Monday, 30 January 2012

Ghosts

With the world honouring Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday last week, ITV4 took the opportunity to show highlights of some of his greatest fights. The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman was shown and if you take careful note of the scoring punches, that one wasn’t even close. Ali was clever, had his tactic spot on and produced a masterly performance without taking nearly as much punishment as it seemed at the time. Ali’s trilogy with Smokin’ Joe Frazier were different matters, these were all truly close fights.

Last week we were also treated to the “Thrilla in Manila” and for once this was a fight that lived up to its billing. Even though this event took place a generation ago I sat and watched in awe. I actually groaned and winced as punches thudded into the bodies of both fighters. Has there ever been a more brutal, more savage encounter in heavyweight boxing? Both men showed true guts and heart that night. Both showed skill and courage that has rarely been equalled in the ring. Both men took fearful punishment that probably affected them for the rest of their lives and neither should ever have boxed again afterwards. As is widely known Ali went on to many more fights that underlined his legacy of greatness (and destroyed his health) but he never again fought like he did in Manila. Frazier only had a couple more fights but he too had little left in the tank.

“Ghosts of Manila” by Mark Kram is an interesting book that examines the rivalry between these two great fighters or as the author describes it “The fateful blood feud…” . The book describes the boxers as battered old men in retirement before charting their rises to the summit of the boxing world. It examines the origins of their feud, while Ali was in exile and Joe was champion the two were actually friends. However Ali, attempting self-promotion made remarks and jokes that Frazier took personally and their friendship disintegrated. Over the years Ali continued to taunt and Frazier continued to hurt. The final third of the book goes through the three great fights and examines them intimately; the ebbs and flows, rises and falls, the blood sweat and tears. The bad feeling between the two fighters contributed to the savagery of the fights. All fascinating stuff.

Where I part company with Mr Kram is in his attempts to undermine the legacies of both these two great fighters. He portrays Smokin’ Joe as some kind of simpleton fighting machine, blinkered in his hatred for Ali, mean and bitter in the aftermath of his career. Kram is particularly savage on Ali trying to undermine everything from his religion to his skill as a fighter. It is grossly unfair to judge the racial and sexual politics of the sixties and seventies under the enlightened standards of the new millennium. We all know Ali as a flawed genius, we know about his weaknesses at the height of his stardom and we know he was a puppet for the conmen in the nation of Islam. We know all of this and we accept it because Ali rose above it all in the humility of his retirement. Mark Kram has written nothing that wasn’t already known by Ali’s biographers but he has chosen to slant it in the most critical way possible.

Mr Kram has his opinion, he would argue it is a first-hand view from his many meetings with both fighters over the years, he may be right. However he cannot tarnish the legacies of these two great sportsmen whose rivalry defined the seventies. A quick count reveals I have eight other books about Muhammad Ali and many more about the great heavyweights. ‘Ghosts of Manila’ will sit alongside these on the strength of its descriptions of great boxing matches, possibly the greatest sporting rivalry and definitely the greatest heavyweight title fight of all. Sadly it was probably the most damaging too. To use an Ali quote from the book; “We went to Manila as champions, Joe and Me, and we came back as old men.”

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