Ali reminds us of bitter ending to sweet science


July 12, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Mike Tyson has signed to fight Evander Holyfield, and that is supposed to be good news. Two men will attempt to pummel each other bloody for the heavyweight title, as well as for our enjoyment, and we're supposed to celebrate its enactment.

This is a hard one, because like many people, I'm drawn to the sport. I'll probably be at the fight, which will yield tens of millions of dollars. And something inside me, somewhere in the gut region, will love being there and will actually thrill to the spectacle. In my head, I know that's wrong. In my head, I know that society cannot reasonably outlaw cockfights and simultaneously condone prizefighting. But I can't seem to help it.

Many people have studied this fatal attraction we hold for the sport. Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, said we are drawn to boxing as a catharsis. Hemingway wrote about boxing, even as he wrote about hunting and bullfighting, suggesting there is something in the essence of mankind that fighting calls up.

It is the one sport that strips away all the fancy equipment and all the fancy accessories and all the loud talk and brings two men together in the ultimate test. Until this century, a prizefight was decided when one man was left standing, and not before. Some fights could go 100 rounds or more. Somewhere along the line, probably at the behest of some bleeding heart, we decided this was uncivilized, reduced fights to eight or 12 or 15 rounds, put doctors at ringside, put gloves on the boxers and belts in place to protect certain delicate areas and then let the contestants pound away.

It isn't enough. One has only to read Thomas Hauser's new book -- "Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times" -- for proof. For that matter, one has only to look at Ali himself, if you can stand to.

It breaks your heart to see Ali. To see him stumble, to see him mumble. That isn't the kind of rhyme you'd ever want to associate with Ali. He's no longer the greatest, only the latest -- the latest fighter to have overstayed his career, to have taken too many blows to the head to have become an object of pity.

He was always a symbol. He symbolized emerging black power, first as the young, brash Cassius Clay who said he was beautiful long before anyone said black was beautiful. When he became a Muslim, he spoke directly to black empowerment. And when he refused the draft -- "I got nothing against them Viet Congs" -- he became a generational flash point. Someone said that as great as Ali was in the ring, we remember his fights, even the Ali-Frazier trilogy, only as subtext in the life of this man. That is how much he meant to so many people. He was, truly, the best-known face in the world.

And he remains a symbol, but of the damage boxing does to its own.

The promoters of the Tyson-Holyfield fight are saying it will be the biggest since the Ali-Frazier series. Interestingly, Ali says in Hauser's book that he first began to notice symptoms of his illness following the third Frazier fight -- the Thrilla in Manila in 1975.

Ali suffers from Parkinson's syndrome (which differs from Parkinson's disease). It can be caused by repeated blows to the head, certainlyconsistent with boxing. Its symptoms include slurred speech, poor balance and slow movement, all of which Ali displays in abundance. Watch him one time try to climb into and out of a ring, as he occasionally still does before a championship fight, hear the fans chant his name -- "Ali, Ali, Ali" -- and try not to cry. It is more than sad, because it didn't have to happen.

Hauser's book is not always satisfying, but it is truly remarkable in its access to Ali's medical records. Ali told his doctors to speak freely, and they did. Records were released from an examination he took at the Mayo Clinic before his fight, if you want to call it that, against Larry Holmes in 1980. The records clearly show that the Nevada Boxing Commission should never have allowed Ali in the ring.

They show, too, his slow physical decline. They show slurred speech as far as back as 1978. They show that no one -- Ali, too, for that matter -- seemed alarmed by this. He kept fighting, long past his glory days. They became gory days, and Ali went from being the show to becoming a sideshow. And virtually all the doctors say it was boxing that made him so.

Some people suggest that the old Ali resides somewhere inside the body's shattered shell. But others aren't so sure. Ali, after watching his recent appearance on the "Today" show, was shocked to see himself the way we see him, to see what had come of fighting fights into his late 30s and all the pounding that resulted.

In an effort to promote the book, which was done with Ali's cooperation, a tour was arranged for writers to accompany Ali on a bus to his old training complex in Deer Park, Pa. Ali slept for most of the trip.

Dave Kindred, a sports columnist who has known Ali from the beginning, tells this story:

"I wasn't going to go all the way there without talking to Ali," Kindred said, "so I sat beside him as we approached Deer Park and I asked him what it meant to be there. He said something that I couldn't understand, but it sounded like 'changes.'

"I told him I couldn't understand him and could he repeat it. He said it again, and I still couldn't understand him. So I asked him again, and his lips were literally against my ear. I heard him say, 'I trained there.'

"That's all he could say. The most charismatic athlete of all time and all he could say was 'I trained there.' "

The good news about the Tyson-Holyfield fight is that George Foreman, at age 42, is not involved. But Foreman is probably going to get the winner, meaning he's still going to fight. I hope before he fights again that Foreman, this good-humored man who says Ali is his idol, reads the book. And rereads it. And, then, re-retires and goes back to preaching -- while he still can.

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