“Now you will not swell the rout Of lads that wore their honors out, Runners whom renown outran And the name died before the man.” — A Shropshire Lad, A. E. Housman
They are gone now. Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson; Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Ken Norton. They passed away with their legacies intact. George Foreman is preaching the Word and selling his grills. Larry Holmes never left Easton, Pennsylvania. Mike Tyson has morphed from Iron Mike into Mr. Tyson, actor and raconteur.
But in this cruel and beautiful sport, as a class they stand above every heavyweight group that preceded them or that would follow them. In the backroads of my mind, I still see them as they were—young and strong and proud, and in the return of George Foreman not so young but still strong and still proud.
The operative word for this whole amazing era was, indeed, pride. Pride was the spur on a broiling day in an arena without air-conditioning when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought the brutal fight Ali described as “the closest thing to death you will ever see.” Neither would quit, though both had more than a little opportunity to do so.
Pride? Frazier told me how deeply Ali’s name-calling had wounded him when his children came home from school crying because the other kids said Ali had called their father a gorilla.
Pride? Long after that trial by fire in Manila, Ali explained how and why it drove him. “Somebody fights me and loses, and it doesn’t mean much except that they lost a prize fight. But if I lose, kids in Harlem cry.” In Manila, both of them had fought for far more than a championship belt.
Pride? It was the amazing emotional glue that held this whole generation of heavyweights in its grasp and formed an unbreakable fraternal tie among them, which lasted long after they quit the ring.
Consider these other examples.
The night Mike Tyson bit both Evander Holyfield’s ears, anger and an intense frustration had boiled over in Tyson’s psyche. On the other hand, pride was the unspoken catalyst that continued to fuel Holyfield. As the action was halted after the first bite, the referee, Mills Lane, walked toward Holyfield’s corner and yelled, “If you can’t continue, I’ll forfeit the thing to you.” According to Teddy Atlas, Don Turner, Holyfield’s trainer, turned to him and said, “Take it. You get the title.”
But Holyfield shocked ringsiders, speaking through broken lips as blood poured down from one ear: “Put the damned mouthpiece back in my mouth. I am going to f***in’ knock that son of a b**** out.”
It was the same with Larry Holmes during a closed door training session at Caesars Palace, six days before Holmes would fight Ken Norton for the world heavyweight championship. The gym was silent except for the squeaky sound of boxing shoes against the floor. Holmes threw a hook to the body of his sparring partner, Luis Rodriguez, and even as it connected he knew he had torn a ligament in his left arm. When told by the doctor that he shouldn’t fight, Holmes approached Keith Kleven, the local therapist, who worked on his arm every day. On fight night, Kleven stood in the corner with the warning, “If you get hit on that spot, there will be nothing more I can do for you.”
Many years later, Holmes explained his thought process to me. “We had secret discussions about not going through with the fight if I had just one arm. But it was going to be my decision, and I knew I was going to fight even if they had to cut my arm off. It was the title, man. This is why we fight. This was a matter of pride on which you can’t give up.
“On fight night, I piled up an early lead, and then about halfway through I got hit on the arm. I hardly used it after that until the last round. In those days, we fought fifteen. When the bell rang, I said, f*** the pain. This is the title. I won’t be able to look myself in the mirror again if I don’t use that arm and lose the fight.
“It was a dead-even fight going into the fifteenth. He nailed me early, and I was hurt. Then I nailed him with a left uppercut and he was wobbling at the end—and I won it. If you say it was pride that kept me going, you are probably right.”
And finally, in the own words of Chuck Wepner: “I was always proud of what I did. Yeah, I bled a lot in my career. They nicknamed me the Bayonne Bleeder. But I went the whole route with Ali. I won fifty-seven fights. When I fought Sonny Liston, I needed seventy-two stitches, but I wouldn’t quit.
“You ask me about pride? My last fight, I didn’t have much left. I fought on pride alone. I was thirty-seven years old, and it was against Scott Frank who was younger and on his way up. Going into the last round, I thought, what the hell am I doing here? I’m hurt. I lost nine rounds. The ref asked me if I wanted to keep going, and I said, ‘I will finish this fight with the last breath in my body if I have to. It’s the only way I can go out.’”
