Bittersweet memories of a youthful hero
It’s one of my most vivid high-school memories: Lying on my bed, fighting back tears, listening to the radio’s end-of-round recap from the Rumble in the Jungle, as Muhammad Ali had named his epic October 30, 1974, faceoff with George Foreman in Zaire.
It was a fight I longed to see. But that would have meant prevailing on my father to drive two and a half hours to Bangor, and coming up with an unimaginable sum — at least $35, if memory serves — to view the fight on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater. It was so far beyond the realm of possibility that I hadn’t even broached the subject, even though Ali was my boyhood hero.
I loved him like I’ve loved no sports figure before or since. He had it all. He was brash, brave, and beautiful, fleet, fast, and funny.
And talented beyond measure.
In fighting lore I knew by heart, he’d stunned the world by beating the formidable, foreboding Sonny Liston to win the championship, and then beaten him again — flattened him — in Lewiston, Maine, in a fight a friend’s father had seen and thought was a fix. No one had seen the punch that felled Liston, he said; to me, that was merely proof of Ali’s amazing speed.
Then Ali’s title had been stripped from him when he declared himself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
His boxing license restored after three and a half years, he’d lost a title fight to Joe Frazier, in 1971.
I don’t know exactly when Ali had first imprinted himself on my consciousness, when I had started to worship him, but by the time of the first Frazier fight, he was in a class by himself in my pantheon of sports heroes. A committed Ali idolater at 12, I blamed his loss to Frazier on his forced break from boxing — on that and biased judges.
There would be a rematch, and when there was, I was sure he’d win.
But then George Foreman had annihilated Frazier — and now Ali and Foreman were squaring off in the hugely anticipated title fight in Zaire.
Foreman, a devastating slugger, was the heavy favorite. No one I talked to thought Ali could win.
And now, listening to the short round recaps — a live, blow-by-blow account had apparently been deemed likely to diminish the movie-theater gate — it appeared they were right. After each round, the news was the same. Foreman had trapped Ali on the ropes. He had pounded him with body blows as Ali had leaned back, covered up, and tried to protect his head. The words “Ali lolled listlessly on the ropes” and “Foreman pummeled him mercilessly” stick in my mind, though whether they were actually part of the report, I can’t say for sure.
Devastating round report followed devastating round report. And then, a voice exploding with urgency interrupted the drearily similar recap of round seven to say: Muhammad Ali has just knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round of their fight in Zaire!
For me, it was a moment of sheer, unadulterated joy, proof there was justice in the world.
When the news came, years later, that Ali had developed punch-induced Parkinson’s Disease, I pretty much gave up on boxing. Not completely, not all at once. But I just couldn’t take the same interest in a sport that had done that to my idol.
Besides, there would never be another fighter like Ali.
Or another moment like those few seconds in October of 1974 when an urgent voice on the radio broke through the gloom to announce that the magical, mesmerizing hero of my youth had pulled off a miracle.