The Greatest – A Boy Remembers

Posted: June 4, 2016 in Sport

It all started for me in 1970. My best friend at Wavell High was Ian Anderson and he was a rabid Ali fan. Didnt follow boxing much but saw the hoopla about his return to the ring with Quarry and then Bonavena and by the time March 1971 rolled around for the Fight of The Century I was hooked. Because he was more than boxing. As said in other media commitments this was when Heavyweight Boxing ruled the world of sport and Ali ruled boxing in the early to mid 70s. Forget State of Origin there was no bigger event in the sporting world before that night. It was a Monday night in Brisvegas – a school night even – as it was beamed live into out lounge room . Sinatra was a ring side photographer, Lancaster a ring announcer etc NYC was a rough place then and Madison Square Garden was the epicentre that night. Frazier won fair and square but Ali was not diminished in any way and was yet another example that behind all the bluster was a courageous man as well. Devoted fans would know of my love of the USA and have been very lucky to visit several times and pay homage to this night both in NYC and Philadelphia. For me the two men are inextricably linked like no other sporting foes. They displayed the beauty, brutality and courage of boxing at its best and worst

Around the same time there was a better than average Aussie boxer going around called Mundine but not of the dickhead variety. Another friend at school (yeah yeah two friends is hard to believe!) had a very generous father who started taking us both to Festival Hall in Brisbane on the odd Friday night where we would see Mundine and Jeff White amongst others ply their trade. To see the crowd stand as one and sing “Stand up and Cheer” as the boxers walked to the ring was amazing. This was close and personal trust me and really filled a young 12 yr old boy with awe. Mr Hassum always joked “Dont shave this week David we are going to the fights on Friday” You had this world class boxer up close and personal to watch and then follow Ali from afar. Now my mother likely had early onset OCD bless her heart and amongst many early memories was Thursday morning washing day where the bottom sheet was pulled off the bed, the top one replaced it and then a new one on top. To this day I have never known anyone else to do that and yet it made perfect sense at the time. I relate this fascinating anecdote more to highlight what a wonderful mother she was, in difficult times, because despite a cleanliness requirement bordering on obsession she allowed me to plaster my bedroom wall with newspaper clippings of Ali. I cant recall the state of the paint when finally removed but imagine a redo was in order. I left town. Literally. She also sewed me a wonderful label to attach to the back of a dressing gown. These things are magic to a young boy. Not sure how I got the money (maybe packing at Woolies on a weekend) but as is my own little obsessive habit started to collect US boxing magazines, Newspaper clippings and even started to import Super 8mm films from the USA of Ali fights. The excitement in those days of receiving a package from the USA was significant. Later on my sweet CLP got me the same fights on DVD.

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The next few years had its ups and downs until we got to September 1974. By now I was collecting friends like acne on a teenagers face and one – David Anstey – lived next door to school. It was Senior year and it was October 30th but only one thing mattered that lunch hour – the fight was on TV. This could well have been the start of the extended lunch hour that I manfully continued with through my working years. It was a masterful display by Ali and the world was indeed shocked. Then of course we came to maybe the greatest Heavyweight fight of all time – The Thrilla in Manila. Certainly a brutal one and the one Ali should have walked, or at least limped, away from. But that is not in his nature.

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If you have even a passing interest in Ali or Boxing you should watch “When We Were Kings” for the Rumble in the Jungle and the HBO doco “Thrilla in Manila” for the latter. The latter is actually a more warts and all look at Ali as told from the perspective of Frazier and when reflecting on Ali it is important to understand he was no Saint. There were many more fights to come including the epic Norton battles but the peak had been reached and only more damage could be done. He achieved the rare feat of winning the championship a third time but by now not only his decline but also that of Heavyweight Boxing was evident

Ali’s greatest fight was still to come and one can only admire his courage in such a proud man showing his frailty so clearly in public time and time again. Without knowing anything about his real health one can only imagine it may have well been a blessing in the end. Despite his appearance though in later years most suggest he was still quite “well” . Mind you , one consistency throughout his career were the “hanger oners” . It is only with his passing that you truly understand the impact he had on your life especially in those early formative years. It also reinforces what a mediocre lot of “sporting superstars” , with some exceptions, we have these days. There will be many words written and said and sadly by a lot of “personalities” but I have my own memories so I dont need to read anyone else. I will however highlight something Obama said as he always strikes me as a thoughtful person (or at least his speechwriter is!)as it does highlight the flipside of this larger than life character that transcended the sport.

Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period. If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d “handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail.” But what made The Champ the greatest – what truly separated him from everyone else – is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing.

He wasn’t perfect, of course. For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with his words, and full of contradictions as his faith evolved. But his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes – maybe because in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves.

One could spend all day simply looking at his life in pictures. Here are a couple that I always liked

I have only kept one magazine in pristine condition from those days and it was actually a wonderful gift from CLP who chased it down many years later from USA. It is a classic piece of sports journalism that again you dont see much of today

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If you want an example of Ali’s charm and wit simply watch his interactions with Howard Cosell over the years. “Whatever Truculent means if thats good I’m that” No script there.

I no longer have a bedroom wall covered in photos. I only need one

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Rest in Peace

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