Last night I watched in sadness as pieces of Muhammad Ali’s life spewed from nearly every TV channel. It was if the entire world had been at ready to mourn the American champion as soon as he stopped breathing.
I thought of my longtime friend Don Thomas. He, too, would be feeling the touch of Ali’s death. In 1964, the two of us fell for the young fighter’s brash promise to take the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, a terrifying brawler most fans thought would annihilate him.
In those days, Fresno’s sporting crowd was a diverse mix. Fans cradled their athletes as they would illicit lovers. Betting was illegal, but your bookie changed his number even less often than your stockbroker or pastor.
Today’s fantasy leagues didn’t exist, but dreams were free on every street. Want inside information? Quiz your bartender. Then bet against him. Today might be a loser, but tomorrow will be a mortal lock to win.
Real fans shelled out real cash to experience the big events. Closed-circuit TV sold the tickets, and you rushed from your job to Warnors Theatre to watch it on the big screen. I can still picture us, holding our draft beers in one hand, smokes in the other – hundreds of working stiffs searching the occult darkness for seats.
Nothing in our world could compare to the rush of a heavyweight championship fight.
Don picked Cassius Clay, as Ali was known then, to win the first championship contest with Liston. Not I. Furthermore, I remained unconvinced he could defend his new title in their second fight. Still vivid in my memory is Frank Arthur, a sportscaster I had become close to in those days.
With microphone in hand, he caught up to me in the theater’s lobby after the second fight had ended in a one-round knockout.
“Hey, Hill,” he shouted above the clamor. “Did you see the punch that put Liston on his back?”
“I must have blinked,” I said.
Frank laughed. “Come on, Larry,” he said, waving his microphone in front of my face, “you can give me something better than that.”
Don put everything in perspective at the Old Fresno Hofbrau later that evening. “It was a short, right counterpunch,” he said. “Get used to it. This kid is quicker than anyone we’ve seen before.”
Looking back at those big-screen days, I can’t help wondering what hole we young men were hoping to fill in our own lives. Somewhere there exists sketches and notes I made in Boston and New York boxing gyms.
What, as a young artist and secret writer, was I looking for in the world of boxing? What drew me and hundreds of others in this Valley out to watch prizefights under the lights at Kearney Bowl, the park where in years past Billy and Eli Vukovich chased checkered flags in homemade race cars?
Oh, the strong attraction of those warm evenings, the smell of mundane men’s aftershave, their aggressive growling tempered by the occasional perfumed laughter of women, and all of it in shades and accents immeasurable.
If there is an eternal question about this blood sport, Muhammad Ali is the answer to it.
He was the moment he came upon the scene. We may have to search for it, but it is there in the way he refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Listen to his 24-year- old voice answer the Caucasian college students who accused him of draft dodging, and you will hear an old sage, spelling the truth about depression and its antithesis, freedom.
And ask my friend Don Thomas. He will tell you about the only African American in our basic-training company, Fort Riley, Kan., 1952. He opposed the Korean War and was ordered to act as our flag bearer.
“You decline to carry a weapon, Private Purvis? Then hoist this 18-pound flag instead of a 10-pound M-1 during the forced marches, 108 degrees in the sun.”
All this to a kid who was told he was lucky to serve his nation in the first war that “accepted” blacks.
Goodbye, Muhammad Ali. From me. From my dear pal, Don. And from Private Purvis, who I hope had the chance to be around when you were 24 years old and willing to lose everything for what you believed in.