In the 1950s, before the Super Bowl, before the westward expansion of Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, the weekly sports event in many left coast homes—certainly mine—aired Friday nights on NBC.
I recall my father, sitting in his lounge chair, jerking and dipping with each punch as the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports Friday Night Fights aired live from Madison Square Garden. My mother would busy herself with the dishes or pad off to another room to indulge in a romance novel while guys like Rocky Marciano, Kid Gavilan, Joey Giardello, Gene Fullmer, and Carmen Basilio bobbed and weaved in ghostly black and white images across the screen of our rabbit-eared set.
My dad, being a man’s man, loved those clashes. I know my father-in-law Charlie, a talented boxer in his own right, must have been glued to the TV every Friday night as well. As for me? Well, let’s say I became enchanted with the theme song—“To look sharp, and to be sharp, too …,” but couldn’t fathom what attracted viewers to all the brutal blood-letting. I was clearly a minority among men and boys of the age, who were either unaware of or unconcerned with the criminal element that haunted the sport.
“Boxing thrived in the 50s in spite of itself. Great fights and highly visible superstars made up for the severe corruption during this time. Always a sport filled with shady sorts, the 50s saw a spike in the mob’s influence of the sport … Thrown fights and scandalous decisions were rampant—usually taking place at the behest of unscrupulous gamblers.” ~ Scott Levinson, 1950s Boxing, http://www.proboxing-fans.com/boxing-101/history/1950s-boxing/
Then this kid from Louisville came along at the dawn of a new decade. I remember how he peaked my interest when he won Gold at the 1960 Olympics—not because of his sport, but because I always rooted for the underdog, the under-estimated. And, yes, there was something clearly different about this young man, who distinguished him from the outset.
He seemed remarkable in the ring, in part, because of agility never seen in a man of his size, giving reality to his cornerman’s acclamation that the young boxer could float like a butterfly, sting like a be. As though overnight, this one man changed the entire complexion of boxing and sport in general. Unlike any of his peers, he was articulate, intelligent, funny, animated, and movie-star handsome. Because of him, I became an avid fan of boxing during the 1960s and early 1970s.
But, for me most importantly, his articulated wisdom rang louder than his great achievements in the ring: he railed-against segregation, championed the anti-war movement, sacrificed his prime years for his beliefs, became a spokesman for the poor and downtrodden.
I doubt that there has been or will be as talented a fighter and magnanimous a man as Muhammad Ali. He spoke an undeniable truth that encompassed far more than his ring prowess when he proclaimed: “I am the greatest.”