch Muhammad Ali to the limit.

Round five – Muhammad Ali WPTS 12 Joe Frazier 28/01/74

Although he would never admit it, Joe Frazier had obviously gotten under Muhammad Ali’s skin. Gone were the days when the two rivals could happily sit together in Frazier’s car; Frazier was hard-pressed to even give ‘The Greatest’ the time of day, let alone lend him money. This was because Ali had unleashed the full weight of the cruelest aspect of his nature on the hapless Frazier. Frazier was not ugly, nor was he stupid, nor was he an ‘Uncle Tom’. But such was the force of Ali’s personality that when he called his opponent those things during the build up to their second meeting people tended to get taken in by his words. Ali later claimed sheepishly that he was only trying to sell the fight but he had to have been aware that this was a fight that sold itself.

The pair met again at Madison Square Gardens but this time the result was different. Another largely uneventful contest saw Ali claim a points decision. The crowd were somewhat underwhelmed, this was not even the fight of the month let alone the fight of the century. They had expected a little more drama – they would get it when the pair met for the third time.

Round six – George Foreman TKO2 Ken Norton 26/03/74

Norton’s unlikely reward for losing to Muhammad Ali was a shot at Foreman’s heavyweight title. The pair met in Venezuela. Surely Norton who had pushed Ali so hard over 24 rounds, reasoned critics, had what to took to push Foreman a little harder than Frazier had? And indeed he did. In fact, Norton managed to stay on his feet for the whole of a forgettable first round. However early in the second, a brain scrambling left hook deposited the challenger on the canvas. After climbing groggily to his feet another attack from the taller man had Norton seeing stars. Was there anybody who could stop George Foreman?

Round seven – Muhammad Ali KO8 George Foreman 30/10/74

‘Foreman turned his back. In the thirty seconds before the fight began, he grasped the ropes in his corner and bent over from the waist so that his big and powerful buttocks were presented to Ali. He flexed in this position so long it took on a kind of derision as though to declare: ‘My farts to you.’’

Normal Mailer, The Fight, 1975.

Muhammad Ali’s finest hour? Possibly. Boxing’s greatest spectacle? Most probably. Ali was thirty-two-years-of-age and could no longer dance. That is to say Ali wasn’t aware that he could no longer dance until he got to the end of a first round in which he had been relentlessly pursued by his 26-year-old opponent. It was at this defining moment that Ali was made aware of the limitations of age and chose to improvise. In the steaming jungle of Kinshasa, Zaire, before a worldwide audience of millions, Muhammad Ali reinvented himself. Choosing to lay back on the ropes and invite the giant behemoth Foreman to aim punches at him, Ali picked away at his opponent as if he was unravelling a particularly stubborn and annoying thread.

At ringside, onlookers were in tears, genuinely believing that George Foreman was about to kill the ex-champion. And on many occasions it appeared that might just be the case: Ali apparently wilting under the constant shower of bombs that fell in his direction. But the monumental effort took its toll on Foreman. By the seventh round he was looking desperately for a second wind. It never came. Foreman seemed almost grateful to be gazing sleepily up at the ring lights as a succession of quick-fire punches felled the giant fighter.

Many of those present at this amazing spectacle failed to realise in all the excitement that they had just witnessed a kind of magic. Boxing’s greatest conjurer had undertaken boxing’s greatest conjuring trick. For a moment boxing ceased to be just a sport.

Round eight – Muhammad Ali TKO 14 Joe Frazier 10/01/75

After the majesty of Zaire everything else just had to be an anti-climax. Surely? So it appeared when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier stepped into a Manila ring for their monumental and now legendary rubber match. After the Foreman fight Ali had been showing signs of age, only managing to defeat Ron Lyle with a desperately late rally and waltzing to a unanimous decision over Joe Bugner. Even so, Frazier was deemed to be easy meat. Not the same fighter after his mauling by Foreman. Well past his sell-by date.

Watch the video and you’ll see that most of this was true. What becomes apparent, however, is that the decline of the two fighters, the erosion of their skills, had more or less matched one another for pace. The core of what remained however, was pride and determination in such abundance that it very nearly killed both men.

There was nothing scientific about this third encounter. Both men choosing to trade blows until there were no more blows to trade. If we saw such an unremittingly brutal spectacle in a movie we would be shaking our heads in mocking skepticism. During the build-up to the contest Ali had humiliatingly dubbed Frazier ‘The Gorilla’; Frazier’s son had even been bullied in the playground. Frazier found extra reserves of energy in an effort to force those insults back down Ali’s throat. And he very nearly did.

