My dad was a huge boxing fan, and I was always with him when the big fights were on. This was during the 70’s, when pay-per-view did not exist. The ABC network ran all the fights, live and for free!
I stood in awe before all my favorite pugilists. I watched Lupe Pintor, Alexis Arguello, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Leon Spinks, Sugar Ray Leonard, Pipino Cuevas, Carlos Palomino, and Salvador Sanchez. I watched them like a kid watches his favorite cartoon, but when it came to my all-time favorite, when it came to the one boxer who, for me, stood above all others, the one who was my hero, the one I wanted to be like, and the one I never wanted to see lose, it was Muhammad Ali!
When Ali fought, it was like watching a novel come to life, in motion, and Ali was the author. He, of course, was also the protagonist. I held my breath during each three-minute chapter, and I used the one-minute break in between to catch my breath again before having to dive in once more to be taken over by his grace and power. This was art not imitating life. Ali imitated no one!
And just as every good novel has a voice, a narrator that holds our hands and leads us on the way, well, so did Ali’s. His name was Howard Cosell, and he was in possession of the only voice capable of narrating, with clarity, logic, and drama, the elevated glory and tragedy of Ali’s bouts. He was as reliable a narrator that ever existed, and, for me, these two men became one.
As a kid, with the exception of Thurmon Munson, the New York Yankess catcher who died in a plane crash, most of my heroes were Black. They were mostly athletes, too, but Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were also just as important to me. The fact that most of my heroes were Black was probably because I simply didn’t have access to Mexican heroes. They weren’t emphasized in school. They existed, as I know, now, but I didn’t read about them. They weren’t on television. School didn’t teach them, either. Cinco de Mayo was as Mexican as my school got. I learned more at home when it came to the subject of great indigenous and Mexican heroes. I had Ali, though, and he was all I needed.
Ali was and still is my greatest hero. He changed the “sweet science.” He injected pugilism with humor, and he didn’t take himself seriously, although he was as serious a fighter as there ever was. He was political, and he had a voice, too, never shy when it came to speaking his mind or speaking out against injustice or war. Yes, he went to jail for not wanting to fight in America’s war. Most know this, and a few still hold this against him. They’ve never been trapped in a ring, one-on-one versus a another giant who is doing all he can to bring them nearly to death. Ali made his living in this manner, for years, until one day, he lost. And he lost again. And he lost again. Smokin’ Joe Frazier was the first to defeat Ali. Ali had won 32 straight fights before his loss to Frazier. He would go on to lose to Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes (2), amassing a record of 56 wins, 37 by Knockout, and 5 defeats.
I watched till the bitter, ugly end, until the greatest and most consistent fighter ever, Father Time, decided that Ali’s career had to end, that the final chapter had to be written. Well, it was written, and as the book closed, so did my faith in boxing, not because I was disappointed in my hero, but because I knew there would never be another Muhammad Ali.
R.I.P, Muhammad Ali