“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee—his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”—Muhammad Ali, of course
Today is our first day without Muhammad Ali. If the world seems to be off its axis today, I would point to that sad fact.
The photo at top is from the great photographer Ken Regan, who took it backstage at Madison Square Garden on December 8, 1975. Bob Dylan had brought his Rolling Thunder Revue to New York City and Ali joined the parade of well-wishers.
Regan wrote, “Ali had brought Bob a giant boxing glove that was about as big as Bob; just the right, spontaneous, quirky touch that captured the spirit of the Rolling Thunder Revue.” You can see the pair of gloves and a silk robe on the bench between them. Ali is finishing off an apple and Dylan appears almost kid-like in glee. Even Bob Dylan seemed to regard Muhammad Ali as “really famous.”
A friend of mine posted a photo this morning from a few minutes earlier: the uneaten apple sits in Ali’s left hand. Another friend supplied some more information: the governor of Tennessee had flown Ali to New York City for the concert, which was also a fundraiser for Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.
But I love the expression on Ali’s face in the photo at top as he addresses the apple as he takes its last bite from it or as he side-addresses Dylan. Probably both at the same time: Ali’s wit was efficient.
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As the Parkinsonism that finally took his life robbed him of his speed and his speech, it never took that wit from him. In a famous story from a 1996 Sports Illustrated article by William Nack titled “The Fight’s Over, Joe,” Ali taught Joe Frazier one more lesson in 1988, long after both had retired but both men were still in their 40s.
Frazier hated Ali, hated him for his vicious trash-talking in advance of each of their three fights. Ali was paid more in their fights, yet he sold tickets on an image of himself as an underdog and Frazier as the bully, as an “Uncle Tom,” as a “gorilla.” Nack writes that at the conclusion of the third fight, the “Thrilla in Manila,” a victorious but battered Ali told Frazier’s son, Marvis, “Tell your dad the things I said I really didn’t mean.”
Frazier told his son that Ali should have come to his dressing room himself, and so he waited until the day he died, November 7, 2011, for that visit and those words, which Ali probably considered to have been delivered the day he told Marvis. Ali never thought ill of Frazier and attended his funeral. Frazier finally, at the end of his life, said he no longer held ill will towards Ali.
In 1988, he still held ill will. Nack:
“In 1988, for the taping of a film called Champions Forever, five former heavyweight title holders—Ali, Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton—gathered in Las Vegas. A crowd of people were at Johnny Tocco’s Gym for a morning shoot when Frazier started in on Ali, who was already debilitated by Parkinson’s. ‘Look at Ali,’ Frazier said. ‘Look what’s happened to him. All your talkin’, man. I’m faster than you are now. You’re damaged goods.’
“‘I’m faster than you are, Joe,’ Ali slurred. Pointing to a heavy bag, Ali suggested a contest: ‘Let’s see who hits the bag the fastest.’
“Frazier grinned, not knowing he was back in the slaughterhouse. He stripped off his coat, strode to the bag and buried a dozen rapid-fire hooks in it, punctuating each rip with a loud grunt: ‘Huh! Huh! Huh!’ Without removing his coat, Ali went to the bag, assumed the ready stance and mimicked one Frazier grunt: ‘Huh!’ He had not thrown a punch. He turned slowly to Frazier and said, ‘Wanna see it again, Joe?’ In the uproar of hilarity that ensued, only Frazier did not laugh. Ali had humiliated him again.”
Ali’s wit was efficient.
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There was only one Muhammad Ali, and this may have been one more than we deserved, which is why today the world feels quite a bit emptier.
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“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale;
Handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail;
Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick;
I’m so mean I make medicine sick …”—Muhammad Ali, of course
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