It was an era in which this remarkable generation of heavyweights took their show on the road more than any other and lit up arenas and stadiums from Los Angeles to New York, from Reno and Las Vegas to Detroit and Minneapolis, with stops in between from England to Germany, Africa to Malaysia, and even to the Philippines.
Once, they were the crown jewels of all of boxing’s weight classes. But stop somebody on the street today and ask who the heavyweight champion of the planet is, and he won’t be able to tell you. That means there isn’t any. Today, it’s all about too many inept governing bodies, too many titles, and too few genuine heavyweight fighters. In this country, the biggest and the best of our two-hundred-pound athletes become power forwards or tight ends. Now, only the hungry fight like heavyweight champions should. That’s why Eastern Europe is where most of them come from.
But this story isn’t about them. It’s about tunes of glory we used to hear and legends who brought a new dimension of pride and determination into the ring. What a generation, and what a ride, they gave us.
Somebody should build a monument to them.
Somebody did. His name was Muhammad Ali.
Long after the last fighters left, Ali’s monument still stood halfway between Reading and Pottsville in Pennsylvania’s lush Schuylkill County. Who better than Muhammad Ali to be its architect? To oversee the building of Ali’s dream project, he enlisted the help of his long-time friend and personal business manager, Gene Kilroy.
Nestled in the woods around Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, it was known as Muhammad Ali’s Deer Lake training camp. It was a cluster of log cabins that included a kitchen, a chapel, Ali’s sleeping quarters, a gym, and several other cabins for sparring partners and Ali’s guests. Just before the Foreman fight, I had brought my own kids to the camp with me while I filmed a television show. Ali shook hands with my son, then swooped down to pick up my little daughter and held her high over his head as she giggled.
“Is that your daddy? Don’t lie to me. Is that your daddy? That’s not your daddy. That man is ugly and you are beautiful. The Gypsies musta brung you. Gimme a kiss.”
It was here in Deer Lake that hot paraffin baths healed Ali’s arthritic hands. Watching him hit the heavy bag, I was convinced he would knock Foreman out—and I wrote about it. “Listen, Jerry,” Ali said, “if you think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned, just wait until I kick Foreman’s behind.”
It was here that Ali chopped wood and moved boulders to build himself up. He built a lane he called Fighters Heaven, lined with eighteen boulders on which he personally painted the names of the greatest fighters who ever lived—Dempsey, Louis, Marciano—all except his own. I suspected he believed there was no boulder big enough for him.
It was here that the famed entourage lived together like frat boys: Gene Kilroy, the personal business manager, camp facilitator, keeper of the checkbook, and restorer of order; Pat Patterson, the Chicago-cop-turned-security-chief; Angelo Dundee, the venerable trainer; Drew Bundini Brown, the witch doctor and cheerleader; and Wali Muhammad, the bucket man and timekeeper.
There never was and never will be a group that belonged together as much as this one had. Most of them are gone now, but in my mind they remain eternally young.
A quarter of a century ago, I went back to the deserted camp at Deer Lake. I wandered into the old camp kitchen where the wall plaque with a list of kitchen rules hung thick with dust. The long wooden table and chairs were empty. I walked down the hill to the little gym that surely must remain a refuge to the ghosts and echoes of a younger Ali at work.
The thump of gloved fists against heavy bag and the rat-tat-tat of the speed bag. The sound of the three-minute-bell ringing and Wali Muhammad, a towel around his neck and a stopwatch in his hand, yelling, “Time!” A gritty shell of a hand wrap, discarded perhaps twenty-five years earlier, lay on the ring floor.
It was getting along toward sunset now, and as I stepped outside and walked back up the hill, the rickety sign was still there, swaying back and forth in the wind.
MUHAMMAD ALI TRAINING CAMP.
Beneath it, another wooden slat read:
NO TRAINING TODAY.
In that moment, the wind began to gust, and from somewhere deep in the backroads of my mind I could swear I heard a familiar voice whispering:
“I’m still the greatest.”
Who says you can’t go home again?