If there were a Mt. Rushmore for athletes, Muhammad Ali would be on it.
Chiseled into South Dakota granite, he’d reside alongside that other giant of sporting Americana, Babe Ruth. The years will roll on but the immense stature of these two icons will forever tower over all others.
Filling-out the rest of the foursome is no cake-walk. Rounding-up contenders is easy enough but selecting the chosen few is problematic. Not entirely unlike Jefferson’s conundrum (Bill of Rights), the biggest fear is leaving out an indispensable.
Lightening the load is the fact it’s all in fun, meaning, your choices needn’t pass muster with local tribal-leaders or some kind of Ken Burns, revisionary litmus test.
Simply pick America’s four most influential figures of “tumultuous merriment (Johnson),” whether they come with glowing halo or bad-ass baggage in tow.
After the two titans, Jackie Robinson comes quickly to mind. His courage, contribution to civil rights and Dodgers distinction will never be forgotten. But I’m not so sure even he’d approve of his present-day deification by MLB. Something in the vain of “Stop feeding off me! (Cool Hand Luke)” might echo his sentiments if alive today.
Next comes Lombardi, Clemente, Billie Jean King, Cobb, Mantle, Rockne, Gehrig, Page, Bear Bryant, Thorpe, Wooden, Nicklaus, Unitas, Jim Brown, Butkus, Walter Ray, Scully, Montana, Berg, Shoulders, Sugar Ray Robinson, Mack, Foyt, Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Babe Zaharias, Josh Gibson, Graham, Halas, Owens, Petty, Mathewson, Connors and on and on and on.
And the greats of hockey? ‘Made in Canada’ shouldn’t disqualify American favorites like Shore, Hull, Plante, Brodeur, Richard, Bowman, Howe, Orr, Gretzky and Blake. Half their ice-time was clocked on the Southern side of the NHL.
Four spots is a petite pantheon (real Rushmore) with so many greats from which to pick.
Even with the rather pedestrian passel of Presidents, I always thought there should be more mugs on Rushmore. I’ve got no quarrel with those who made the cut, giants, all of ‘em. But if I’d made the call I wouldn’t begin the blasting until Old Hickory was on the roster. No Andy Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans (1815), two-terms, the first People’s President who busted the bank trusts? Tsk-tsk, Mr. Coolidge.
But whether it’s four faces or fourteen, two will always stand above the rest, already chiseled onto the minds of American sport fans, young & old.
George Herman Ruth, “a parade all by himself (Cannon).” Starting as a HOF-caliber moundsman, Ruth’s power with the bat was unprecedented. Though, when asked if he’d not swung so for the stands might he have hit .400, the ever-confident Babe shot back, “Hell, kid, I coulda’ hit .500!” And he could have.
Such talent, wrapped in a lovable brashness was perfectly suited to the roaring times. His insatiable appetite for round-trippers, comfort-food, wine, women & song single-handedly enlivened and rescued a scandalized (Black Sox / ‘20) and micro-managed national pastime.
Best Babe quotes: “(Ty) Cobb is a pr**k, but he sure can hit, God Almighty, that man can hit (Big Sticks / Curran)!” Asked to justify a salary ($100,000) greater than that of the Chief Executive (Hoover), the Babe calmly responded: “I had a better year than he did.”
Babe Ruth, a “natural born world shaker (Dragline).”
It’s funny, you’d think they couldn’t be more different. But the more I read about Ruth, the more I’m reminded of the other sure face on my imaginary monument, Ali.
He was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay when he took the boxing world by storm at the Rome Olympics (’60). By the time he’d taken the title from the a brutish & brooding Sonny Liston (’64), his new religion and name had become the bigger story.
Charming one moment, cruel the next (v Frazier), the outspoken pugilist was a hard sell in Peoria after his conversion and draft refusal (‘66). To the seasoned press corps Ali was an angry draft-dodger. But that grizzled old bunch were becoming passé. The Lip spoke to a new, TV generation. Like The Beatles, he transcended his profession, becoming a bigger than life world figure of both influence and controversy.
And like the Sultan of Swat, Ali seemed tailor-made for his time.
To the new press Ali was a god-send, a quote-machine whose pre-fight poetry was unlike anything they’d ever heard before. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became Muhammad’s defining line. My own favorite Ali-ism: “I’m fast, I’m pretty and can’t POSSIBLY be beat!” Arrogance made interesting. That was a first…and a last.
And he found a kindred spirit in Howard Cosell, frequently feigning discord while taking us all for a ride. And we loved it. In the lawyer’s hands Ali showed a lighter side, more contemplative and surprisingly patient with the blunt, always provocative Howard.
