The ’70s, for me, was the last great boxing decade and that was almost entirely due to Muhammad Ali.
My conception of what the pugilistic art is supposed to be is based, almost entirely, on that portion of Ali’s career. He wasn’t as young he’d started boxing professionally a decade earlier and maybe even not as strong (more TKOs than KOs), but that also meant he had to box with that glorious brain almost as much as he did with his fists.
I watched him invent rope-a-dope, a coverup move that forced his opponents to tire themselves out by repeatedly trying to box through Ali’s formidable forearms as he used them to cover his face. Like so much that Ali did back then, it was like something out of a movie about boxing but it happened in real life; and I usually saw it all live, on television.
Ali was truly a larger-than-life figure, certainly the first I had ever encountered. To see him in the ring and out of it was electrifying.
Ali was among the very first athletes to understand that professional sports were part of show business. I’m not saying Ali took boxing lightly far from it but he understood that keeping his audiencefans and opponents entertained would focus more attention on his bouts.
He was very good at it.
We were all in Ali’s sway in the ’70s. ABC would clear its schedule and we’d all clear ours to watch for freethe greatest boxer who ever lived defend his title, lose it and then win it back more than once.
What he was doing back then was mythic and sometimes beautiful. And when Ali wasn’t in the ring, he was on TV glibly engaging with other figures of the time and even his friend/foe sportscaster Howard Cosell. I saw some of that, too, though I really lived for his fights.
In the ring
Not all of Ali’s opponents were worthy of his ring time, though isn’t that still true of today’s boxing champions (of whom I can name none)? They have to fight a lot of losers between the “meaningful” bouts.
No matter who Ali was fighting, I would watch, waiting for the moment when he started to dance. A dancing Ali was an engaged Ali, a boxer who was about to tap into all his formidable gifts to make his opponent look ridiculous and, ultimately, make them pay.
Ali’s losses devastated me, which only made the improbable comebacks more incredible.
I wanted Ali to box forever. I didn’t understand the cost. I’m not sure Ali did. The bouts with Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick probably never should have happened. By then I was old enough to see the man behind the magic. I saw Ali’s painful humanity. It was, honestly, depressing to realize he was no longer “The Greatest.”
Never the same
That decade of boxing, Ali’s decade, cast a long shadow. All that came after seemed diminished not just by his absence from the sport, but by how no one could truly step up to take his place. By the ’90s the Mike Tyson years there was nothing left of the Ali boxing ethos.
The downfall of boxing as a sport only served to burnish the Ali years. As for me, I spent time learning more about Ali the man, not just the champ.
You see, all the years I watched him, I was blissfully unaware of all Ali had gone through just to box in the ’70s. I didn’t know about his opposition to the Vietnam War and the terrible price he paid for that stance. I didn’t even know his original name.
As Ali reemerged in the spotlight hobbled by a disease that may have been caused by the sport he loved the world also seemed to bring Ali back into focus.
Ali was special, as a boxer, as an activist, as a risk taker, as an icon.
“The Greatest” now has new meaning and the myth, it turns out, was real and we may never see its likes again.
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