The Coolest Man in the World

It was 1964. I was five years old. We lived in a big old dusty Queen Anne with a huge front porch, a huge front room, (I think it was actually a parlor) that I was not allowed in, and a foyer. This house had a foyer. I remember rooms, but where they were in relation to each other is mysterious to me. I could not draw an accurate floor plan. If I drew what I remember, it would be dreamlike, surreal. For instance, I have two distinct memories regarding where the TV was. One of them says it was on the second floor. I know this to be wrong, but I can see it in my mind – second story windows behind the TV.

A year prior, I was just outside the kitchen door, playing on a grassy slope with a wooden ski that my brother had found in the garage when my mother came outside to tell me that President Kennedy had been shot. So, you see, my memory still works.

But I remember coming across my brother and my father (my mind says they were in my bedroom, but I don’t believe that’s right) talking excitedly about this fellow named Cassius Clay. I didn’t know who he was, but I could see from their level of animation that he was important.

They told me that he was a boxer. I knew what boxing was, along with the skis, we had a pool table and some boxing gloves, all left behind by the last guy to live there. I remember my brother explaining to me the concept of “World Champion” and “undefeated”. I’m sure my eyes got big as I took that in, tried to grasp that this man, according to my brother (and Dad wasn’t correcting him) was the best in the whole world, and that no one had ever beaten him.

I pictured him as something like Spider-Man. Not costumed and masked, but trim and muscular, and bad as hell. I figured him to be the coolest man on the planet.

I didn’t know what he looked like until I got into the first grade and they started to take us to the school library. There I found a little book about the champ, and saw this photo:

And I saw that I was right about the Spider-Man thing. He was not a brute, but lean and strong. Sleek and lethal, like a jaguar. I thought his face looked exotic somehow, like he was an islander, or even from the Far East. I was surprised to read that he was a plain old American, from Kentucky.

I remember my first grade teacher (a man) going on a rant in class one day, talking about the “phantom punch” and how the first fight was fixed too, and he showed us a photo of Rocky Marciano unhinging Walcott’s jaw

Saying “Now that’s a real champion”. In the years to come I would hear a lot of crap like that.

By this time we were living in Cleveland, in a blue-collar neighborhood. Thoughts expressed by the community’s fathers to their families at dinner came spilling out on the playground, unfiltered and unquestioned from the mouths of their sons. You could practically smell the accompanying beer and kielbasa.

“Someone should shut him up.”

“He doesn’t fight like a man, he runs away.”

“If he doesn’t like it here, he should just go back to Africa.”

They didn’t like his name change. They didn’t like the Nation of Islam. They really didn’t like his rhyming boasts, his predictions. And when he refused to join the Army, they were apoplectic.

It got hard to be his fan. I can remember being called an n-word lover, more than once. This was supposed to be an extreme insult, an invitation to fight. But I always countered “Yes, that’s right, I am,” an admission that drew incredulity, scorn and scoffs from my classmates. But Dad didn’t raise me to be a racist.

He told me that Muhammed Ali, while not going to the same church we did, looked to be devoted and sincere in his faith, and he respected that. He also admired the courage it took for him to refuse induction, and applauded what he said about race relations.

Dad stuck with him, so I stuck with him. Seemed right. He stood up for what he believed, and he was willing to be abused for it. Seemed to me that I ought to be able to do the same.

Then he got suspended, and they held a tournament to give someone else his title, and I may have not been a racist but I was a bit of a dick, so I was mouthing off, saying Jimmy Ellis couldn’t fight, and Joe Frazier was too short, Buster Mathis was fat, and Muhammed Ali would whup them all, just as soon as he was able.

And so that animosity festered for three long years. Three years is an eternity to one still in grade school. But I never forgot him. I had faith in him.

When he finally got back in the ring, and they talked about how he had “lost a step” I silently worried that he wouldn’t be the same, that he would falter. But he won a couple fights, and signed to fight Frazier, and started in on the old Muhammed Ali trash talk and I was loving it. Right up until the fight.

When he lost, again I worried again that he was not the same. That he had aged to the point where he was no longer to occupy the hero’s place in my heart.

But he lost with grace, and even in defeat he impressed me. “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”

Hell, I think I took it harder than he did.

