My father had a handful of favorite athletes. He admired baseball players such as Negro League legend Josh Gibson, as well as long-time Caribbean star Jose “Pantalones” Santiago. He also admired the strength and acting of Johnny Weismuller.
But there was a special place in his heart for Muhammad Ali.
For a certain generation of Americans, boxers were celebrities on the level of actors, comedians, and politicians. For the most part, when you looked at newsreel footage of interviews with fighters, they were well-spoken men who followed a certain code of honor in boxing, fighting under rules put endorsed by the Ninth Marquess of Queensbury, John Douglas.
As such, boxing has had a certain nobility to it — the “sweet science,” as referred to by authors such as Pierce Egan and A.J. Libeling. Today, as we remember the life of “The Greatest,” a great part of that nobility is gone. And with it, a lot of prestige.
Today, if you ask 10 random people on the street, they probably couldn’t tell you who the world’s heavyweight boxing champion is. Boxing has had a spectacular fall in the last quarter-century, primarily because the sport has not been on television except for pay-per-view telecasts. Infighting in the sport has resulted in an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies, each trying to lay a claim on the top 10 fighters in an expanding number of weight classes.
There have been other pressures put on boxing. The hybrid fighting construct called “mixed martial arts” has become a worldwide sensation in a short period of time, and it is reflected in pay-tv sales.
Also, fewer young people have seen the fight game as a profession with long-term gain, especially with the spectacular bankruptcies of participants such as Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Frank Bruno.
Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali lived on a simple ranch in Arizona.
Ali was an athlete who lived by a different set of rules. He borrowed his persona from professional wrestler Gorgeous George, attracting TV and film crews, and reporters willing to take down anything he said.
By the time he won the heavyweight title in February of 1964, he had a platform smack in the middle of the civil rights movement. He leveraged his prestige to push for social and economic justice alongside a number of African-American sports figures such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell in 1967. He became the most prominent conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Later in his life, he calling for peace and understanding after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But if there’s one thing that Ali and his media sidekick Howard Cosell may have done, it’s to call attention to boxing as a potentially dangerous and life-threatening activity which requires better safety protocols and regulation. Late in his journalism career, Cosell testified in front of Congress, pleading for federal control of boxing. Part of his motivation was his friend Ali, who was beginning to show signs of Parkinson’s disease in the early 1980s.
I find it interesting that there have been hundreds of newspaper articles and stories regarding concussions in team sports such as football, lacrosse, and hockey. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a single story about a boxer who allowed a contemporary forensic examination of his brain to detect chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Maybe that will change.