Gonzo Sports Digest; on Muhammad Ali

[Picture; street art in Paris by Combo]

Obituaries just aren’t for me, they’re easy enough to write – brief biography, sentimental tone and all that – it just doesn’t appeal. Without me weighing in on Muhammad Ali there’s been an absolute deluge of coverage, tributes and the like over the last few days, some of it good some of it terrible.  Falling into the latter category Piers Morgan has rattled out a few bits for the Daily Mail, but I’ve got no interest in reading them. In any case I don’t really know why anyone cares what he thinks about the life and times of The Greatest. I’ve seen him blunder his way through American and racial politics in the past, I can’t imagine adding a historical element will have helped matters on that score. That’s why I feel confident enough to label them terrible without actually reading.

Nope. No way would I offer any kind of obituary off my own back. But then again I can’t let the death of Muhammad Ali go by without a mention, so this is as close as I’m going to get.

Boxing as a sport is almost unique in the attention paid to history. Every new generation of fans watches videos of ‘classics’ involving the greats in a way that just doesn’t happen in other disciplines.

Perhaps because it doesn’t really evolve in the same way as other sports, particularly team sports.  It is just two men in the ring with barely-padded gloves beating the hell out of each other for 12 rounds (16 in Ali’s day) or until one of them stops and it always has been. Using football as a comparison; that game is barely recognisable to the one played just a few decades ago.

Sure I appreciate Pele, Johan Cruyff, George Best and Alfredo Di Stefano are widely regarded as some of the best the world has ever seen. That said I have never, to my knowledge, watched any of their games in its entirety. It requires the effort and devotion of a true purist, and while I’ll watch documentaries and see a massive amount of highlight reels, I can’t see the appeal of a full 90 minutes when you know the result.

The Sweet Science is different. Sugar Ray Robinson, Mike Tyson in his prime and the Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn epics were all before my time but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve watched some of those fights in full and seen countless hours of video footage, to such an extent where you feel you know more about men who have long since hung up their gloves than you do about those of the current era, even fighters you are very familiar with.   I’ve followed the career of David Haye since he beat Jean Marc Mormeck back in 2007, watching every fight since then, I could say the same or similar about guys like Manny Pacquiao, Ricky Hatton, Tyson Fury, Carl Froch and more – but I don’t know any of them the way I feel I know Ali, who retired from the sport before I existed.

The only thing missing when watching battles from years gone by is the pre and post-fight coverage. But with Ali you almost get that, almost, just because of the sheer amount of quotes and sound bites out there.  Even though he’s now gone future generations of boxing fans will feel the same way I and countless others do about Ali.

So rather than a typical tribute or any (further) kind of sentimental dirge I’ve put together a few things that may be of interest. They may or may not have cropped up elsewhere amid this massive outpouring, they’re just things I quite like – one of which is the main picture, the work of a street artist going by the name of Combo in Paris.

Ali features prominently, or relatively prominently, in the Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I’d urge anyone to read it incidentally and not just for the Ali bits. Here is a small extract from the early stages of their relationship, when Malcolm X was a minister or variation of for the Nation of Islam in 1962

I heard how Cassius showed up in Muslim mosques and restaurants in various cities. And if I happened to be speaking anywhere within reasonable distance of wherever Cassius was, he would be present. I liked him. Some contagious quality about him made him one of the very few people I ever invited to my home. (Malcolm X’s wife) Betty liked him. Our children were crazy about him. Cassius was simply a likeable, friendly, clean-cut, down-to-earth youngster. I noticed how alert he was even in little details. I suspected that there was a plan in his public clowning. I suspected, and he confirmed to me, that he was doing everything possible to con and “psyche” Sonny Liston into coming into the ring angry, poorly trained, and overconfident, expecting another of his vaunted one-round knockouts. Not only was Cassius receptive to advice, he solicited it. Primarily, I impressed upon him to what a great extent a public figure’s success depends upon how alert and knowledgeable he is to the true natures and to the true motives of all of the people who flock around him. I warned him about the “foxes,” his expression for the aggressive, cute young females who flocked after him; I told Cassius that instead of “foxes,” they really were wolves.  

Ali turned his back on Malcolm X when the latter left the Nation of Islam to practice Sunni Islam. He later admitted he regarded that as one of his biggest regrets when he too switched to Sunni Islam around a decade after his former friend’s assassination.

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I first came across Hunter S Thompson’s Last Tango in Vegas in ‘The Great Shark Hunt’ anthology. It covers the fall-out from his defeat to Leon Spinks, unsurprisingly that particular fight hasn’t been massively mentioned over the last few days.  It has been said that Tyson Fury’s win over Wladimir Klitschko is the greatest upset of all time but it wasn’t, that would be Spinks’ win over Ali.  Don’t worry, The Champ settled the score in the rematch. I’m sure there’s a PDF somewhere but they’re a hassle and Rolling Stone have published the first half of it anyway.  Who knows? Maybe they’ll get the second bit online soon too.

Muhammad Ali: Last Tango in Vegas, via Rolling Stone.

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A few Muhammad Ali videos, just because.

The first is the famous or infamous ‘phantom punch’ from his second fight with Sonny Liston.  The second is some stuff on the Vietnam war, which is perhaps where his skills as an orator are best demonstrated.

 

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