Back in those days the only way to see the fights was to go to a movie theater and pay (I don’t know, $10?) to watch on closed circuit TV. Every once in a while you could see a replay on TV at home. Mostly, I got my boxing news from the newspaper.

And I took crap the Monday after. Kids had cut out the picture from the sports page, showing Ali on his back, his feet in the air, when Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round. They showed me the picture, grinning.

Worse was when Norton broke his jaw. “He got his jaw wired shut! Just what he and his big mouth deserved!” and so on.

Don’t misunderstand – being a big kid I was not bullied in the traditional sense, but there were some kids who took delight in rubbing my nose in these humiliations.

Then along came Foreman and he blew away Frazier and he blew away Norton and by the time Don King put together the Rumble in the Jungle, I was a sophomore in High School, and in a whole ‘nuther city (Dad got moved around a lot with his job.)

He, being a good and longsuffering parent, looked and found a little pocket of houses that he could afford that were in the footprint of Firestone High School.

Firestone was populated by the rich and the very rich. Athletically, we were good at golf, tennis and diving. That’s because we had our own pool and kids whose parents belonged to a country club.

My dad’s point was this was one of the best high schools in the country in terms of academics. So he bought a little house in that neighborhood for that reason.

Firestone High School was, in 1974, I think 100% white. Even though these were the progeny of white collar men, the general animosity against Ali was present here too. The rhetoric was toned down, but some of the feelings were the same: “I find it wearying that the man still self-promotes at every opportunity.”

Some things had changed, others had not.

By mouthing off, I discovered that no one in my school was willing to bet on Ali. Not one soul. Except me.

I remember it well, because careful record keeping was not the kind of thing I often did. I spent the day before the fight writing down kids names and how much they bet (most of them in the $1 – $2 range, a couple of $5’s) in a spiral binder. I talked just like Ali – “He’s gonna knock him out – he’s too fast for Foreman, Foreman won’t even know what hit him. He’s gonna dance and wear him out. Foreman can’t keep up the pace. The man only ever fights two rounds” and so forth. And I believed my own hype, too.

Nonetheless, I was relieved (and elated!) to see the headlines the next morning. Ali not only won, he won by KO. (Though I boasted about it, I actually didn’t expect that part).

I collected $120.00. Big money for a high school kid in 1974. And talk about your bragging rights! That was a good day. My loyalty had paid off.

In the years that followed he became sort of a folk hero. It seemed like all the white people just forgot why they ever had a bug up their butt for this man in the first place. We would impersonate him, making up bad rhymes to insult each other. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your Grandma’s a monkey, swinging from a tree.”

By the time he lit the Olympic torch in ’96, the nation it seems had had enough time to process all that this man did. By that time he was a national hero, and he got the ovation he deserved. An outpouring of affection, gratitude, and apology too. For he had been sorely mistreated, and we all knew it. There was none left to argue the other side, to say “n-word lover” as if it were an insult. We all loved him then – the coolest man in the world.

You Say “Boring,” I Say You Weren’t Watching

Sportswriters and broadcasters are fond of saying that the heavyweight division is exciting again, has been revitalized, reborn, is on fire.

Implied in this discussion (and sometimes a plainly spoken opinion) is that Wladimir Klitschko was boring, and thank God he finally retired.


I never thought so.

Over the decades the public has had very different reactions to intelligent, thoughtful fighters with a strong defense. Gentleman Jim Corbett was revered for his “scientific” style of jabbing and then dancing out of his opponent’s reach. Later, Jack Johnson was reviled for much the same technique. Ali did it to mixed reviews. Some thought he was the most talented ever; some said that he was not a “real” champion, because he didn’t “really” fight (meaning stand toe to toe).

In our times, Floyd Mayweather is hailed as a genius, while Klitschko is panned as dull.

From 2007–2011, Mayweather fought just one fight a year. Klitschko had nine fights in that span. Mayweather had zero knockouts the last five years of his career (ignoring the farce that was the McGregor fight). Klitschko had five knockouts the last five years of his career. Who’s boring?

Have you seen the left hook that leveled Kubrat Pulev? How about Ray Austin? It’s not a myth—Klitschko KO’d him in round 2 without ever having thrown his right hand. Could have had one hand tied behind his back. How about Calvin Brock? Derrick Jefferson? Chris Byrd?

