It’s hard to remember what it once meant to be heavyweight champion of the world. It meant much more than winning a Super Bowl, or a Stanley Cup, or a World Series. It meant being the baddest motherfucker on the planet. It meant commanding a hierarchy that begins in the schoolyard, ascends through middle school fisticuffs, and vanishes into terrifying adult-world violence. Many of us live in the society described by Hobbes, where it’s all against all, a big fight made of innumerable little fights in every waste place on battlefield Earth. The heavyweight champ stood atop all that, the Primo leader, the alpha dog. Once upon a time, having that belt meant there was no one who could kick your ass and no one’s ass you could not kick.
When I was about 13, a friend’s father took us to see the fights at the Aragon ballroom in Chicago – nasty bottom-drawer brawlers, washouts, bums. In one of the under-cards, a boxer was driven through the ropes onto a reporters’ table where my friend and I were sitting. Stretched out like a patient on a gurney, he turned and faced me. He looked sad, like he was going to cry, and I could the see blood in his eyes and the snot in his nose and a cut above his ear. This was as far from Las Vegas, as far from the romance of prime-time fight nights, as you could get. And yet, in the corner of that room sat a man described to us as “the one time heavyweight champion of the world.” He’d only held the belt for a few weeks, and for a fluky reason, and still he radiated a special kind of energy. He was big and broke-down and old but he’d once been the baddest man in the world. For a moment, there’d been no one who could beat him and no one he could not beat. No matter what else happened, he had that. It could never be taken away. He knew it, and we knew it, and he knew we knew it, and that was the special energy.
Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight in history because his story included the story of the palooka we saw in the ballroom that night, and the story of every other fighter who’d ever trained and worked the bag and paid his dues and reached the top. Ali was the best of them and Ali was all of them. He was the lyricism and the flash of Sugar Ray Robinson translated into the power of a heavyweight. He was the power of Sonny Liston turned into a poem. His demise, and we all watched it, one terrible fight at a time, on TV in the late 1970s, was the demise of the sport. The fact that boxing did what it did to that beautiful athlete meant the end of the game for a lot of us. How can you keep watching after that? Ali was the King too great for the good of his Kingdom. His end meant the end. We went back to our tribes after that. Baseball. Football. Do you ever watch boxing today? Maybe, but it’s not the same. It’s never been the same.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones, a memoir of his experience touring with the band as a young reporter.