Fifty years ago, little was said about father-son bonding, but we did it anyway. Dad and I “bonded” while cradling shotguns in our arms as we belly-crawled down a pasture slope in full view of nervous ducks on a pond at the bottom. We ran banklines along the Red Willow, tromped snowy stubble fields to roust out pheasants and quail, and hiked to the top of a boulder-strewn mountain towering over the Cache la Poudre.
And we watched boxing.
Boxing is among the few sports in which the ultimate objective is to injure the opponent so severely as to incapacitate him. It’s an atavism, a throwback to the violent days of our species’ adolescence. It should be embarrassing to a society that supposedly values cooperation and peace-making (unless oil is at stake). So why do we like it?
Today’s gladiators don’t fight to the death, necessarily. There’s a lot of skill as well as toughness involved in boxing, as there is in NASCAR racing. What amuses the crowd most, what they really came hoping to see, are the pile-ups, the knockouts. Twelve rounds or 500 laps, though executed with consummate skill, can become boring nonetheless. Give us blood! Better still, blood and beer!
Our family’s version of the Coliseum materialized in front of the puny one-channel black-and-white TV in our parsonage living room. We developed a ritual surrounding the Saturday Night Fights — polishing the shoes we’d wear to church the next morning. Using a small paintbrush, Dad applied paste-polish from an antique flat can. Next I rubbed the shoes with a worn fleece before buffing them with a fine brush.
Boxing also kept us entertained via the Friday Night Fights. We didn’t use Gillette shaving products, but we admired the sponsor for being the sponsor.
Network TV introduced us to the skills of a young boxer with an appropriately Roman name. When other heavyweights tended to plod, this gladiator was quick and fast. Those lightning punches delivered serious thunder too. We always looked forward to a fight card featuring Cassius Clay.
I followed Clay’s early career with indifferent interest until his first title fight with a vicious ex-con named Sonny Liston. Nobody gave Clay a chance, except Clay.
My civics teacher claimed if Clay won the fight, it was fixed.
A fast hard blow, so blindingly quick it was later dubbed the “phantom punch,” sent Liston to the canvas. Clay was the champ, and he proved it by humiliating Liston again in the rematch.
Clay announced he’d converted to Islam, the “Black Muslim” movement. Surprisingly (to me), public condemnation was relatively low-key; so many had come to respect Muhammad Ali’s superb ring skills that they were willing to put up with some Muslim silliness.
Not so silly, though, when it came to the draft. Earlier, Ali flunked the Army’s written enlistment test. Later, as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, testing criteria were relaxed, and Ali became eligible for the draft.
He refused induction, citing religious prohibitions against fighting wars that were not sanctioned by Islamic authorities or waged in defense of Islam. Like many of other persuasions, he thought the Vietnam War was unjust, unpatriotic and sinful.
At the peak of his career, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, and stripped of his heavyweight world title. The Supreme Court later overturned his conviction, affirming Ali’s war resistance was in fact religiously based and sincere, but his career would never fully recover. After a three-year hiatus, he returned to the ring, regaining, losing, regaining and losing the title.
I sat in the KUMC emergency room “call room,” where medical residents could hang out between disasters, and watched the klutzy Leon Spinks take Ali’s title; Ali won it back in the rematch, but we knew the Big Bell was tolling.
Some of his late fights were classics, like the Frazier battles, but now not even cultivated skills could compensate for declining endurance. He fought too late, too long, when he should’ve hung up his gloves and retired on top.
After he was pummeled into defeat by Larry Holmes, we quit anticipating Ali’s next fight, and just hoped there wouldn’t be one.
His life’s final bout demanded even more heart and stamina. A long series of head blows encouraged the emergence of Parkinson’s Disease. Now the floating butterfly could only quaver and shuffle. His expressive, animated face assumed the wooden masque of Parkinsonism. His mocking, oratorical speech grew slurred and hesitant.
Still, he fought on. He became an ambassador for goodwill and mutual understanding, leveraging his hard-won ring credentials to promote the public good. Gone were the “criminal” label, the mouthy pronouncements, the supposed stain on his honor left by switching to a controversial religion.
When his life’s final bell had rung, and his admirers assembled for a funeral instead of a press conference, it wasn’t the broken jaw administered by Ken Norton, the Rumble in the Jungle against invincible George Foreman, the Thrilla in Manilla against Ken Frazier, or his overall ring record that occupied the discussion. World and national leaders focused instead on Ali the man, Ali the peacemaker, Ali the gift-giver.
So he didn’t finish his career undefeated like Rocky Marciano. He never had the overwhelming irresistible-force power of a young Mike Tyson, or the sheer rock-crushing mass of a Vladimir Klitschko.
There was only one Muhammad Ali, and he was the greatest.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton
and lives outside Hays.