“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
– Muhammad Ali
Your childhood idols seem larger than life. As you get older, your understanding of the world evolves, the hero worship fades and your perspective regarding the importance of things that once dominated your very existence changes.
But sometimes, as a fossil, it’s still nice to feel like a kid again.
I got that chance during the past week, checking out an endless array of old stories and videos after Muhammad Ali died last Friday.
As a lad, my entire world revolved around sports. As a hyper-competitive freak, I was also obsessed with winning. I hated to lose at anything. Our Little League team was 59-0-1 in three years, and I’m still foul over the tie. You can pretty much tell when I began watching a particular sport, because the top team at the time immediately became my favourite. Montreal Canadiens, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Reds, Seattle SuperSonics. (I’m glad I enjoyed their championships while I was young, since the past couple of decades have been mighty lean for my squads).
In terms of individual athletes, I was drawn to greatness. Johnny Miller shooting 63 at Oakmont. I was still seven or eight years away from hitting a shot on a real golf course but for some reason, that fascinated me.
Jimmy Connors two-fisting his way to title after title. The way Johnny Bench could throw a baseball. Julius Erving defying gravity. The frenetic on-ice majesty of Guy Lafleur. So good.
But the one athlete who captivated me more than any other was Ali. Though I was too young to remember his athletic prime, he was still ‘The Champ’ — beating George Foreman in Zaire, appearing on the Tonight Show, starring in commercials, hanging with Superman in comic books. He was The Greatest, in more ways than we could count.
So many others have talked so much more eloquently than I could on Ali’s life, times and social significance. On a lighter note, as I was digesting all of the information, I had to chuckle at some of the things I thought of when it came to Ali.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was sometime in elementary school. One of my buddies had a giant old pair of boxing gloves given to him by his dad.
Myself and another wannabe champ would go over and we’d take turns knocking the stuffing ou of each other.
Two guys would fight, while the other timed it for one minute, then decided on the winner. That victor kept fighting, and on and on. The gloves were bigger than our heads, so we didn’t do much damage but the best part was the trash talk.
Little kids from Duncan, B.C., chirping: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”; “I’m the greatest, you can’t beat me”; “I’m a baaad man”; and throwing your hands in the air and doing the Ali shuffle after a victory.
Ali was also at the centre of my very short career as a bookie. Back in the days before things like hockey pools and the like were popular, I would put together things (in junior high) whenever there was a big fight. Collect a few bucks from participants who would pick a winner and a round, etc., and then claim the pot.
Ali versus Larry Holmes in 1980 attracted some big action. Like many others, I badly wanted Ali to win.
The beating he took was so disheartening, it was almost like my childhood ended on the spot. Never again did I set up any wager-type stuff on a fight.
I also immediately thought of an interview I did with Leon Spinks, who shockingly beat Ali in 1978, winning the world heavyweight title in just his eighth pro fight — then promptly lost it back a few months later.
In 1994, Spinks was fighting ‘Kid Thunder’ (Shane Sutcliffe), at the time a rising Canadian heavyweight. While I did get in a few questions about the coming fight, I basically peppered poor Leon with a zillion “what was it like to fight Ali?” queries.
“So, Leon, your opponent has quite a reputation as a power-puncher. How hard did you get hit by Muhammad Ali?”
“So, Leon, you’re fighting in Canada for only the second time. What was it like to fight Ali in Vegas?”
“So, Leon, you’re coming off a win over Eddie Curry. Do you have any souvenirs from the Ali fight you’d be willing to give me?”
My childhood idols seemed larger than life. Ali was larger than life.
He was, and always will be, The Greatest.
» Philip Wolf is a regional editor for Black Press. He can be reached at philip.wolf@black press.ca or on Twitter:@philipwolf13