Back when I was 5-going-on-6, me and my stepbrother Bilaal were both big Muhammad Ali fans. Now, the fact was the neither of us had ever seen him fight, but having gathered an approximation of what he stood for from all the seemingly responsible adults around us, we decided that yes, he was our champion too. Ali was, in all actuality, nobody’s champion at the time. The year was 1974 and Ali had already lost his title in ’71 to Joe Frazier who in turn lost lost the title to George Foreman. And although Ali had redeemed himself somewhat in a rematch win against Joe Frazier, he had also inexplicably lost to Ken Norton who broke his jaw in the second round and won a fifteenth round decision. Next up for Ali was Foreman, the man who had knocked down Joe Frazier six times in Jamaica before the referee mercifully stepped in and stopped the fight. Frazier had knocked down Ali in the fifteenth round of their own ’71 fight. Needless to say, things didn’t look good for Ali or his fans.
I remember being very scared for Ali as a 5 year-old. Bilaal and I wondered aloud how Ali would be able to pull this fight off and if, in fact, he would. We got all our fight perspectives handed down at the time, so despite being 5 and 6 respectively, we argued like 50 year-old men.
Of course, by now, you know how that fight went and ended. You’ve seen “When We Were Kings” or you’ve been inundated with enough Ali-as-God media that despite not actually being a fight fan yourself, you know every aspect of the Ali’s career even if this information has been forced into your brain against its will. You know that Foreman was buoyed by confidence and arrogance, having seen Ali as a fading star and being told by his handlers that Ali was “finished”. Having recently crushed Ken Norton in two rounds himself, it must have also swelled Foreman’s pride to realize what he had done to the two men that had beaten Ali. And Ali’s looks must have also been a comfort. Surely a fighter as deliberately gruesome as Big George wouldn’t let some pretty light-skinned Negro come in there and even lay a glove on him.
But as you watch the fight, and as you cringe at Ali fans, through the first five rounds of the continued basically one-sided beating, the light does go off in your head eventually. You start to get it. You see what Ali’s doing. He’s letting Big George punch himself out. He’s taking a lot of abuse knowing that eventually Big George’ll get tired, make a mistake and leave himself open. And when that mistake happens in the fifth round and Big George misses with a clumsy hook and Ali hits him with an overhand right that would have killed a small Frenchman, everything changes. The next three rounds are academic. In the eighth, Ali is tired of being entertaining and sends Big George on home.
Smokey Fontaine inspired this memory. We were e-mailing back and forth about what Barack Obama would best do to counter the onslaught of attacks that have being coming rapid-fire from new Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. And I was thinking, “Well, gee, she’s pretty invulnerable right now.” She’s Clarence Thomas with a race and gender change. Any attacks aimed at her are certain to be seen as the insensitive plodding of a sexist misogynist. I mean, geez, she’s a hockey mom. She’s the mother of a soldier. She’s the mother of a “special interest” kid. She’s a soon-to-be grandmother. She’s a woman for Christssake! But there is one crack in her character that given time, could turn into a full-scale break: she’s feeling herself a little bit too much right now. She got off Lisa Lampanelli-style on Barack Obama in front of a partisan house at the RNC and now she’s thinking that the rest of the campaign will be cake. She’s gonna keep swinging hard and heavy because that’s what brought her the applause and the laughs in the first place. She’s not gonna pay any attention to the fact that Barack Obama has already been swung on– by the Clintons, the Joe Louis’ of political punch-throwers and that Barack simply swatted at the oncoming blows and danced away. But Sarah Palin’s gonna think she has what it takes to knock Barack on out. I mean, look at him. The pretty light-skinned Negro. Sarah’s gonna go in full force and swing and swing and swing and swing until finally, she’ll make the mistake that gets her sent home.
Watch the edited fight here: