Out with the old year and in with the new one. We can only hope 2017 is a better edition than 2016, which devastated the world of sports.
Last year, we lost some of the greatest athletes in history, old friends like Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Andy Bathgate, journalists like Bud Collins and Craig Sager, remembered for their outrageous wardrobes, and plain, old fashioned good guys like Joe Garagiola and Ralph Branca.
And then there were the icons. Arnold Palmer died. He led golf out of the sheltered world of country clubs and into the mainstream of America. Gordie Howe died. He was only the best hockey player of his time, equipped with fabulous instincts on the ice and elbows to match in the corners of the rinks. We also lost coach Pat Summitt, who made women’s basketball matter.
All of them left indelible marks on the industry of sports. Muhammad Ali left his on the world.
Ali’s impact will never be replicated. He was one of a kind, a hero to all people, an immortal athlete with an understanding that reached beyond jabs and uppercuts. He wore his Muslim faith with pride and became an ambassador of peace after a career of violence.
He was special.
The heavyweight championship has become a distinct afterthought in the world of boxing. Once it was the most glamorous title in the business. Today, few people can name the man who holds that crown. That was never a problem in Ali’s time.
He trumpeted his ability, calling himself “The Greatest,’’ especially after his stunning victory over Sonny Liston when he captured the heavyweight title in 1964 at the age of 22. And truth be known, he was exactly that. He was a brass band in the ring, quicker than opponents, smarter, too. He took the heavyweight championship to places it had never been — exotic spots like Malaysia and Indonesia, Zaire and the Philippines, Ireland and Germany and a plethora of places that had never seen a spectacle like he routinely delivered.
He lost 3½ years in the prime of his career, barred by boxing authorities because he refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam conflict, saying he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong. He was vilified for his stand but eventually he was celebrated for being among the first to recognize the futility of a war that was a forgettable fiasco and wasted over 50,000 America lives.
He turned from villain to hero and, celebrated for his courage and his ability. There was a memorable trilogy of fights against Joe Frazier that defined Ali’s greatness. There was his brilliant tactical victory over George Foreman, a fight in Africa that was promoted as “the Rumble in the Jungle.’’ It was one of the three times he won the heavyweight title.
At the end, Ali was a shell of himself. He lost three of his last four fights, the final one in a troubled promotion in Nassau, The Bahamas, against journeyman Trevor Berbick. He was 39 then, his best boxing days behind him, reaching out for one last moment of glory. He found himself dressing in a sparse trailer, fighting in a ring set up on an abandoned airstrip, far removed from the flamboyant glamour of Madison Square Garden or Caesars Palace. The fight started an hour late because the promoters had trouble locating some of the necessities like boxing gloves and water. They used a cowbell at ringside.
Berbick won a unanimous decision and when it was over, Ali knew his time was over, as well. He would never fight in a boxing ring again but fought a courageous battle against Parkinson’s Disease for the rest of his life. Perhaps the cruelest part of his ailment was that it left him unable to speak. Still, he made himself understood. That was never a problem for the man who was called The Greatest and lived up to the nickname.