It’s in the aftermath of these two tremendous reigns where the similarity ends.
When Ruth exited the game in 1935 baseball was in its early golden age. Heroes like DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Berra, Mays, Koufax, Gibson and Aaron carried the banner well into the 70s. Today’s game has taken some serious hits with the NFL’s maturation and the PED plague, but it remains the favored pastime for millions.
Boxing, on the other hand, is fighting to stay relevant, in the throes of its toughest time.
With a few exceptions (Sugar Rays), as the heavyweight class goes, so goes USA boxing. When Ali lost the title to Spinks in ‘78, the division was already looking a bit wobbly.
The 35 years since has seen the top tier turn into a revolving-door of titlists, with names like Holmes, Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis and Klitschko (Vitali & Wladi) claiming authority.
Holmes lacked charisma, Tyson personified evil, Holyfield was a cruiserweight, the 90s Foreman was a pleasant anomaly and the other guys, Lewis (The Commonwealth) and the Klitschkos (Ukraine) are best known in their native lands.
Muhammad Ali set the boxing bar so high he left his sport wanting, yearning for a new savior. But can any fighter, in or out of the ring, ever meet the lofty standard set by the self-proclaimed “greatest?” I wonder.
Today’s boxer is as gifted a pugilist as warriors of old but pales in comparison with an Ali-expectancy.
In reality, Uncle Sam’s sporting tastes had been changing before Mr. Clay arrived on the scene. Rather than “KO“ boxing, Ali may’ve actually pumped new life into the sport.
Prize-fighting was born of harder times (1700s), before middle class, when life tested us at every turn and suffering & boredom were expectations. We’ve got our struggles today but in many respects times are better, less trying and less conducive to after-dinner fights.
The public began to rethink their passion for pugilism when tragedy struck in two nationally-televised fights. Cuban fighter Kid Paret would die within ten days after he was knocked unconscious by Emile Griffith in a 1962 welterweight title bout on ABC. Then in 1982, South Korean lightweight Duk Koo Kim collapsed after a 14 RD TKO loss to Ray Mancini at Caesars Palace (CBS), dying four days later.
You’d think it couldn’t get worse for boxing, then Mike Tyson found a gym.
All boxers have inner rage but Tyson was a truly frightening, unpredictable figure who relied on a sneaky upper-cut to knock opponents out on their feet. He unraveled fast with his first loss (Douglas ’90), the best title-fight since Ali-Frazier I (‘71). Then came the rape verdict (‘92), ear-chomp (‘97) and horrific rants (“eat your children” (’00)), giving the sport a nice, big shiner. Now he’s in boxing’s HOF (Canastota, NY). Just perfect.
Then there’s MMA. With evolution away from boxing it’s hard to figure the niche this oddly barbaric contest has carved out (See; sociologist). My theory: a post-1970 male population, spared major, social upheaval (draft / depression) but faced with a forever shrinking job market, in frustration, peer pressure and boredom, respond to mass-marketed machismo. A collective chest-thump, as it were, shouting ‘We bad too!’
Not exactly sign of the Apocalypse but an activity spawned from a culture moving disturbingly closer to James Caan / Wm Harrison’s Rollerball and not half as cool.
Did MMA stagger boxing? Nyet. Their respective fan bases seem to be exclusive and the sports are different at their core. MMA is premised on forcing an opponent into submission, stripping him of all his pride.
Boxing is a mixture of human brutality and style where a winner can howl in victory but still leave his vanquished rival with a modicum of dignity. And that’s just what Herb Marshall left Barb Stanwyck after going a round in Breakfast for Two (‘37).
Floyd Mayweather is the face of today’s US boxing. Sugar Ray Leonard he is not, image-wise. But his skill in the ring has been of the highest caliber and more than well-tested.
As for his post-fight, ring-conduct (Merchant flare-up / ‘11): Even elder statesmen can get too full of themselves. ‘Asked & answered’ was my feeling in watching the senior pepper the winner with post-fight queries. If he hasn’t yet, Larry owes Floyd a phone call.
Then there’s the blood-test. Mayweather’s willingness to give the red stuff gave him the PR upper-hand over his talented, would-be challenger Manny Pacquiao whose meteoric rise came to a screeching halt at his apparent refusal to give the same a year ago.
Boxing will never rise to the heights of popularity it enjoyed for most of the 20th century. Too much has changed. But I hope it someday thrives again. Great fighters, memorable bouts, they’ll always be with us.
Because if Rocky ever goes MMA, I don’t want to see it. Do you?
Ahead of the Curve
Photo Credit: Ira Rosenberg / 1967 / Muhammad Ali / LOC
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.