When I first started traveling regularly I sometimes wondered why I allotted myself five-plus hours on days when I fly out of Pittsburgh. It was because of days like this one.
The good news was that the drizzly, foggy conditions that greeted me when I arose at 7:30 a.m. gave way to brilliantly sunny skies once I reached Wheeling 70 minutes into my scheduled two-and-a-half hour drive. The bad news began a couple of miles before I reached Bridgeville, Pa., which is located approximately 30 minutes from the airport. For reasons unknown to me at the time, the traffic flow suddenly slowed to between 5 and 10 mph. For the next half-hour I saw nothing but the back bumper of the semi immediately ahead of me and the cars passing me on my immediate right.
The snarl untangled itself as suddenly as it arrived. It turned out that road construction had reduced access to a single lane and the slowdown was probably the result of those in the correct lane refusing to allow one car from the other two lanes to merge before proceeding. It is times like these that make me wonder whether benevolence is a dying art, at least on the highways.
The other significant delay occurred once I arrived at the airport. I’m one who refuses to believe that a given parking lot is filled when I see a sign indicating so. How could airport personnel possibly know that not one car had vacated the area since the sign was erected hours earlier? Most of the time I was correct and the result was a parking spot located within a relatively short distance of the terminal building.
This time was different – the lot actually was full. No matter how many dozens of rows I scoured no gaps presented themselves. I then rummaged through the next furthest lot and encountered the same glut. Finally, I stumbled onto a space directly underneath the “9F” sign in the extended lot, which wasn’t a bad place given the easy-to-remember location and the shorter-than-expected five-minute walk. Sure, finding it required nearly 20 minutes of circling and scanning, but the effort was worth it.
During both flights – from Pittsburgh to Charlotte and from Charlotte to Gulfport, Mississippi – I re-read the first half of Steven Brunt’s “Facing Ali: The Opposition Weighs In.” For those who haven’t perused it, Brunt interviewed 15 men who fought “The Greatest,” ranging from first pro opponent Tunney Hunsaker to the more obscure Jurgen Blin and Jean Pierre Coopman to his “Champions Forever” brethren Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton and George Foreman.
Only a few dozen fighters had ever experienced what it was like to be the focal point of Ali’s attention – both physically and psychologically. What must have it been like for them to have the greatest heavyweight of the generation devote precious time and energy bestowing indelible nicknames and spouting custom-crafted doggerel? Some – like Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell and Frazier – took great offense at being called “The Rabbit,” “The Octopus” and “The Gorilla” respectively and tried their best to strike back. They did so by referring to Ali by his given name – Cassius Marcellus Clay – because they knew that was the only way to bust through his otherwise impenetrable shell.
Others, like George Chuvalo, had fun with it. The man Ali dubbed “The Washerwoman” because his punches resembled someone using a scrub board actually arrived in a washerwoman costume at press conferences to goad Ali into fighting him, something Chuvalo eventually did twice. Though Chuvalo lost both by decision, he fought honorably and experienced more than a few effective moments, especially in fight one when he relentlessly pounded Ali’s body as no one had to that point.
Karl Mildenberger became a national hero in Germany for his better-than-expected performance while Joe Bugner saw Ali’s act for the marketing genius it was and used it to his own advantage in later years. Many are known solely for their singular encounter with a legend and, like life, some made the most of it while others failed to fully capitalize.
The biggest problems for Ali’s opponents weren’t his wondrous speed of hand and foot but his dexterous mind and gift of gab. His rivals were disparaged in the newspapers every day for weeks on end, and more often than not they had to endure comments by family and friends. Sometimes those loved ones were the targets of barbs, and worse yet, few had the ability to go toe-to-toe with Ali verbally. The frustration must have been palpable. But in a sport where supreme focus is imperative, Ali’s antics proved a powerful weapon. A distracted mind often leads to a bludgeoned body and Ali exploited cluttered minds better than most.
Only Norton, Holmes and Ron Lyle applied the correct antidote – ignore it. It was no accident that they experienced the greatest level of success. Holmes battered the aged Ali into the only stoppage loss of his career. Lyle’s refusal to play the “rope-a-dope” game with Ali allowed him to lead on two scorecards (he was even on the third) before Ali burst his bubble in the 11th. As for Norton, many believe – perhaps correctly – that he deserved to win all three of their fights instead of the one officially in the record books.
It’s still baffling that Ali’s playground-level name-calling had such a profound effect on arguably the biggest, toughest athletes on earth. Frazier carried the scars to his grave while others are remembered only by their failures against Ali, not the many successes before or since. It’s a unique burden to carry, but that’s the price they paid for the privilege of sharing the ring with Muhammad Ali.