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.