First off, I'm in total agreement about ESPN's "30 for 30." I think we all have our frustrations with the network, which has become such a powerful force in the world of sports, I've come to view it the way I view Google and Microsoft, in some respects. I need it in my daily life, but I also am wary of how deeply it influences the way people view things. Give Bill Simmons credit though, since this idea is essentially his baby. The documentary series reminds me of what made me fall in love with ESPN when I was a teenager. It's about storytelling, not shameless self-promotion, and nowhere was that more evident than in the "Muhammad and Larry" documentary.
It's true, I never saw Ali fight. I was 4 years old when he mercifully put down his gloves for good. But he had such an impact on our country, and sportswriting to be honest, I've always tried to seek out stuff that captured what a charismatic figure he was. I recently read David Remnick's book "King of the World," which covers the time from Ali's high school days to his second fight against Sonny Liston, and it's absolutely fascinating. He really was the first athlete who refused to fit into the box that both the public and the press wanted him to fit into. He was black, he was proud to be a Muslim, and he refused to humble himself for the sake of anyone else. It's remarkable to think about what our culture was like 50 years ago, when there was so much outrage over the fact that African-American men like Ali refused to be patient when it came to demanding equality. I understand why Larry Holmes probably feels slighted when compared to Ali, even today, but anyone with a grasp of the larger history can understand why that is. Larry Holmes was a great fighter. But Muhammad Ali was so much bigger than boxing.
Seeing him struggle to bang that speed bag was a heartbreaking moment. Ferdie Pacheco was right. Everyone who enabled Ali's fight with Holmes (not to mention his fight against Trevor Berbick, which is only alluded to at the end) should be ashamed of themselves. But you hinted exactly at why the fight still happened, and probably why the footage of this has never aired until now: This is a sport run by shadowy figures in the most shadowy city in the United States. Does anyone really believe that Las Vegas boxing commissions make decisions based on anything besides money? If Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson agreed to fight yet again, and one of the big casinos thought it could turn it into a major event, there is no doubt in my mind a fight like that would happen, even though Holyfield is showing some of the same signs of deterioration that Ali was and Tyson's mental state has been in question for years. And people would probably watch because there is such a dearth of talent in the heavyweight division these days. The other professional sports have sucked all the life out of boxing. Think about someone like Ray Lewis. Had he been born 40 years ago, he might have been a heavyweight fighter. Instead, he became one of the greatest middle linebackers ever. No one becomes a boxer now unless they have no other options.
I think my favorite part of the documentary was Ali doing magic tricks for kids. It was, in many respects, a metaphor for everything about his last few fights. He had everyone spellbound that he could pull off yet another magic trick. And we believed, even though the truth was right in front of our eyes, because we wanted to believe.
I had a friend once ask me what it was that I liked about boxing. He wanted, in all serious, for me to explain its appeal. Why was I not horrified by two grown men pummeling each other? I struggled to come up with a legitimate answer. He scoffed when I mentioned the artistry of throwing punches and playing defense, and rolled his eyes when I tried to explain that it really is the most courageous thing a man can physically do, because he's all alone in that ring. He was somewhat disgusted, but he wasn't about to change my opinion one bit. There is a reason, I said, much of the best sportswriting that has ever been penned has been about boxing.
I sort of wonder why we -- and by that I mean you and I -- can't quite embrace mixed martial arts in a similar way. Why doesn't it possess the same mystique for us as the sweet science does? I find it compelling, but not romantic the way I do boxing. I can't imagine Norman Mailer or W.C. Heinz or George Plimpton or Gay Talese writing about cage fighting in the same eloquent way they wrote about boxing. But are they really that different? You can make a pretty strong case, and several studies have, that MMA is actually less dangerous than boxing.
Seeing Ali barely able to talk these days also makes me wonder about something else. What happens 20 years from now if Lewis is suffering from a similar deterioration? Or Brett Favre? Isn't the NFL just as brutal and violent, in some respects? When I see Pacheco decrying the enablers who shaved years off Ali's life, I wonder whether someone won't be saying the same thing about NFL players in the not so distant future.
No longer floating like a butterfly,