FLOAT LIKE A BEE
In 1976 I was working for a think tank in Washington and happened to score tickets to Ali-Norton III, the heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton at the old Yankee Stadium. The lefty Norton had given Ali lots of trouble in their first two bouts, defeating Ali while breaking his jaw in their first match.
I hopped the train to the Big Apple and called my brother from Penn Station. He wasn’t feeling well and begged off going, so I hailed a taxi and invited the driver, an old Jamaican fella, to go with me. Now, a lot of people were afraid to go to the stadium that day, because there was a New York police strike and picketing cops were circling Yankee Stadium waving placards and shouting. Folks just didn’t want to cross the cops’ picket line.
As the cabbie and I arrived at the ballpark, striking cops were rocking a Cadillac that disgorged actor Telly Savalas and former heavyweight champ Joe Frazier. My new pal and I made it into the stadium unscathed. Have you ever been to a heavyweight championship? It is a spectacle like no other, mostly wise guys and their molls smoking cigars and placing bets, a long undercard (which on this night featured future heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, the Easton Assassin, pummeling Henry Clark), and then the procession of the gladiators through field-level throngs, the introduction of various boxing celebrities from the ring, followed by the joust.
True to form, Ken Norton lasted the full 15 rounds with the champ, pounding the back of Ali’s head in the clinches. Both men tried to psyche each other out by standing, not sitting, in their corners between rounds, and soon Ali was visibly tiring. Just about everybody in attendance gave the fight to Norton, but he could not floor the champ, and the judges allowed Ali to retain his title by an average score of 8 rounds to 7.
I am reminiscing about seeing Ali fight at the old Yankee Stadium because last week I went to the new Yankee Stadium to see him again. The Yanks were playing the Red Sox, and, before the game, Muhammad Ali, aged 67 and gnarled like a drooping bough by Parkinson’s Disease, was driven to home plate on a cart. The champ managed a broad grin when greeted by the Yankee team, all of whom told the press later that they were too young to have experienced the champ’s glory days as a world symbol.
Why was Ali there? To present an award to the plutocratic Yankees’ management on behalf of the American Hospitality Association. Read that sentence again and meditate on Herbert Marcuse’s observation that the skill of America is that it co-opts all its rebels into its conformist mainstream, eventually. The good ol’ USA: hospitality with an iron fist.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).