By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Remembering Muhammad Ali

Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his first defeat of Sonny Liston. Photo via Wikipedia.

There was a time when those of us in our 50s and 60s cared about boxing. The one and only reason for that was Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at the age of 74. Ali was a great boxer, but it was his persona that made him so appealing: smart, funny, antiwar, an outspoken voice against racism.

I was not a huge boxing fan. Besides, in those days boxing was a big business, and you couldn’t see major bouts without paying money to watch it on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater. I never did that. But I remember organizing a betting pool among my fellow ninth-graders in Middleborough for the first fight between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971.

My most vivid Ali memory also did not involve seeing him actually fight. His epic battle with George Foreman in what is now Congo took place on the night that I attended my first Bruce Springsteen concert—October 30, 1974. Everyone was convinced that Foreman would crush the aging, smaller Ali. After three and a half thrilling, exhausting hours of the 25-year-old Bruce, the promoter came out at 12:30 a.m. to announce that Ali had won. Pandemonium ensued.

No one cares about boxing anymore, and I think Ali had a lot to do with that, too. When he was young, it seemed as though he never even got hit. In the latter stages of his career, unfortunately, his strategy—as in the Foreman fight—was to absorb a terrible beating, and then to come out swinging once his opponent was exhausted. It almost certainly led to his Parkinson’s, and it’s a big reason why boxing has moved off center stage and into the shadows.

You have to wonder if football will be next.

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  1. My first memory of Ali revolves around my father kicking me off the television so he could watch a really important match (maybe 1977?). I always thought boxing was a nasty sport, but I have great respect for Ali and his passing is helping make 2016 a tragic year.

    I want the last part of your post to be true, but haven’t we seen many, many football stars lose everything because of CTE already, and hasn’t their decline generally been swifter than Ali’s?

  2. I believe the move to pay per view for virtually any significant bout had more to do with boxing’s decline than Ali’s Parkinson’s, which was certainly horrible and tragic, especially given its early onset. Thought the *biggest* fights were on closed circuit, as you say, there were still plenty of great fights — in the heavyweight division, too — available over free (i.e. broadcast) TV into the early ’80s.

    Boxing was popular well before Ali, but his era was certainly the last gasp of the heavyweight division (in America, anyway. I’m sure it’s still big in Russia and Eastern Europe). But, yeah, his intelligence, verbosity and braggadocio were key to his mainstream appeal.

    And, of course, his out-of-ring life is really the more important story.

    Re: Football … it probably has a decade or two left of dominance. As parents increasingly keep children from playing football because of (reasonable) concussion fears, it will become *only* an escape for young people living in squalor (like professional boxing is today) and the public affection will wane.

    Of course, I thought the 2004 Red Sox would choke again and that there was no way Pat Buchanan would win the 1996 NH Republican primary, so I ten to put the “no” in Nostradamus.

  3. Mike Rice

    Since the race for the White House now resembles “The Jerry Springer Show” I think it’s time Clinton and Trump put on the gloves and have at it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Talk about an unfair fight. He’d be on his knees, bleeding and crying, after the first round.

      • Mike Rice

        Regardless, I say put the event on pay-per-view with all the proceeds going toward paying down the national debt. That’s a home run!

  4. Mike Benedict

    Can we please stop with the CTE references already? It’s absolute speculation that there is a link between CTE and the types of memory loss that have been discussed in the mainstream media. The studies being conducted locally (I’m looking at you, Bob Stern) don’t begin to include the breadth of subjects necessary to prove what the researchers have been touting. Who’s to say that the general public isn’t walking around with all sorts of proteins on their brains? What is the impact of family history, or alcohol, or marijuana use? No one’s looking at that. And we won’t know until the brains of some of us regular folk are studied, too.

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