By the climax of an epic fourteenth round both men were ready to fall. In actual fact, in the end it came down to an attritional battle of trainers. Would Angelo Dundee or Eddie Futch see sense and draw a close to the carnage? History records that it was Futch who made that fateful decision, seconds before Ali was apparently ready to pull himself out. Whatever the case the fight effectively signalled the end of both mens’ careers. They had literally punched the life force out of each other. There was very little left.

Round Nine –  George Foreman TKO5 Joe Frazier 15/06/76

There may have been very little left but when it came to gameness Joe Frazier could not be faulted. A mere five months after his titanic struggle in Manila Frazier was back in the ring with the only other man to beat him. For his part, the fragile psyche of George Foreman was in the rebuilding stage. After that devastating loss to Ali, Foreman was involved in a crazy up and downer with dangerous slugger Ron Lyle in Ring Magazine’s Fight Of The Year (if you’ve never seen it, folks, YouTube it right now!). He had also travelled to Montreal, where he fought five men in the same night in an exhibition. (Not at the same time, it has to be said).

In their marginally more competitive rematch Frazier, sporting a shaven head and chin, managed to last until round five before succumbing to Foreman’s relentless pressure. After the fight Frazier retired, leaving Foreman to continue his quest for a rematch with Ali. This was never to happen. Four fights later George Foreman was beaten by Jimmy Young and he himself retired after seeing visions in the dressing room afterwards. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have anticipated that 17 years later Foreman would reclaim the linear heavyweight crown.

Round ten – Muhammad Ali WPTS15 Ken Norton 28/09/76

Having spent 39 rounds in the company of Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali could have been forgiven for vowing never to get into the ring with his bête noir ever again. If any more evidence were needed that Ali was incapable of finding a solution to Norton it was provided in their third encounter, this time at Yankee Stadium. Again the fight was by no means a classic. There were no broken jaws and in fact most neutrals had Norton winning by a comfortable margin. Not so the judges, who always favoured Ali in the way that modern time-keepers favoured Fergie. Indeed, retrospective punch stats reveal that Norton connected with 286 total punches to Ali’s 199.

Round eleven – Larry Holmes WPTS15 Ken Norton 09/06/78

After Muhammad Ali unexpectedly surrendered his crown to seven-fight novice Leon Spinks (yet another Olympic heavyweight champion), Norton was named leading contender. But instead of fighting Norton, Spinks opted for a toothless rematch with Ali and thus the WBC title was awarded to Norton without a punch ever being thrown. Punches were duly thrown, however, in Norton’s first defence of his title. Larry Holmes, the last of our quartet of kings, had been one of Ali’s sparring partners and had learned well from his employer. Born in 1949 in Easton, Pennsylvania, Holmes’ development as a fighter had been protracted and without fanfare. Often fighting on the undercards of Ali fights, it was now Holmes’ turn to carry the torch. Just as Ali had done, the cultured ‘Easton Assassin’ struggled to accommodate Norton’s unusual style. And it took an incredible fifteenth round for him to win on the tightest of split decisions. The Larry Holmes era had begun.

Round twelve – Larry Holmes WTKO10 Muhammad Ali 02/10/80

It is one of boxing’s grand traditions that in order to achieve true succession the young lion must first annihilate the memory of his predecessor. So it was that an aged Muhammad Ali returned to the ring after a two-year layoff in order to officially pass the baton to his former protégé. A lot of people wondered what a seventies icon such as Ali was doing in the eighties. But for his part the great conjurer almost convinced onlookers that he had one final miracle left in the gas tank. Ali was thirty-eight-years-of-age but externally looked almost as he had done way back in the first Liston fight. Internally, however, Ali was a sick man. Already suffering from the early onset of Parkinson’s syndrome, taking medication for a thyroid disorder, and his slim torso not honed by dedicated training but by diet pills, Ali was not even a shadow of the shadow of the fighter he once was.

As always Ali took his beating like a man; with Holmes visibly concerned for the well-being of his former employer as he aimed reluctant blows at his immobile foe. Those that were able to watch the slaughter through cupped hands noted that the fight was finally stopped in round 10. In truth, it should have been halted several weeks before the opening bell.

The death of Ken Norton leaves only three of the quintet of kings surviving. Joe Frazier died in 2011, never forgiving or forgetting the taunts that had been aimed at him by his greatest opponent. Larry Holmes and George Foreman both made comebacks that lasted well into their forties. Holmes tried three more times more to regain a version of the world title that he had lost to Michael Spinks, losing on points to Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall and getting knocked out for the only time in his career by Mike Tyson. Foreman was also decisioned by Holyfield before regaining his title with that astonishing knockout of Michael Moorer in 1994.

Muhammad Ali was the only one of the quintet to fight all four rivals. And he bears the wounds of those fights to this day in the most awful way imaginable. The man who was once boxing’s most splendid exponent and finest advertisement is now a shambling wreck, a grim warning for anybody who ever wishes to lace up the gloves.