Saturday 4 June 2016

Ennis man dies in Arizona

Late last night, Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali, died from respiratory problems having been admitted to hospital in Arizona a couple of days earlier; he was 74. He grew up poor but respectable in Kentucky and started boxing as a child.  I also was encouraged to box as a small child, but Cassius was much better at this sort of thing that I was. At the age of 18, he won the gold medal in his weight class at the 1960 Olympics and was set for a career as a professional boxer. He became the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1964 by beating the odds on [7 to 1!] favourite Sonny Liston with a technical knockout.  During the afters he uttered his first "I am the greatest!" which became a catch-phrase.  He became known as a professional mouth, owning interviews and giving lip to the various celebrities who started to orbit him like moths round a candle. The idolisation and celebrification was sort of creepy.  Even as a 10 y.o. at the time, I felt that the white celebrities were patronising him while affecting to pay heed to his words. The obvious comments were labelled as earthy wisdom, the dafter utterances were called poetry. Apparently he had flung his Olympic Medal in the river after being refused service in a Kentucky cafe. Things hadn't moved on in the 24 years since Jesse Owens had to use the service entrance in a New York Hotel. As a white bloke, I can't imagine what day-to-day life was like for a young black man in America in the 1960s: tediously wearing, continuously niggling, frequently infuriating would be part of it. 

He was again in the news big time in 1966, when his number was drawn by the Kentucky Draft Board [previously odds on the draft].  Partly because of his conversion to Islam and partly from a revolt about the Vietnam War "I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger." Ali refused to answer the call, citing religious reasons for being a conscientious objector. If he had been white and/or a Quaker, there would have been little enough difficulty in accepting such a plea. Being black, and a convert to Islam, made his position look like a sham to the establishment. At least he was rich enough to instruct a good lawyer, who fought his case up through to the US Supreme Court. They unanimously rejected his conviction for draft dodging and he was back in the running as a professional boxer, albeit 4 years older: the law moves with self-serving indolence majestic deliberation.

You can watch your favourite news channel for the story of his rehabilitation and regaining the World Heavyweight Championship. It's not particularly pretty, but then I'm biassed against boxing in toto because I think it brutalises everyone involved - especially the spectators. In Ireland these last few years we have lost the run of ourselves over Katie Taylor - our own Gold Medal boxer. She is, like Ali, a religious nut; and as a woman has to endure a similar background hum of contempt and repression which is invisible to the likes of white middle class male me. The easy target for objection to boxing and other violent sports is to worry about Contact Sport Encephalopathy CSE, about which I've been a frequently lazy-arsed commentator. Muhammad Ali is a good example of the dreadful outcome of CSE, the damage to his brain has manifest itself as Parkinson's rather than as dementia. The loss of physical grace and dexterity is particularly ironic for a man who, by his own assessment, was able to "Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee".  

In 2009, he made a trip to Ennis, Co. Clare to track down the relatives of his great grandfather Abe Grady who emigrated to the US in the 1860s.  It was lovely day, the sun shone, the local dignitaries put on their ties and jockeyed to get frame-time with the visitor and they made him an honorary freeman of Ennis [pop 25,000]. His wife was delighted with the warmth of their reception. But you can see how shook the boxer was in the RTE coverage. I was going to call him an old man, but he was only 67 at the time. I hope I'm in better shape in 5 years when I get to be that age.

Now for the difficult target - ourselves. If those councillors and dignitaries could review their own contribution to Ali's condition they might feel that awarding him another trophy was, well, a tad hypocritical? I never paid money to watch a rugger game, let alone a boxing match, but I have watched a number of games from my sofa or in the pub. And I've played both 'games' with a legal brutality that was only possible for someone with blunted affect amounting to pathology. The people who are in line to sustain brain-damage from sport are in almost all cases young, biddable, brave, foolhardy and fit. Their coaches, supporters, fans and backers are mostly older, fatter, whiter and more comfortable. Cui bono?

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