Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ali and Me

--  By Tom Phillips

Muhammad Ali, 1942 - 2016
Muhammad Ali and I were born one day apart -- January 17 and 18, 1942 -- and I always felt a close kinship with him.

The difference, of course, is that he was the greatest, the champion of the world.  Not once but twice, he defied predictions by beating the supposedly invincible heavyweight king.  Both Sonny Liston and George Foreman had devastating knockout punches.  But both were slow of foot and hand.  Ali was a heavyweight who moved like a flyweight and boasted of his insect instincts:  "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

He was a vicious, slashing puncher  -- "I whup 'em so bad they call me cruel," he said --  who sacrificed his heavyweight title for peace.  "I ain't got nothing against them Viet Cong," was his protest when the US military tried to draft him during the Vietnam war.  And even in the ring, he showed that you can win a round without striking a blow.

I saw him in action twice, the first time training for his title defense against Zora Folley in 1967.   Sparring with Jimmy Ellis, a heavyweight contender, Ali dropped his hands to his sides, danced, ducked and dodged for a full three-minute round, flicking his head just enough to avoid a barrage of leather.  Ellis never touched him.  

He did the same against Ken Norton in 1976, at Yankee Stadium.  At age 34 he was fighting mostly flat-footed, but in the final, 15th round, he came out and danced for the full three minutes, jabbing and running, displaying his mastery of the ring.  The judges gave him a razor-close unanimous decision.  Norton thought he was robbed, left the ring cursing and crying.  But I agreed with the judges, and it was the fifteenth round that sealed the decision.

Some people thought of Ali as a great strategist, or gave the credit to his trainer Angelo Dundee.  But I always felt he was making it up as he went, looking to Allah for inspiration.

The rope-a-dope was his ultimate piece of defensive wizardry.  Dancing didn't work against heavyweight champ George Foreman in Zaire, in 1974.  Fighting in a cramped 19-foot ring, Foreman was advancing relentlessly, cutting off Ali's escape routes.  So he backed up against the ropes, laying out with his head out over the apron.  With Dundee screaming at him to get off the ropes, he covered up and let Foreman flail away, absorbing thunderous blows to the arms and ribs, taunting the champ:  "You disappoint me, George!"  Ali knocked out the exhausted Foreman in the eighth.  After the fight, he said "staying on the ropes is a beautiful place for a heavyweight.  When you make him shoot his best punches and he can't hurt you, you know you're going to win."

Of all Ali's spontaneous aphorisms, this is my favorite:  "On the ropes is a beautiful place for a heavyweight."  Boxing is a brutal sport, and probably should be banned.  But it never will be, because a boxing match is an incomparable piece of theater -- not an imitation of life, but life itself, with all its glory and disgrace.

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips


  1. Hi Tom - as I remember, you were the one who really introduced me to Mohammed Ali - I was still in my knee-jerk "boxers are dumb" phase and your eloquent defense of Ali one night -at the Corner Bistro? or maybe your Chelsea stoop - made me look at him in a different light. So - a rather belated thanks for that, and thanks for this post. Linda

    1. Just an observation. Ali's fights were shown on network TV, at least some of them. I remember in college gathering with friends to watch. This was Ali! He mesmerized us, while even in less mesmerizing moments, I/we thought boxing was abhorrent, certainly one of the less admirable activities of our "civilization." But I repeat: This was Ali!