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Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad and Merce

--   By Tom Phillips
Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016
If Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer of all time, it wasn't because he could punch the hardest. For Ali, the best offense was a good defense -- and the key was his dancing.

The "Ali Shuffle" was his signature step, and it set him apart from any other heavyweight.  He danced with both feet in the air, hovering, shuffling, so you never knew which foot he would land on, or where he would go. The feet were like a hummingbird's wings, a blur. Meanwhile the hands accompanied the dance, mixing jabs, hooks, and right-hand leads with innumerable fakes. At the top, Ali invented the bobblehead, flicking his neck backward and sideways to avoid his opponent’s fists.

He was his own dance master, making up strategy in the ring, in the moment. If he could be compared to a choreographer, it would be Merce Cunningham, who understood the uses of chance. Not even Merce knew how the music would work with the dance, until it happened on the stage. Not even Ali knew where he was going next, until it happened in the ring.

I saw him in action twice, the first time training for his fight with Zora Folley in 1967 -- Ali's last bout before he was stripped of his title and exiled from boxing for refusing the draft. Sparring with Jimmy Ellis, a heavyweight contender, Ali dropped his hands to his sides, danced, ducked and dodged for a full three-minute round. Ellis never touched him.

Ali did the same against Ken Norton in 1976, at Yankee Stadium. At age 34 he was fighting mostly flat-footed, but in the final, 15th round, he came out and danced for the full three minutes, jabbing and darting away, literally running rings around his opponent.  The judges gave him a razor-close decision.  Norton thought he was robbed, leaned on the ropes and wept after the verdict.  But the judges were unanimous, and it was the last round that sealed the decision.

The rope-a-dope was Ali's ultimate improvisation. Dancing didn't work against heavyweight champ George Foreman in Zaire, in 1974.  Fighting in a cramped 19-foot ring, Foreman was advancing relentlessly, cutting off Ali's escape routes.  So he backed up against the ropes, laying out with his head over the apron.  With his trainer screaming at him to get off the ropes, he covered up and let Foreman flail away, absorbing thunderous blows to the arms and ribs, taunting the champ:  "You disappoint me, George!"  Ali knocked out the exhausted Foreman in the eighth.  After the fight, he said:  "On the ropes is a beautiful place for a heavyweight.”

Beauty mattered to Ali.  “I’m pretty!” was one of his main boasts.  Boxing is a brutal sport, and probably should be banned.  But it never will be, because a boxing match is an incomparable piece of theater – not an imitation of life, but life itself, with all its glory and disgrace.

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips