I admit it - when I was growing up, I consistently rooted against Muhammad Ali. I think it was because I was a huge Joe Frazier fan. Even at an early age, it aggravated me that Nat Fleischer's Ring Magazine refused to recognize Frazier as the World Heavyweight Champion [when Ali was barred from fighting], until he defeated Ali in the legendary 1971 bout. But what did I know? I was too young to have seen Ali fight, and had seen several key Frazier fights - Quarry, Ellis, Foster, even Bonavena. I was also too young to understand the meaning of Ali, and why he meant so much to so many people.
That would change over time. More has been written about Muhammad Ali than perhaps any other athlete in my lifetime, and over the years I've read well more than my share. And great writers have gravitated to Ali - in The Muhammad Ali reader alone, one can find A.J. Liebling, Tom Wolfe, George Plimpton, Leroi Jones, Norman Mailer, Roger Kahn, Garry Wills, Hunter S. Thompson, Mark Kram, Joyce Carol Oates, and Gay Talese. Today, that should come as no surprise. As an athlete, Ali was a unique combination of charisma, talent and history that has not been matched in my lifetime, and probably has never been matched.
If the story of all great fighters ends in tragedy, then it would make sense that the greatest tragedy of all would involve the greatest fighter of our time. No one dies in "Muhammad and Larry," but it is a tragedy, nonetheless. It tells the story of a fight which should never have taken place - Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes, in the fall of 1980. There have been a lot of fights over the years which should never have taken place. But when your primary subject is Muhammad Ali, the moment of decline represented by the fight brings with it a pain that sears through your soul - a pain that makes you wonder whether all of those people who have written for so many years that boxing is nothing more than savagery are right.
The Sports Illustrated cover shown above is from late September 1980, shortly before the Ali-Holmes fight. SI bought into the illusion, like everyone else did at the time - simply because he was Ali, it was conceivable that the fight could be won. Logic, common sense and simple analysis dictated otherwise, but that didn't stop anyone from hoping. This was Muhammad Ali!
That the story's ending was so obviously pre-determined is what makes "Muhammad and Larry" so painful and sad to watch today. Larry Holmes was an outstanding fighter who, like many fighters of that era, had the misfortune to be practicing his craft at exactly the same time as the most charismatic athlete of the time. Holmes was also a decent man, and not a stupid one. He knew that there was no way he could lose to a 38-year old Muhammad Ali, an Ali who had not fought for over 2 years. Had it been his choice alone, he might not have fought Ali. But at the same time, he had to fight Muhammad Ali, if he was going to make his mark, place his name in the pantheon of great heavyweights. And so fight him he did. And the beating which Ali took that night, no doubt, played a key role in the degeneration that was to come.
It wasn't easy to watch, but so far it has easily been the best of the outstanding "30 for 30" series of films currently running on ESPN.