Just stop there. Go look up those five fights on Youtube (no worry, I did the work for you above), then compare them to five fights by Floyd Mayweather. No disrespect to Mayweather, but I do not see how anyone could complain of Klitschko’s being boring while simultaneously admiring Mayweather. 

These were spectacular performances. Boring? Please.

“Well yeah, Klitschko had a lot of knockouts, but his style was boring.” Yeah, and predictable. He just kept winning; I hate that.

Tyson Fury leveled this charge at him during the build-up to their fight, then he beat Klitschko by devising and executing the most boring fight plan ever. 

My dad always said you gotta beat the title out of the champ. Fighting to stay upright, or fighting to a draw, or even an arguably close point win wouldn’t cut it. You either have to knock the champ out, or win the most rounds, and win them big, obviously and convincingly. They don’t give those belts away; you gotta beat it out of them.

Fury proved that wrong. He won by running away. I mean full credit for figuring out a winning strategy; no one else could do it. And by the rules of boxing, I guess he hit Wladimir more than Wladimir hit him . . . so, yeah. I guess. I think a different ref might have given them both warnings in the early going for not fighting, and maybe DQ-ing both of them after five or six rounds.

 “He was only “great” because he had no competition. The heavyweight division had a ten-year dearth of real talent.”

You sure? Povetkin and Pulev are numbers six and seven in the IBO rankings today. Klitschko beat both of those guys. I don’t think Samuel Peter was a marshmallow either. Or Tony Thompson, for that matter.

He beat 12 undefeated fighters in his career. That’s more than anybody else ever did. He successfully defended his titles 23 times. Could it be that he was just better than the rest?

As for boring, I know you all saw the Joshua fight. Boring? You think he woke up one day as a 41 year old and decided “I’m going to completely change my fighting style for this world title fight”? Please.

He had some boring fights, sure. His win against Ibragimov was a dull affair, as was his win over Povetkin, not to mention the aforementioned Fury bout. But have you watched Mike Tyson vs. James “Bonecrusher” Smith? Zzzz . . . zzzz . . . zzzz . . . .

Bigfoot Martin went ten rounds with George Foreman (*Yawn*).

Muhammed Ali had a number of lackluster bouts. Nobody ever said he was boring.

No, I reckon people didn’t like Klitschko because he did not fit the stereotypical heavyweight champion mold. First, he was white—the first white man to hold the title since Ingmar Johansen took it from Floyd Patterson in 1959. After Johansen there is an unbroken string of sixteen black American heavyweight champs from Patterson (who took it back from Johansen) till Lennox Lewis (who is British) broke it. 

Then along comes this foreigner, a white foreigner. A college-educated white foreigner who speaks four languages. A good-looking college-educated white foreigner who speaks four languages. And he was kicking ass.

And the search began for a great black hope just as they looked for a great white hope to take out Jack Johnson a century before. Calvin Brock, Ray Austin, Tony Thompson, Hasim Rahman, Eddie Chambers, Samuel Peter, David Haye, Jean-Mark Mormeck, and Bryant Jennings were all marched out and presented as “this is the one that will give Klitschko trouble; this is the one to take his crown.” And Klitschko beat them all. Seven of those nine by KO.

And he was never apologetic about it. He never said, “Sorry, I know I don’t belong here.” He looked like he felt right at home, and was having the time of his life.

I imagine some folks threw up their hands when it was another foreign white guy that finally took his titles. 

And Wilder came this close to beating Fury. I am stoked for that rematch.

But I guess no one has said that Fury is boring. Annoying maybe, but not boring.

Alphabet Soup

It is perplexing. I tell you what.

You know that there are several “sanctioning bodies”—groups of money-grubbing individuals that figured out a way to cash in on boxing without actually, you know, boxing. They have assembled and have given themselves self-important names like the “World Boxing Council” or the “International Boxing Federation.” You’ve no doubt long ago grown weary of the oft-repeated (as if it we’re a clever and fresh insult) “alphabet soup” chide dropped and swirled ‘round the bowl by commentators, it seems, nearly every fight night.

