If you aren’t at least in your mid 40s you won’t remember what heavyweight boxing once was–the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and March Madness all rolled into one. When I was in kindergarten my best friend and I would retreat to my family’s unfurnished attic on South Hill in Ithaca, New York (my dad taught English at Cornell and was a leader in the anti-war movement there ironically enough) to act out the great Ali fights of the era, against Frazier and then Foreman. Howard Cossell didn’t become the first superstar sports announcer on Monday Night Football but the man who called heavyweight fights.
As my college friend, and great writer, Carlo Rotella has chronicles in his book “Fight Time” and pieces like “Shannon Briggs Says Nyet” in the NYT Magazine the heavyweight category has moved on since the demise of Mike Tyson (it really already had but Tyson was the last great hope to revitalize what had already been lost). Mike is doing Animal Planet shows about his birds and the sport has been taken over by Russians since great American athletes who in prior generations would have become fighters now become NFL linemen. Or NBA power forwards.
Enter women into boxing as an Olympic sport. I realize that Ali’s own daughter was a fighter and a fight movie made by Clint Eastwood won an Oscar, deservedly so. But to me there is something wrong about women fighting. Call me old-fashioned, a sexist pig, a bastion of male stupidity.
Here’s the thing: boxing was never a great idea to begin with. Take really poor people in a ring and watch them bloody each other. Give all the money to the promoter. Repeat. Until the boxers themselves beat each other to the point of becoming vegetables. I realize that hockey and football both have a huge issues with conclusions these days, but the whole goal of boxing is to knock the other guy unconscious. There’s no ball. No touchdowns. Just brain damage.
But along the way something happened that imbued this animalistic ritual with beauty and grace and meaning. It became the canvas for writers to think, talk and write about manhood for a generation. Norman Mailer didn’t cover fights because they were fights but because they were a way to probe into the male soul.
Ali is still one of the most influential sports heros not just because he was “The Greatest” but because he took a political stand. He was a man of substance on top of his athletic prowess. That was nowhere more evident than perhaps the most famous fight of all time, the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
I’m a documentary film nut and still my favorite documentary is “When We Were Kings” about this fight. The footage shows just how much Ali was physically overmatched. He looks like a tennis player rather than a boxer. George Foreman is a massive human specimen who is going to kill him. Mailer describes an ambulance pulled up to the back of the ring that everyone in the Ali camp was convinced would be used to take his dead body to the hospital.
Here is my favorite part of my favorite documentary. Worth the 10 minutes even if you totally disagree with me about women in boxing.