Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tribute: GOAT @ 65

For a little APA boy coming up on the mean streets of East Los in the turbulent 60's/70's, sports provided an out. Not as a realistic way of making a living, but socially, culturally, psychologically. Aside from the way being an athlete constructed manhood, it bonded neighborhoods, schools and teams, just like in white neighborhoods.

And let's face it, bottom line, sports were fun.

We played seasonally; basketball, football and baseball. No tennis in el barrio. And despite being almost 100% Latino, no soccer either.

As absent as he was in my life, my father managed to instill a love for boxing through stories of him paying just to watch Sugar Ray (the original) train. None of my close friends boxed, but we followed boxing religiously, and we had THE decade, the 70's.

With no role models for APAs outside of Bruce Lee who was, after all, an actor playing at fighting, I turned to athletes. I worshipped Elgin Baylor, who I caught at the very end of his career. No less than Red Auerbach said that "Elg" was the greatest forward he'd ever seen. (R.I.P. Red)

But Ali, - the former Cassius Clay - was clearly in a class by himself. Needless to say, he made a deep impression on me, particularly for his stance on the war.

It's about the white man sending black men to fight yellow men to protect the country they stole from the red man.

And, rightly or wrongly attributed, the famous: No Vietcong ever called me a nigger, which was probably taken from, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." Either way, for anyone who was a mud peep poc with an ounce of brains, let alone an Asian mud peep, that spoke just as powerfully as any "I have a dream" speech.

Powerful indeed to a young, fatherless, impressionable APA boy.

My heart sank in Superfight I as Frazier's legendary left hook found my hero's right-side jaw late in the fight - I recall it was the 14th. I remember seeing the pictures of the red tassles on his adidas - so slick and pimped out - wildly flying as he hit the canvas. I'll never forget Anthony Aceves, a hardcore Frazier fan, laughing at me the next day, and my rage at Smokin' Joe's "lucky punch."

This was before cable, so we had to watch the news reports and listen to the radio. Stoneage!

But then closed circuit TV came into play, where essentially a pay-per-view setup was installed in a large setting, like a sports arena.

And it was then, September 30, 1975, in the Long Beach Arena, where my older friend Ike drove us to watch the Thrilla in Manila on a gerry-rigged big screen.

And my heart began to sink again as the titans warred like gods on earth. I had Frazier ahead into the deep rounds. Of note, this was back in the day of 15 round fights...

And then Frazier's mouthpiece flew out and Ali somehow let loose with a flurry that clearly stunned Joe. The place erupts, and I can't hear anything, but feel electricity in the air. It's a moment seared into memory forever.

Ali would say afterward that it was the closest he'd ever come to dying. He also gave props to Smokin' Joe, calling him, more or less, the second greatest of all times.

I somehow missed the Rumble in the Jungle on closed circuit, but all of the bookies had Ali a HUGE underdog to Foreman.

Before Mike Tyson, there was Foreman, the meanest, baddest cat on the planet. Put it this way, as bad as Ken Norton was, he of the broke Ali's jaw fame, Foreman hit Norton so hard Norton looked like he needed his mama - BAD.

Foreman had an even easier time with "the second greatest of all times." I have never seen a great athlete so dominated as Frazier was by Foreman - I think it was their second fight. I remember me an mah boy Kev rollin' when recounting how hard Foreman hit Frazier. At one point, Frazier got popped and actually left the ground, then did a bunny hop in the pea patch. Kev said he got knocked the fuck back to the schoolyard and was playin' hop scotch or something. We wuz ROLLIN' cuz... well, you just have to see the fight to understand.

Kids these days... Foreman would have destroyed Tyson. Foreman would have destroyed Sonny Liston, Marciano (way too small) and any of the big lug "scary" fighters. (And lest all you Tyson bullet heads STILL wanna argue, let's remember and be clear - Tyson was a small heavyweight. 5'11". Limited skills. Never fought anyone great in their prime.)

The ONLY way to beat Foreman was strategically, surgically, and of course our hero was the man.

One journalist said that this punch was a work of art:

It's tough to argue. Like anything strategic, it was set up with brains and executed with precision. If you watch the tape, Ali lands this historic punch, Foreman spins and begins his meeting with Mr. Canvas, and Ali could have landed another punch as insurance. Instead, he held back, watched as Foreman went to his place down below.

I don't recall what happened that Rumble in the Jungle fight night, but I missed it. The following morning, I walked to school alone for some reason - usually me and 4 others made the trek. But that morning after I took an intentional detour so I could pass by the liquor store near Lito's Cork Room (the neighborhood bar and bookie joint). I went with trepidation, fully expecting to read of my hero's demise. Again, I believe Ali was a huge underdog, at least 4-1.

Then I saw it on the rack, the front page of the LA Times: ALI KO'S FOREMAN IN 8 (or whatever the headline was) complete with a picture.

My heart leaped and I felt as if I were dreaming, floating.

Those two fights, both among my top five, were great boxing matches and, unlike today's sports, cultural event markers of a decade that saw the last vestiges of "something in the air."

From great moral stands to being awestruck by the size of his nuts to making me laff poking fun at Cosell, there's so much more that I could say about what this man has meant in my life. But I remember this, and it's somehow fitting that it should come from his partner who will forever be locked in history with him; It was reported after that war of the gods I mentioned earlier called the Thrilla in Manila, that Smokin' Joe said:

Man, I hit him with shots that could take down buildings.
Lawdy, lawdy, he's a great champion.