"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Blood on the Mats

Here is a compelling essay Pete Hamill wrote in 1996 for Esquire“Blood on Their Hands: The Corrupt and Brutal World of Professional Boxing”:

On the night of the Tyson-Bruno fight, I went to a place called the Official All Star Cafe in Times Square. There was a huge private party to honor the twentieth anniversary of the first Rocky movie, and crowds packed the sidewalks for a glimpse of Sylvester Stallone and the celebrities he might draw. One of those celebrities was Muhammad Ali.

Ali was already there when I arrived, dressed in a dark-red long-sleeved shirt, seated at a table with his wife and young son. To his right was a movie-size screen on which the preliminary fights were being broadcast from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The room was crowded with citizens of the fight racket: Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis, Ray Leonard and Willie Pep, managers and promoters, wives and girlfriends. Everybody tried to avoid looking at Muhammad Ali.

His head was bowed and he was trying to eat. But his right hand was shaking so hard that he could not get the piece of chicken to move two inches to his mouth. His wife, Lonnie, put her hand over his to quell the shaking and gently guided the chicken to its destination. Ali chewed diligently but did not raise his head.

Across the evening, people came over to the table to lean down and speak to the ruined fifty-four-year-old man. Sometimes he smiled. Sometimes he whispered a reply. Sometimes he rose to pose for pictures. But then he would be back in the chair, the once lithe and powerful body sagging, the eyes wide and wary, a plastic strew clenched in his mouth, all of him shaking with the Parkinson’s disease, with the damage caused by the fierce trade he once honored.

The disease, caused in Ali’s case by repeated blows to the head, is insidious, degenerative, humiliating, a thief of will and memory. I know: My mother, who was hit in the head by a mugger in 1979, is now eighty-five and trapped in its silent prison. I’ve fed her, as Lonnie feeds Ali.

Only when the fight started and Mike Tyson came down the aisle in Las Vegas did Ali’s eyes focus intensely. We’ll never know what now moves through his mind. But he had made that same walk so many times, with entire arenas and stadiums roaring the chant Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee, Ah-lee…. When young, he had been among great throngs where half the audience hated him, and had stayed long enough to convert them all. For Ah-lee, Ah-lee wasn’t about celebrity or even success; it was about excellence and heart. And it was about personal defiance: of odds, of skeptics, of racists, of the American government, and of pain. Along the way, Ali became myth; most myths, alas, are also tragedies.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver