Saturday, June 4, 2016

One more time-Who's the Champ of the World?

Sad news as Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74.
Such a man and career deserves more than just a recap of his many victories,you can read those anywhere and I wanted to make this more than that.
I wanted to make this about how Ali was a part of my life and the memories that I had.

I'm too young to remember the supreme fighting machine that Ali was in his early incarnation.
That fighter was before I was born and that fighter was the purest and arguably greatest heavyweight of all time.
I missed out on the man that stopped the unbeatable Sonny Liston,tortured Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell for not acknowledging his conversion to the Islamic faith and dominated Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley in a manner that no one had ever done to the two veteran contenders.
That was Ali's peak as a boxer,but it was far from his peak as an icon.

I missed out on his stance on the Vietnam War,which cost him three and a half years of his peak and likely the first fight against Joe Frazier,which few can deny was the greatest athletic event of the 20th century,and that was more heroic than anything in the ring.
His decision to not join the armed forces and gave up the title and his career to not fight in the war,even though that assignment would not have resulted in combat duty.was courageous in a different way-doing what you felt was the right thing despite losing everything that had been worked for and gained.

I missed that Ali,but I was able to see even more.
My first memories were his win and loss against Ken Norton,the first fight and loss resulting in a broken jaw.
Ali in a hospital bed with Norton visiting him was a picture revisited often in the boxing magazines of the age.
I also remember,of course,his revenge win over Joe Frazier (in a non-title) fight,his title win over George Foreman and the Thrilla in Manila-the final chapter in the Ali-Frazier book and the bout that took so much out of Ali's tank...

However,Ali was the champion as I moved through elementary school and we were able to see many of his defenses live on network television!
Some against top contenders such as powerhitting Earnie Shavers on NBC and others against overmatched Europeans like Belgium's Jean-Pierre Coopman on CBS and England's Richard Dunn on NBC grew great ratings the like which no boxer today or then could touch.
Ali was also a icon to kids as well as not only the heavyweight champion,he was a comic book star in DC Comics 1978 Superman vs Muhammad Ali (in one of those oversized DC's specials of the time) and a toy star with Mego's 1976 release of an action figure (in a time when those things didn't exist of real people for boys) complete with a ring and an opponent called "the contender" that looked suspiciously like Ken Norton!
The set that included a ring was the centerpiece of a young Shawn's 1976 Christmas and to this day,Ali (minus a hand covered with a boxing glove) resides in my attic and on occasion,I bump into the champ on archive excursions.
Perhaps the champ is headed for a more prominent home on the next occasion that we meet.

As Ali stayed busy in the ring with defenses against lesser contenders as a way to make money and stay sharp for his defenses against the better contenders,he accepted a bout against Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks on CBS.
Back then,the network would put a full card of top fights on air in prime time and as a nine year old Shawn watched with my grandfather,got tired and woke the next morning to be stunned with the news of Leon Spinks had won the decision and taken the belt away.

It would be seven months of Leon Spinks as kids of the generation that lost their two front teeth would be dubbed "Leon" for years after for the missing bridge of Spinks,who would never make a defense of the WBC title as it was stripped for Spinks accepting a lucrative rematch vs Ali rather than a lighter check against Larry Holmes (who would be the next great heavyweight) and would be more noted for his bizarre outside the ring behavior than anything else before the rematch.
Seven months to the day,ABC televised the Ali-Spinks rematch for the WBA title (Only two sanctioning bodies back then) and with his memorable antagonist Howard Cosell behind the mike,quoting the lyrics of Bob Dylan's Forever Young,Ali won the title back to become the first three time heavyweight champion and entered retirement.

We also got socially acceptable Ali as he became more mainstream and how much more mainstream can you be than on Saturday morning cartoons?
"I am the greatest" featured Ali on NBC Saturday mornings and despite not being a hit,is still remembered by my age fans to this day.

I always remember this story from my dad,who was an Ali fan (although in hindsight,I find that very surprising).telling me the story of telling his father before the first Sonny Liston fight when few were picking Ali that Ali was going to win.
Ali always seemed to be the fighter for the young as I was a big fan and 25 years after his last fight,Ryan had a huge Ali poster on the wall in his room.
Ali was a prominent part of my sports Mount Rushmore with Sandy KoufaxJack Nicklaus,Bobby Orr and Pete Maravich (Yes,I know there is only four on Mount Rushmore) and his autograph is still a coveted one by me.

It didn't end well for Ali in the ring-Attempting to best Larry Holmes after two years off saw Ali take a pounding and even though he was never knocked down,he lost every round before the fight was stopped in the corner after round ten.
One final loss to Trevor Berbick and the end had come,although I'm not sure the damage wasn't already there,those beatings didn't help the eventual issues that would befell Ali.

Just a few memories of my favorite all time heavyweight and how he was important to me-hope you enjoyed it....

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