Stuff Still Happens, week 22: Muhammad Ali, when boxing mattered

The death on Friday of Muhammad Ali, described by the New York Times as a “titan of boxing and the 20th century” reminded me of a time when boxing mattered.

Greatest sports photo ever. 

There was a time, before Ali and for a while after he retired, when boxing was one of the premiere sports in the world. Everyone who enjoyed sports, and plenty who didn’t care a lick about it, followed heavyweight boxing. Unlike other sports, where the names of their greats were known mostly to their fans, everyone knew who the heavyweight champion was. And there never was a champion, before or since, like Muhammad Ali.

Ali should have been a reviled figure, at at times he was. He was loud, proud, incredibly brash and in your face before ‘in your face’ was even an expression. I mean, the guy called himself The Greatest! What kind of obnoxious asshole calls himself The Greatest?

Ali could, and he did it without coming off as grade A jerk. Perhaps it was because he WAS The Greatest. Perhaps it was because he was the first to call himself The Greatest. And perhaps he got away with it because, beneath the braggadocio, he was almost winking at us, having a bit of a laugh at our expense. He was, in his prime, ebullient and utterly charming, witty and articulate unlike any athlete before him. In an age where athletes were expected to be modest, ‘no I in team’ kind of guys, Ali stood out in the loneliest sport in the world.

It’s difficult to describe today the worldwide interest in a heavyweight championship featuring Ali. In the pre-internet age, and in a time when live television from distant lands was still a bit of a novelty, Ali’s fights in Zaire (the Rumble in the Jungle vs. George Foreman in 1974) and Manila (The Thrilla in Manila vs. Joe Frazier in 1975) were EVENTS, the kind of thing that seemingly the entire world was interested in. The only way you could see them was to go somewhere for pay-per-view. If you couldn’t afford that (or just wouldn’t pay), you could get round-by-round updates on the radio. They’d play a song, then come back with the results of the latest round. And millions of us did that. That’s how big boxing was when Ali reigned.

Outside of the ring, his conversion to Islam was a defining moment of his life. It would have ruined other athletes, but not Ali. He was a man of convictions, even when his convictions (refusing the draft cost him prime boxing and money earning years) derailed his career, cost him the best years of his boxing life and untold millions of dollars.

It was a cruel cosmic joke that Ali — a man known for his lightning swiftness in the ring and rapier wit outside of it — would be reduced to a shambling, mute shadow of a man due to Parkinson’s disease, brought about by the tens of thousands of blows to the head he took during his lifetime.

Today, there is still a world heavyweight boxing champion … I assume. Try to name him; I can’t. Heavyweight’s boxing time has past, as has the day when one event — and one man — could capture the attention of the entire world.

Titan of the 20th century, indeed.

Going home to Fort MacMurray

One month after their rushed exit from their city, thousands of Fort McMurrayites returned home this week, beginning the long process of cleaning up and starting over.

In an earlier blog, I took exception to the government’s clampdown on information. I stand by that criticism, but otherwise I think we have to give everyone — from the evacuees to the lowliest civil servants, to the average Canadian living thousands of miles from Fort Mac — the highest praise.

Consider what we’ve just seen. An entire city of 80,000 evacuated within hours. Only two fatalities can be attributed to the evacuation, two young people tragically killed in a car crash. The evacuation was conducted in the most Canadian manner possible — deliberately, politely, and with a certain Canadian level-headedness and our enduring respect for authority. I can’t imagine this sort of thing happening in the U.S without dozens of deaths, mostly from random gunfire. Once the people were safe, thousands of Albertans opened their doors. Strangers were welcomed in. Emergency preparation people performed yeoman’s work in getting everyone safely housed. Food and drink were ample. Pets were saved. More than $125 million was donated from the general public to the Red Cross, and that doesn’t count the millions donated elsewhere.

Incredibly, the government — indeed, the whole emergency preparation system — worked. Faced with an event of staggering proportions, with the potential for chaos and catastrophic loss of life, the entire disaster was supremely well managed. People like to say that government doesn’t work, and often, it doesn’t. But it did in this case, and we should all be thankful. Honestly, it makes you proud to be a Canadian.


This week in Ottawa

The government passed its contentious assisted dying law this week, with the law now before the Senate. It seems impossible that the law will be in effect in time for the Supreme Court’s entirely arbitrary deadline, which means Canada will be without an assisted dying law for, who knows, upwards of days. How will we live through this national nightmare? Meanwhile, the Trudeau government, which has been accused of bully tactics, did a remarkable about face this week. On another hugely contentious file — how to reform our electoral system — the government initially set up a committee with a Liberal majority. Faced with criticism for allowing Liberal members the greatest say in something as important as how we hold our elections, Trudeau actually backed down and reduced the Liberal membership. Trudeau said his government was acting too much like Stephen Harper — surely the most damning indictment of his government anyone has said so far — and changed course, allowing a majority of opposition members on the committee.


Tom Lysiak, 63, former Atlanta Flame and Chicago Blackhawk… Rick MacLeish, 66, one of the goal-scoring stars of the Philadelphia Flyers during their Broad Street Bullies, Stanley Cup-winning days … Stanley Burke, 93, former anchor of the CBC’s The National … Canada AM, 43, the long running national morning TV show. CTV, in classic Canadian TV fashion, announced the cancellation of the show with virtually no notice, giving it no time for a respectable sendoff. And if you didn’t even know Canada AM was still on the air, you are not alone. In some major markets, like Edmonton and Calgary at least, the show isn’t even on the air anymore, replaced by local, fluffy morning shows.




By Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas is a lifelong Albertan, award-winning writer and reporter, and a former MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.

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