Tuesday, August 2, 2016

BOOKS: DRAMA IN THE BAHAMAS...


WHAT WE NEED IS MORE COWBELL
New book relives Ali's final fight
by Don Stradley

Image result for ali-berbick

Muhammad Ali’s last fight was a disaster, epitomized by the infamous cowbell, borrowed at the last minute from a local farm because the half-wits running the show had forgotten that  boxing matches needed a bell to start and end rounds. There was the rickety stadium, erected just before the bout, as if it were 1915 and Tex Rickard was setting up shop for Jack Johnson to inflame America; and Ali, flabby and listless, struggling with Trevor Berbick, an opponent Ali would’ve thrashed in better days. I watched it at the home of a high school friend, one of the few in our grassy suburb wired for cable-television. His mother watched with us, occasionally looking up from her knitting to cackle at Ali’s pitiful effort. She was rude, but as we’re reminded in Dave Hannigan’s Drama in the Bahamas: Muhammad Ali’s Last Fight, Ali’d become a joke figure, with rumors of brain damage already a recurring topic where he was concerned – when he visited England to promote the event, his BBC radio appearances were axed because no one could understand him – yet, he was allowed to fight. Like Elvis Presley or Veronica Lake, Ali’s final professional moments were embarrassing. He was a burnt out bulb.

We’re told more than once in Drama in the Bahamas that Ali was “jealous” of younger fighters like Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. He needn’t have worried, for all three lacked personality. Hearns never said much. Hagler? A generic tough guy. Leonard? Plastic as a beauty pageant winner. But even Ali’s persona seemed to be shutting down by the time he faced Berbick. “The genie is gone from the bottle,” wrote Hugh McIlvanney at the time, “and Ali is ready to be dumped along with the rest of boxing’s empties.” Hannigan uses McIlvanney and other journalists of the day like a cut-rate Greek chorus, each trying to outdo the other with his prophecies of Ali’s doom. Even Eddie Murphy weighed in on Saturday Night Live, portraying Ali, not yet 40, as senile.

You could call the bummer in the Bahamas a cautionary tale, but boxing people tend to ignore cautionary tales. The shopworn Ali’s battle to secure a boxing license after Nevada refused him, a promotion run by ex-cons, in a location not known for hosting boxing events, were old stories that harkened back to boxing’s earlier days. They’ve since been repeated ad nauseam by dozens of fighters. That the iconic Ali went through the paces of an ordinary broken down pug made it all seem a little weird. Still, having watched the bout recently on YouTube, Ali did better than I’d remembered. Even in his sorry condition, he won some rounds. What was bizarre was the way he’d slump on his stool between frames, his corner men praising him like a child who’d cleaned his plate. 

Berbick’s part in the Bahama drama, which was almost played by Renaldo Snipes, is well covered. In fact, Hannigan concludes with a long chapter on how Berbick became a paranoid religious zealot, eventually meeting his end thanks to a lead pipe swung by an angry nephew. But finishing on such a note gives the book an uneven texture. Harrigan teaches history at a Long Island community college, and his book feels like a history lesson: informative, but plain. One could’ve aimed machine guns at the memories of Queen Elizabeth’s Sports Centre in Nassau and fired upon those involved, especially Ali’s entourage, smiling stupidly as he sputtered through half-hearted gym sessions. Shame, too, on Ali’s parents, his wife, his cook, all as bad as the relatives of a dotty royal who indulge the old fool’s whims for  fear they’ll be cut from the will. And was Ali so divorced from reality that he didn’t realize how far he’d fallen? Even his ring walk looked odd, like the unsteady gait of a mental patient out for a stroll. Hannigan quotes Phil Berger about there being “no empiric science of analyzing the mind of a fighter,” and that’s true. But Hannigan might’ve tried, instead of harping on the damned cowbell.


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