THE FIRST LAST GREATEST UNDERDOG (IMAGINED):
When Elvis died I was shocked by how it upset me> He was an
institution, a lighthouse, had always been there. With the murder
of John Lennon the world got a little colder & I’m still shivering.
This morning, as I showered, the news that my first & greatest
beacon of hope had moved on to illuminate another place made me
sob like a little kid.
25th of February, 1964, I was seven years old. The buzz about the
Clay/Liston fight had filtered down to even me (the boy with his
head in the clouds). I’d had no previous interest in boxing nor even
knowledge of it’s existence, but the noise about this fight was so
loud that it had infiltrated my impenetrable bubble & got me curious
– ‘So what was all the fuss about?’. There was some guy a long
way from our little backwater town who was going to fight another
guy & neither of them had anything to do with real life as far as
I could see. They didn’t go to my school, didn’t live in our town,
didn’t even live in our country! They were going to hit one another
in somewhere called ‘America’, a fantasy land I’d discovered through
DC comics. A place where amazing things were available to boys my age
(like bicycles with white wall tires & cow-horn handlebars, baseball
bats, weird footballs & X-ray glasses). This was a land, far beyond
imagination, that only existed on TV. A place where the sun always
shone, where shadows were black & exotic chromium-ed cars cruised
sunset strip whilst cool young dudes grinned through immaculate
white teeth, leaning back & grooming their perfect hair with the
fluid wrists of Zen calligraphers. Until 25th of February 1964,
America wasn’t real, so I vowed to remain in my bubble forever,
protected from the world outside where my little dreams would be
shot down before they had chance to fly.
The fight I heard that night changed everything. Why I even listened
to it is beyond me, other than perhaps it was to show solidarity with
my Dad who had a clear desire to catch it on the radio. We tuned in,
sat in the car engine running to stay warm, me beside him. Something
significant was going to happen in Dad’s car & I didn’t want to miss
The press had it all worked out, long before the fight even
started, the world was sure of the outcome. Sonny Liston was the
reigning World Heavy weight Champion, a boxer who was considered by
everyone to be so overwhelmingly ferocious he was unstoppable.
No one could withstand the supreme power of his punches & great
fighters at the top of their game had openly avoided fighting him.
Then this confident 22-year-old contender steps up & starts getting
all vocal about how he’s going to beat the unbeatable champion, how’s
he’s going to upset the world (& that got my attention) to become the
new (& greatest) Heavy Weight Champion of the World. Sat next to my
Dad, parked on a little patch of dirt outside our house, in a little
town where dreams withered away, I started to fizz. Me & Dad, sat
side-by-side, illuminated by the glow of the car radio dial.
The task for the 22-year-old was to achieve the impossible, something
he claimed, no ‘promised’, he would shock the world & do. Right there
& then, I put everything I had, all my hopes & dreams, my whole future,
on him. If he lost, then I would loose with him, but if he won, my
dreams could become realities. If this young dude, who didn’t know I
even existed & didn’t waist his time posing,cruising & combing his hair
in slick TV detective series but trained to perfection whilst spouting
an electric poetry my generation needed, pulled off what the whole
world said he couldn’t then I would never again believe anyone who
told me ‘it can’t be done’. I didn’t know what colour his or my skin
was back then & it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. Everything about
this young guy was fantastic, inspirational, a beacon of light.
The shock in the voices of the radio commentators that night
(‘Oh my God he’s done it!’)& again years later when he did
‘the impossible’ for a second time, re-taking the title that had
been stripped from him, sent waves around the world, silenced his
detractors. Those who moaned about him sounded stupid, ‘Impossible’
became meaningless, a fictitious ball & chain, erased from the
dictionary forever. I glowed in the dark, sitting next to my Dad in
his car. No one in our little town knew the of silent transformation
that took place in me that night, nor the packed I made with myself
never to believe anything was impossible.
Mohammed Ali!, Mohammed Ali!, Mohammed Ali!