A Hometown Link to Legendary Ali
Nearly two weeks have passed since the worldwide broadcast of famed boxer Muhammad Ali’s funeral. There is little I can add to the parade of glowing tributes to the former heavyweight champion from every corner of society.
Still, the news of his passing prompted me to recall some favorite memories related to his legendary 1971 heavyweight championship fight with Joe Frazier.
Both went into the bout undefeated. But there was more drama: this was Ali’s first fight since being stripped of his title more than three years earlier after refusing induction into the military.
Looking back at those days of the Vietnam War and the controversy that was part of daily life, those who like to remember them fondly as a simpler, more peaceful time are either wearing rose-colored glasses—or weren’t alive then.
Still, there was an element of life then that I find memorable. It was an era when heavyweight championships meant something.
Boxers like Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman and—of course—Muhammad Ali were larger than life. So were their bouts. Kids in our neighborhood followed them with the same fervor as the World Series or the NBA championship.
I still remember one of the few times in childhood when my father let us stay up past our normal bedtime. It was in June of 1959, when we listened (during the Stone Age, we used radios) to Patterson’s clash with Swedish champion Ingemar Johansson.
Dad was a World War II veteran whose leg wound never healed properly, so naturally our patriotic household rooted wildly for the American fighter.
I remember feeling sick when Patterson got knocked down multiple times before losing in the third round, and how glad I was when he won the return fight. Plus, a third battle.
As Patterson’s career started its descent, Ali’s was blossoming. Love him or hate him, the “Louisville Lip” was one of the most colorful characters to ever step in a boxing ring. With most of his fights, the question wasn’t whether he would win, but how long it would last.
By the time of his epic clash with Frazier, I had left my hometown for college. And, while I didn’t see the fight, soon after it I heard later from a longtime friend who had. Stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky, he and a group of Army buddies had made the 45-minute drive to Louisville to watch a closed-circuit telecast at Freedom Hall.
That night provided a link between our hometown and Ali. A would-be heavyweight contender from our city had qualified for the undercard. As I remember, it was a four-rounder that would precede the title fight.
Wilting Under the Lights
About four years prior to his appearance at Madison Square Garden, we had watched our hometown hero (named Rufus) in a slate of matches at an old auditorium. Naturally, the up-and-coming boxer dispatched his opponent with ease.
Thrilled with seeing someone he knew participating at such a major event, my buddy started crowing to everyone in his group—and others within earshot—about the local boy made good. Fighting in the Garden!
The thrill was short lived. Rufus wound up on the canvas about a minute into the fight, where he remained until the referee reached “10.”
“I wanted to crawl under my seat and hide,” my friend said. “Talk about being embarrassed.”
That’s the thing about a bright spotlight; many wilt under its glare. Guess that’s one reason so many admired Ali. He shined in it as few other athletes have over the years.