In Another Life, The Two Are Fast Friends
If my social media feeds are a valid representation, I might be the only person in America — if not all of Planet Earth– over the age of 40 who cannot reach into his/her bag of personal memories to produce a Muhammad Ali anecdote.
Even my wife, the formidable Mrs. Jackson, who doesn’t know a left hook from a right cross, remarked fondly– not for the first time –the other night on her brief encounter with the champ between flights in an Atlanta airport terminal.
This was years ago, sometime in the early 1990s. She was traveling with our daughters, two copper-haired beauties who were at the time probably 8 and 5. Now, one lass with shining hair the shade of a new penny is an eye-catcher. But two, side-by-side, with shining hazel eyes and noses dusted with freckles, two are a phenomenon sufficient to turn even a star’s head.
And so they did.
Muhammad Ali, whose fame was so enormous he could have knocked on any door anywhere and found recognition and welcome, did a double-take as he passed, slowed a bit, smiled and, as only he could, winked.
Or so I’m told by an unimpeachable source. As I say, however, I was not there to witness it. Yes, more than 20 years in the sportswriting business, and I cannot recall sharing the same air space even once.
What I did witness was some of the human destruction left in the wake of this lovely man who was a walking dichotomy, a civilian peacemaker blessed by the Almighty with skills that made him the foremost fighter of his, or perhaps any, generation.
And anyone who wants to make the pound-for-pound argument on behalf of someone else better find an explanation for what Ali might have been if he hadn’t lost the heart of his prime skirmishing with the U.S. government over the definition of “conscientious objector.”
I saw the wreckage in Joe Frazier, who had the bad luck to bring out Ali’s best once, twice, three times. He was there 11 floors above Lake Tahoe Boulevard, in a Caesar’s suite illuminated only by the afternoon sun squeezing through a crack in blackout drapes, his lumpy face in silhouette.
It’s August 1986, nearly 11 years since the “Thrilla in Manila” and Frazier is in this little gambling town across the Nevada-California line with youngsters he’s training for the life that thrust him into the thankless role that elevated Ali from boxing’s clown prince to sports’ adored king.
In the middle of the haze of this room, Frazier, dressed comically–a splashy polyester shirt unbuttoned to his diaphragm, revealing a pair of gold medallions on gold chains; gold polyester pants; pale gray woven leather slippers–is pacing and preaching.
He was preaching about the special hell that ought to welcome anyone who made a buck off a boxer, then turned their backs when he could no longer answer the bell. And about how it was only proper he should train the sons of kinfolk, friends and even fans for a life that usually ends abruptly and cruelly.
How did he phrase it?
“Brains shook, money took, name in the undertaker’s book.”
And suddenly, after some 30 minutes when his visitor could scarcely squeeze in a question, the sermon was completed; Frazier was done. He slumped onto the round bed that dominated the room, stuffed a pillow under his head, and behind all the lumpage, eyes set in sockets that weren’t quite straight folded up.
And that was that. The old mauler who was singularly capable of summoning Ali’s best was softly snoring before his visitor reached the door to let himself out.
They’re both gone now, passing through the sweet slumber of death to an everlasting life beyond, their wits and health restored. Imagine, Ali and Frazier, restored and refreshed.
In this realm, they were antagonists who cursed, reviled and pummeled each other, and ultimately won each other’s respect. In the sanctified next, I would imagine they could be friends.