Tyson might have been the last of them, an Eighties killer who captured our hearts for a time, but it ended ugly, and it was the darker parts of our hearts which were touched, awe mixed with fear, sprinkled with hate– something primal, a shining-sweat mingling of pride and shame. There were a few after: Holyfield, Bowe, Lewis. Still, boxing wasn’t the same after the Seventies. Sure, there were plenty of men who could fight, plenty who had heart. You need the heart of a lion to even get into the ring, ready to go the distance with another man who hits just as hard and trains every day to be a murderer with his fists.
Ali though, now there was a hero. There was a man who brought us out to cheer, and when one slipped by– when he got hit, we got hit as well, we all felt it. In wood paneled living rooms, and in the worn-door corner bars, we felt the gloved fists slapping against our own flesh, smashing against our own bones, left woozy for a half-moment, but determined, as the impact echoed out of plaid covered speakers, Howard Cosell provoking in a toupee amid the squelch and static hum.
But when Ali was on, when the universe reminded us of forgotten divinity, you could hear music– old street-corner soul, diving and rolling, sliding ‘round the side as he moved– and the magic was dancing around the ring. Watching, or listening, we all knew we could do anything, while still high on the fight’s intoxication. And even the men he beat loved being beat if they were beat by Ali; they cherished each bleeding wound. Though it hurt their pride, and yes, they went home without the belt to a quiet room while fist-raised crowds cheered Ali in the streets. Still– if you had to lose, and everyone loses sometime, it was alright to lose to Ali. There was no shame in that.
It was Ali Frazier 3, the Thrilla in Manilla, two titans fighting half a world away. Most of the fights had only been broadcast live on the radio back then. We’d be able to watch on TV days or weeks later, seeing the pictures of the the red-gloved gladiators slicing though the hot-light atmosphere in the sports section of the newspaper long before the fight lit up the dark gray convex of our small screen televisions, bringing the sagging-shelf boxes flickering to life.
But for Ali Frazier 3, they simulcast the fight through closed caption television. The big venues had it, crackling through black wires, and even the common man might witness the electricity. And we did, though I was just a boy. The horse track in the next county, 30 miles away, had the event playing. My father and I watched on a bank of television screens hung high in a loud, white room with tall glass windows and speckled, beer and coffee stained tiles. I strained my neck and stood on tiptoe to see past and around the checkered flannel men. The black emptiness of night stayed outside as our hearts filled with hope for heroes in a gray decade.
Frazier had been the first man to beat Ali, and for sure he was a man with heart, but it wasn’t enough to mend a wartime nation’s broken hopes, and we all wanted Ali to take the belt home, to win– for us. Even though Ali could be a real ass, crossing the line when taunting the other fighters, we all forgave him, even laughing, glad we hadn’t said the things he’d said– but often wishing we had.
And that was nearly forty years ago, with no impossible heroes arising to save us from our melancholia in the decades between. But the coffee is good today, as is the company while I write, and February’s sunshine is warm enough– if you’re inside, watching old reflections dance and weave on tall glass windows.