Tuesday, December 7, 2021

It’s another sad morning after

…. we had fun mister,

we lived mister,

every day was history,

millionaires would’ve paid to do what I did

to be near him’

Gene Kilroy- Muhammed Ali’s flunky

The morning after is always sad. In the fall of ’87, senior writer Gary Smith embarked on a journey across America, tracking down members of an inner circle of privileged personalities who once upon a time were right there on top of the world. He found them in various states of flux and decay. But the one common affliction they exhibited was longing; they were in pain because they missed the single character around whom their lives had revolved for years. They longed to be back together doing the things they did so well in the service of their master who at his peak was the most famous and charismatic athlete in the world.

In their own words, in melancholic tone they told the interviewer stories of how champ had taken them to exotic places like Kinshasa, Malaysia, Manila, Europe, the Orient as well as to other locations they had never dreamt about because their dreams didn’t know such places even existed. I have read this epic narrative many times and concluded the dramatis personae all suffered from what is known in psychology by its German term, Sehnsucht; defined as a deep, intense feeling of nostalgia. Making for wistful reading, the winding tapestry first published in 1988 is titled ‘Ali And His Entourage: Life after the end of the greatest show on earth’, and considered a masterpiece in the archives of sports journalism. Known alternatively as the entourage, the travelling circus or merely as the hangers on, Smith describes them as an unusual collection of passengers who took the ride with the king of the world Muhammed Ali himself.

Colourful, tragi comic, haunted, stoic, but all passionate and loyal to a single man, the entourage were unhinged from their emotional moorings when the bright lights and roar of adoring crowds faded and the gates of their training camp at Deer Lake out in Pennsylvania were shuttered forever one final, sad morning. As someone sagely observed, the entourage was like a little town for Ali where he was sheriff, judge, mayor and treasurer. From the piece I surmise that Ali was a mini welfare state for those around him. The story of champ’s entourage and what happened to them the morning after the final night together, for us fight fans always worms its way back into our consciousness with the approach of any big lace up. Much as it gets our hearts thumping in anticipation, the arrival of fight night invokes in us fear and trepidation about the morning after because it always brings sadness.

As you read this newspaper the world has just witnessed a boxing match which ran out of superlatives to describe in its frenzied build up. Since boxing was invented this fight has broken all records in terms of hype, revenue, purse and audiences. Simply what we just saw was the biggest fight this century. We have been waiting for this moment for many years and now it has come and gone. I am a fight fan of many years standing. The sweet science transfixed me in early teenage hood during the heydays of the middle weights who assumed centre stage after the heavyweights Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Holmes had taken their final curtain call pending eruption of the devastating volcano that was Mike Tyson. Then the sport needed new names and talent to light up the ring and once more pump up the adrenaline. That is how I came to see Sugar Ray Leonard colliding with the Hitman from Detroit, Tommy Hearns. Heck, I saw Roberto Duran aka Manos de Piedra when he sowed terror through the ranks with his hands of stone followed by his dramatic capitulation in the return bout against Sugar Ray screaming ‘ no mas no mas’.

Sugar Ray was the pin up boy then, but I just never warmed up to him. He seemed too smooth and saccharine for a genuine contender. And up to this day, I still insist we, meaning fans of Marvin Hagler, were robbed in that fight against the same Sugar Ray. That split decision, the most controversial in boxing history still rankles with us to this day. A few years ago on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the bout, I watched an interview of Marvin from his retirement home in Milan and his reflections on that decision revealed the emotional torture he is yet to recover from. Marvin was so sad the morning after that robbery he quit the ring and never returned. As he told the interviewer why he never returned I felt a sense of vindication. This was justice. The man had delivered himself justice by refusing all offers of big purses to return to the ring. In so doing he had underlined the conviction of many of us that we wuz robbed that April 6 night of 1987 at the then mecca of boxing known as Caesar’s Palace.

