Was it all worth it?
I find myself asking the question after looking at the last known photographs of Muhammad Ali and having waded through hectares of gushing verbiage about the ‘Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century’.
The answer, based on the pictorial evidence, surely must be No.
The GATC he may have been in his prime but in his dotage – the entire final third of his life – Ali was a shrinking, stumbling, whispering wreck who couldn’t have tied his own shoelaces even if he could have reached them. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? The man could hardly get up out of a chair.
And yet I was a part of the adulation which gave him that GATC title, admired the footwork, the staccato combinations of punches, the bobbing and weaving. We found it greatly amusing when he yelled at his opponents, some of them for being labelled Uncle Toms, others for no better reason than that they did not possess his skills. Interviewers roared with laughter at his jokes, and we went along.
I watched him fight, live, on two occasions, the first time at Madison Square Garden, the second at Yankee Stadium, both in New York City. The opponent in the first fight was a nonentity beyond my recall. In the second it was Ken Norton, whom Ali fought three times, winning twice. Ali won their last contest, the fight that I saw, on points, but the decision was disputed. There were even a few boos. For the Ali we saw that evening had fallen a long way from the Ali that the world had so lauded in Zaire – the Rumble-in-the-Jungle – or even the Ali who after two attempts finally demolished Joe Frazier in the Philippines – the so-called Thriller in Manila.
I admit it: I enjoyed watching him fight. I even enjoyed the circus that preceded and, when he won, followed each bout. The Ali wit and wisdom was displayed for such delectation. Now that he has gone I feel rather ashamed for having chuckled along with the rest.
The decline in his health, both mental and physical over the later ill-conceived course of his career was nothing to what followed in his retirement years, when in the iron grip of Parkinson’s syndrome. Yet still he commanded the affection of the world – and the entire world, it seems, from ghettoes in Los Angeles to villages in Africa. He was admired even in white Republican redoubts in America’s mid-west, at last forgiven for his ‘anti-American’ activities, the refusal to be drafted and the association with an Islamist of doubtful pedigree.
Nowhere was he more appreciated, of course, than in his ever-widening circle of advisors, trainers, agents and so-called ‘friends’ – the leeches who sucked out his money to the tune, it has been reported, of fifty million dollars, a quoted figure that one newspaper said had ‘mysteriously disappeared’ from his fortune, along with what was left of his dignity. I’m not sure there is much mystery about it. Towards the end, I’ve read, he was no more than comfortably off.
Boxing was always a murderous, corrupt and cynical business – as much to do with sport as bear-baiting and cock-fighting once were – and Ali may have transcended it with style and grace, but in the end ….. Well, just look at the photographs and television clips. Watch him struggling to light the Olympic flame, his hands trembling uncontrollably, his eyes rheumy, his voice reduced to a hoarse whisper.
What happened to Ali, and worse, has happened to thousands of fighters, most of them forgotten for the simple reason that they were not Ali – although who knows how many might have been if their brains had not been shaken about so often in their skulls so early on that putting one foot in front of another required careful thought.
If this sounds as if I feel guilty, I do. No, it’s not my fault that Ali climbed into a ring several times too often – his advisors can take the rap for that – but still I feel ashamed. Not for having contributed directly in his demise but for having done so viscerally, as part of a baying mob, both before and after it was likely, if not obvious, that the denouement would be tragic.
Boxing is a travesty as sport or entertainment, an outlet for unworthy primal urges that demean us all. The sad part is that it took most of us half a century to recognise the fact.
If Ali helped us get there, then perhaps his sacrifice was not entirely in vain.