Today, Sun scribes and Brent Jones and Kevin Van Valkenburg bring back one of our favorite reoccurring features at the Toy Department: The Conversation. Two writers swap e-mails and give their take on something recently in the news. This week, Brent and Kevin discuss the recent ESPN "30 for 30" documentary "Muhammad and Larry" about the 1980 heavyweight bout between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, and why mixed martial arts can never live up to the sweet science.
First off, good piece last weekend on mixed martial arts making its debut in Maryland. Although I'm largely indifferent about the sport, I appreciate the skill and toughness these athletes need to have to make it work. What saddens me about it, though, and prompted me to write is that the sport's rise coincides with a substantial decrease over the last decade in the popularity of another pugilist mainstay – boxing. I love the sweet science. Always have. Good news is, I got a fix on Tuesday when ESPN's "30 for 30" series ran a wonderfully depressing documentary on the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes fight in 1980. (A quick aside before we delve into the topic; the "30 for 30" series may wind up easily being the best original production ESPN has ever done. This is, in no small part, because it outsourced all of the work to experienced filmmakers. Barry Levinson's piece on The Colts band's remaining relevant after the team's move to Indianapolis was the most comprehensive work I've seen about the departure. I know you were in Montana and I was in Florida in 1984, and frankly I think I was 7 and you were 6. It's safe to say we don't know much about what happened. I found the piece fascinatingly informative and a must topic for another thread, although the piece ran three weeks ago, so we'd be running a little late.)
Back to the present and Ali (it's re-running this week on the Deuce, for those of you who missed it). And yes, I didn't mention Holmes because much like the fight itself, Ali's presence overshadowed Holmes. I don't remember Ali fighting live, as I'm sure you don't either, but being sportswriters, I know we've both seen our share of Ali films, books, interviews and, of course, fights. I had not seen much footage of the Holmes fight. And while the beating he took was disturbing in and of itself, one of the most head-scratching things I've ever seen in sports came leading into the fight.
Photo courtesy of ESPN
I thought for a moment that Ali was joking. His pranks and sense of humor were legendary, so surely he was just clowning around when he was having trouble hitting the speed bag. Indeed, he was not. Few moments in sports have struck me as more pathetic. Here was the greatest boxer of all time, one who relied on quick hands and speed as much as any heavyweight in history, unable to do the most basic of boxing training regimens. It took him three tries to actually work up a decent rhythm with it. Along with that sweet mustache Ali was sporting, I don't think I'll ever forget that image.
Obviously, Ali's career went on entirely too long, and it helped contribute to the Parkinson's disease he has now. But after watching the beating he took during his training and the fight itself, how much do you fault this fight for putting him over the edge and in the mental state he is in now? And do you find it as unreal as I do that his handlers actually allowed him to enter the ring considering how awful he looked in training? And why are we just now seeing this footage for the first time? I have my conspiracy theories about why it never made it on television for 29 years.
Attempting to become the greatest buffalo wing eater of all time,
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,
I think that gumbo/steak analogy might be the best description I've ever read of mixed martial arts vs. boxing. And as a Montana man, I think you know I've had a few good steaks in my day.
It's true, we are giving Larry Holmes the short end of the stick, just as history did. But I actually liked Holmes singing in his car. I thought it was an oddly tender moment. And watching him cry after the fight with Ali was kind of beautiful. It showed me he really was a good person who realized how horrible it was for him to have to beat on Ali like that just because people didn't have the guts to stop the fight. He was an incredible heavyweight who will never get his due though. Even before this documentary, the thing I remembered most about him was the time he jumped off a car and kicked Trevor Berbick in the face. That phone was epic, though. I wish I had one of those in my car right now.
But that image is a nice transition into your point about the most colorful athletes being boxers. I think that's true, in part because most boxers don't have a filter. Or at least they didn't for a long time. So many athletes now are corporations. They're terrified of saying something interesting because they fear it might put their corporate sponsorships in jeopardy. I guess I do admire that about Chad Ochocinco. The dude pretty much says whatever is on his crazy mind, consequences be damned.
Reading Remnick's book about Ali made me realize how much sports journalism has changed since then. Basically, if you covered boxing back then, you could hang out with Ali in his hotel room and ask him anything you wanted. Didn't matter whether you worked for Sports Illustrated or the Newark Star-Ledger. Covering a fight meant spending a few weeks in the camp of each fighter and getting inside his head, and the fighters were happy to talk about just about anything. These days, you can count on one hand the number of journalists who have had a one-on-one with Tiger Woods in their career. No one has ever been inside his hotel room or his house. And I think we're all lesser for it.
I can't imagine what ESPN would do with Ali today. What's interesting when you read about him, and when you watch this documentary, is how much opinions changed over the course of his career. The writers hated him when he started. They wanted him to be Joe Louis or Floyd Patterson, and he refused. And that infuriated them. But by the end, they adored him.
Let me close by saying, isn't it about time President Barack Obama pardoned Jack Johnson? Is there anyone who would be against this? They man was jailed for dating outside his race and might have been the greatest heavyweight of all time otherwise. It's a shame, but not a surprise, talk of pardoning him has taken this long. It seems like something Rahm Emanuel and Obama could get it done by lunch.
Rumble young man, rumble,