I want you to listen for a moment to the sound. It’s coming from the other room. The TV set is on. My grandfather is watching the fight. Listen with me. You can hear the din of the stadium crowd. You can hear Cosell. You can hear the bell at the end of the round. I don’t know anything about boxing. I’m a skinny, wimpy little kid who can’t throw a punch himself. But that man is fighting. The butterfly. The bee. The pretty one. When he talks you can’t help but listen. When he talks he lulls you into a trance. It’s almost like he’s singing.The sound of his voice lures me into the TV room. I’m still at the age when boys crawl around on the floor with their Matchbox cars. I’m pretending not to be interested in the TV while I drive around the floor near my grandfather’s feet. You can hear the whump, whump, whap of the gloves. The television is one of those console affairs with a pair of sliding wooden doors. When you get close enough you can smell the ozone from the vacuum tubes. My grandfather shouts and I look up to see one of the men staggering. Ali is doing his floating thing in a pair of shiny white trunks. I’m inches from the humming, convex screen. I can’t understand a word that Cosell says but I know great spectacle when I see it. I saw the men walk on the moon. I watched the president resign. This is poetry in motion. This is like Secretariat and Joe Dimaggio and Jesse Owens. I cannot look away. I’m not a fighter. I don’t like violence. But this is some kind of primal ballet. Who is this person? My grandfather just calls him Ali. Ali this, Ali that. Ali sure has a big mouth but brother can he fight. Ali’s gonna destroy him. Look at Ali’s feet? Watch Ali pretend he’s tired. Look at that sneaky bastard. Watch, in a minute Ali’ll unleash a flurry of punches. Look at him. You’ll live your whole life kid and you’ll never see another Ali. I’m kneeling on the floor in front of the TV, clutching a toy car in each hand like a giant. Ali’s leaning back into the ropes. Come on, my grandfather says, almost under his breath. Come on. He’s ducking punches. His head sways like a cobra. And then it happens. Whump, whump, whop. Like that, and the other guy falls like he was shot. Ali’s got his arms raised above his head and he’s talking, I can see his bottom teeth flash. Taunting. That mouth. The crowd is standing. Cosell is spinning poetry of his own. My grandfather stands abruptly and slaps his thigh hard with his racing form. That’s it, you sonofabitch. You see that kid? I saw it. I saw it all in fuzzy black and white. Ali jumping up and down in what seems like slow motion with his arms pumping and his mouth open. Ali dancing on the surface of the moon.
(photo by Thomas Hoepker)