The morning after always brings sadness. When Ali was travelling the world with Gene the flunkie, Ferdi Pacheco the doctor and Luis Sarria the Cuban masseur who didn’t speak a single word of English. When champ was pampered by the cook Lana Shabbaz, forever fretting that her master’s meals should contain enough ‘ enzymes’, and when court jester and motivator Drew ‘ Bundini’ Brown rhymed to the ghetto poetry exploding in his mind that conjured up verses such as ‘ float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’, one day in 1974 the whole entourage rolled into Kinshasa, by the banks of the mighty Congo river. As part of Ali’s global tour, Mobutu, dictator of Zaire had put up the biggest purse for a showdown between champ and the fearful George Foreman. The intention was to showcase Zaire to the world as a modern African state. Dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle, the jamboree in Zaire is captured in the award winning 1997 documentary film, When We Were Kings. Every serious boxing fan ought to see it. On the morning after Ali pulled off a stupendous knock-out victory, it was all gloom and sadness in the Foreman camp. The vanquished man says it took him years to recover from that one night in Central Africa.

The burden we live with as passionate fight fans is that the morning after, when the lights have faded and the crowd has gone home, somewhere in a training camp, family home and fan club there is sadness. Who will ever forget the most explosive three rounds ever thrown up in the boxing ring when Marvin and the Hitman from Detroit met at Caesar’s Palace two years before the Sugar Ray robbery, in a crazy encounter that left us panting for breath and emotionally wrecked. Did anyone for a minute imagine the morning after at Manny Stewart’s Kronk Gym from whence Tommy Hearns came? It was surely sad and sombre because at the end of each bout we fight fans recognise the valour of the loser and empathise with him, willing him to recover and come back. I have mourned with Michael Spinks the contender who was dispatched in 90 seconds by Mike Tyson.

I remember from the pictorial in Drum magazine how they carried a weeping Terror Mathebula out of Orlando Stadium after his loss to Santos Laciar in front of an adoring hometown crowd. Sometimes it ends in real tears such as the morning of 3 November 1985 when Jacob Morake died after being knocked out the previous night by Brian Mitchell, a tragedy captured in the riveting book Dancing Shoes is Dead written by Gavin Evans. Three years later Brian Baronet, a much loved boxer who traded leather with the exciting Arthur’ Fighting Prince’ Mayisela also died after a bout with Kenny Vice in Durban. When the boxing world reeled in shock after one of its biggest upsets in the Tokyo Dome when Buster Douglas knocked out Tyson back in February 1990 I wondered how the vanquished man felt the morning after. Was he sad? Was he lonely? Did he feel emasculated and less of a man and boxer? We have come a long way from when fights were broadcast recorded and seeing a major square up within twenty fours of it ending was considered live viewing.

Then few families had television, meaning friends had to watch at friends’ houses. Now with satellite television brought about by capitalism the likes of Floyd and Manny operate on a global scale and that is why this morning’s fight was so huge. Because of capitalism, there are more television sets, there is online media and in many countries the middle class has grown meaning huge swathes of the world can be brought to a standstill by a boxing match featuring a Filipino from the sticks and a boy from the ghetto who eats life with a big spoon and lives it as it ought to be lived. So big was the Floyd and Manny encounter that years from now we will regale our kids with smug we were there stories even when we in fact saw it on television. Damn, such has been my anticipation for the past five years when this boxing extravaganza was first mooted that right now I feel like I am strolling down the Strip in Las Vegas taking in the tourist sights and shooting selfies.

This is the disease of boxing people; we always feel we were there. When I tell my boxing retarded drinking mates about Ali’s entourage and his rumble in the jungle with Foreman it’s like I was there in tropical Kinshasa. But I was I was only three years old. Boxing leaves us with abiding, life long memories. But it all ends in a sad morning after because in this game one of the gladiators has to be vanquished and this outcome affects whole families, countries and fans. I am way past taking sides in this sport. I have experienced so much joy and sadness over the years that I now try to be neutral and just watch to study and enjoy the spectacle of skill and athleticism that allows a rare breed of men to perform at such a level of fitness.

However all said, despite being a neutral, at the end of the every fight I can’t help but feel sad for the loser because he is a man with hangers – on, family, country and fans. He has put in so much in terms of training, sacrifice and deprivation only to find himself one unlucky night glassy eyed with his back on the canvas in the full glare of television cameras and the eyes of millions across the world, humiliated and dismissed, the morning after, as a bum by the less discerning. We boxing fans are forever haunted by the morning after, and so it is with this morning after the fight of the century.

*This piece is dedicated to Lesang ‘Champ’ Maswabi and all fight fans who do spare a moment for the vanquished boxer.

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