The world bids farewell to Muhammad Ali.
He was an extremely talented boxer. As an 18-year-old, he won an Olympic gold medal. But, over time, he proved to be an even better showman. He mastered the art of self-promotion. He rode the publicity waves as far as he could, until he became arguably the most famous man in the world.
I remember as a teenager listening to the radio account of his fight with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. (It was NOT televised; don’t even joke about live streaming!) Foreman was bigger and stronger than Ali. In fact, most boxing experts thought young George invincible. In his last fight, Foreman won the heavyweight title by knocking Joe Frazier down 6 times in 2 rounds. It was the same Joe Frazier who had beaten Ali by unanimous decision a few years before. But in an amazing display of stamina and cunning, Ali withstood everything Foreman could hurl at him over 8 rounds. Then, in the last round, he pummeled his exhausted opponent to regain the heavyweight title. My brothers and I, and the wide world of sports for that matter, were duly impressed.
Ali was also a man of contradictions, who seemed to enjoy stirring up controversy. He famously denigrated and disrespected some of his opponents. We now euphemistically call it trash talking, but such name calling is the opposite of sportsmanship. Despite his occupation, which was beating people up (yes, even to death), he declared a ‘conscientious objection’ when he was conscripted to go to war in Vietnam.
The other medical controversy he inadvertently stirred up had to do with head trauma. It has been estimated that he endured about 29,000 punches to his head. The blows he endured against Foreman and Frazier likely caused what we would now call concussions. Not too long after, he began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease when he was in his 40’s.
Were the punches and his neurologic infirmities a case of cause and effect? Will post-mortem examination show signs of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)? Should boxing be banned?
His greatest opponent, Joe Frazier, to whom boxing was not nearly as kind in terms of fame and fortune, weighed in thusly:
“Boxing is the only sport you can get your brain shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker book.”