When I was a kid, my dad was always good about dragging me in to watch important sporting events with him when they aired on television, letting me stay up late if necessary to catch something that he considered worthy of remembering. I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, but I’m grateful now that he made me watch (among many other things) the Dolphins completing the only perfect season in NFL history by stomping his beloved Redskins, Hank Aaron hitting home runs number 714 and 715, the last three horse racing triple crowns, Arthur Ashe winning Wimbledon in ’75, and then the epic Borg-McEnroe match there five years later.
I have active, personal, vivid memories of watching each of these events, but all of them pale in comparison to the memories I have of the heavyweight boxing matches that my father brought me in to watch through what I (and many others) would consider the pinnacle of the Sweet Science’s history, through the heart of the 1970s, when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and a score of colorful supporting characters fought each other in a series of epic, mind-blowing, gut-churning, ring battles. The build-up to these events was thrilling, and as sporting spectacle they were simply untouchable.
I can honestly recall no television moments more stunning, more shocking, and more deeply memorable than Ken Norton breaking Muhammad Ali’s jaw in the ring in 1973, Ali outlasting Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975, Ali losing his title to Leon Spinks in 1978, then regaining it in a rematch six months later, then losing it for the last time to Holmes in 1980. (I should also note that I vividly recall watching Ali and Frazier shooting marbles on Wonderama with Bob McCallister just before their second fight, though I suspect I watched that alone, since my dad was probably still in bed when that wonderful early kid-babysitting show aired).
I was always an Ali man throughout those glorious days of sport, despite the fact that my father was a Frazier fan, and Smokin’ Joe was from my own birth city of Beaufort, South Carolina, making him a home-town hero of sorts. (We used to drive past the plantation he bought his family after he achieved fame when driving down the Old Sheldon Road between Beaufort and the family homestead in McPhersonville). Ali moved me (and moves me) in a powerful, visceral fashion, changing the ways I viewed self-identity, self-worth and self-improvement at a particularly formative phase of my young life. I’m not naive, and I understand the ways that he abused the people around him (especially Frazier and his wives), but, you know, I don’t really care, when push comes right down to shove. The man’s always been a bigger-than-life hero to me, and he’ll always be the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) in my eyes and mind.
My appreciation for those epic 15-round boxing battles of the ’70s grew immeasurably when I went to the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, where all male midshipmen at the time were required to box during our plebe and youngster (a.k.a. freshman and sophomore) years. The coaches would line us up by weight in gym class, and then pair us off from heaviest to lightest, which always seemed to work to my disadvantage, as it seemed I was always the second heaviest person in the class at around 210 pounds, which meant I had to fight the heaviest person in the class, who was inevitably a mutant like my room-mate Jamie, a 6 foot 5 inch, 250 pound monster with a six-foot wingspan.
We fought Golden Gloves rules, three rounds of three minutes, and those ten-minute bouts (counting the 30 second breaks between rounds) were among the most excruciating, difficult, painful things I ever did, as I was typically pummeled around the ring by heavier opponents with longer arms. Consider, then, the fact that I had a head-guard on, while Ali, Frazier and their foes fought unprotected for five times longer than we did, throwing punches that had to be at least five times harder than anything I ever threw or received. If you’ve never been punched repeatedly in the body by a bigger, stronger person, then you can’t imagine what pain-management and discipline Ali’s “Rope-A-Dope” strategy must have entailed. If you’ve never tried to stay on your toes and out-dance your opponent for ten minutes, then you have no ability to conceive of what a titanic athletic achievement Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” approach to boxing was. He was an athlete’s athlete. I watch his classic matches now, and still recoil at the punishment that he dished out and received, round after round after round, bout after bout after bout.
Twenty-some odd years after I left the Academy, I started integrating boxing back into my workout regimen, and these days, it’s essentially the cornerstone of my physical fitness program. I don’t take punches to the head anymore, obviously, but as a general rule, I work the heavy bag at the gym hard at least three times a week, throwing 1000 or more punches per session, usually while listening to brutal death metal, ideally by Napalm Death. This makes for an absolutely untouchable workout, as the act of moving the heavy bag requires your shoulders, arms, and core muscles to be active and coordinated, while staying on your toes throughout the workout keeps legs and glutes working hard as well. I easily sweat and soak through whatever I’m wearing after 20 minutes or so of throwing punches, so the regimen’s got hard aerobic and anaerobic elements. Plus, there are few things better for letting off the steam of the day than punching the blazes out of something, so there’s a strong sense of psychological satisfaction involved as well. I’m grateful for the coaching I got at the Academy on the proper ways to beat stuff up, because I quite like doing it at this stage of my life, as much as I hated it at that stage.
I have to note in closing, though, that as much as I love the classic era of boxing, and as much I enjoy punching things, I absolutely detest the whole contemporary world of mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting and whatnot, and find nothing noble or admirable in a “sport” where one assailant can defeat the other by choking him into unconsciousness during the first 30 seconds of a match. Boxing earns its title as the Sweetest Science due to its refereed adherence to the Marquess of Queensbury Rules or their relatives, which provide a controlled structure for physical conflict, and put an emphasis on strength, stamina and coordination over the raw, brute-force ability to kill another human being. There’s nothing noble about that, and I applaud legislators and sportsmen who oppose such tawdry, dehumanizing spectacles. I appreciate warriors. I don’t care for thugs.
I feel similarly about the state of heavyweight boxing these days, as the concept of title by acclamation has been diluted by the profusion of title-offering governing bodies. I doubt that we’ll ever have a champion as grand as Ali or Frazier (or even Mike Tyson, for that matter) when there are at least half-a-dozen money-making entities out there with their own money-making champs in the ring. I’m a sport junkie, so I know who the heavyweight champs are these days (do you?), though I don’t much care. None of them move me. None of them are heroes to me.
And I certainly wouldn’t make my child stay up late to watch any of them fight.