This is the system that gives us four “champions” in most weight classes. Yes, there are five sanctioning bodies out there, but only four of them count (I haven’t figured that part out yet.) There is also The Ring magazine, which names a champion, and BoxRec, which is the official record-keeping organization of professional boxing.

These organizations all have rankings, that is, a list of who they consider the best, then next best and so forth. From this list they occasionally pick a mandatory challenger for their titleist, and such. The exception is BoxRec. They have rankings, but don’t bestow a title, or a belt.

The Soup:

The sanctioning bodies are:

WBC: The World Boxing Council: Started in 1963, this is the big one, with 161 participating countries. It also has Don King. Of course Don has been the target of multiple lawsuits from fighters who allege that he shorted them on payments for fights. Not long ago the WBC would not let their titlists fight champions from the WBO (see below). They weren’t into that whole “unification” thing. That has changed. I think probably because Don King signed a bunch of WBO fighters.

IBF: The International Boxing Federation: Founded in 1983, its founder, Robert Lee was later indicted and convicted of racketeering, money laundering and tax evasion. That was in 1999, I’m sure that’s all cleared up now.

WBO: The World Boxing Organization: This one started in 1988 and had trouble achieving credibility. For instance this, from Wikipedia:

The WBO twice moved Darrin Morris up in its super-middleweight rankings in 2001, despite the fact that he was dead. In addition, Morris had only fought once in the three years before his death, beating a fighter with only 17 wins out of 81 fights. Morris was Number 7 at the time of his death and Number 5 when the WBO discovered the error. Valcarcel said, “We obviously missed the fact that Darrin was dead. It is regrettable.”

WBA:  The World Boxing Association:  This is the oldest one, starting in 1921.  They have also been known to rank a dead fighter (albeit a different dead fighter) and at times insist on bribes in exchange for favorable rankings.  But that was way back in 2015.  I’m sure they’ve grown past that now.

Anyhow those are the four titles that a boxer needs to get in order to have “undisputed” status, like Iron Mike had.

Confusing the issue is:

IBO:  The International Boxing Organization. Started in 1988 this one is considered a “minor” belt, apparently, because it is not recognized by the other four. The IBO also started using a computerized system to rank boxers, taking away the subjective (*coff* *coff* *bribes* *coff*) angle, in an effort to bring more credibility to the sport.  I wonder if there’s any connection between . . . .


Then there is The Ring. They bestow a title too, but you don’t get it by fighting for it necessarily; you get it as a gift, when the wizards at The Ring have decided you have fought well enough. For instance, in 2006 Wladimir Klitschko knocked out Chris Byrd for the IBF and IBO titles, then picked up the WBO belt in 2008 form Sultan Ibragimov. Then in 2009, after his seventh defense of the IBF title, (against Ruslan Chagaev) he is given the vacant Ring title.

It was not that Chagaev had the Ring title and Klitschko took it from him, it just appeared, irrelevant and unbidden, like the fan man flopping into the Hollyfield / Bowe fight.

I mean, I don’t disagree, the guy was the friggin’ champ, so let’s call him the champ. But I fail to see the importance of some pointy-headed magazine editor telling me he was the champ.

Another example: Last week Andy Ruiz knocked out Anthony Joshua, who, even though had the WBA, the WBO, the IBF and the IBO belts, was not the Ring champion. He had their number one ranking, but their championship was “vacant.” So Ruiz knocks him out, and vaults to . . . wait for it . . . a number three ranking! Now Joshua slipped to number four, but Fury and Wilder moved up because . . . ???

I don’t get the new math.

Frankly I think someone needs to talk to Ring and explain to them that fights are won and lost in the ring. That titles are won and lost – In. The. Ring. That beating the champ makes you the Champ. And being some weasel-y academic with a word processor and superiority complex makes you a Ring magazine editor. I nominate Teddy Atlas.

Yes it seems that everyone is tired of the “alphabet soup,” but not tired enough to do anything about it. I suppose that would require a general boycott of the sport, and I am not that strong. Bob Arum and Don King are still alive (and both 87) and are still calling a lot of the shots, I reckon. They will soon be gone and others will fill their shoes. There’s just too much money involved. It attracts men like King like bugs to a porch light.

I’ve heard that among boxers a prospective Mexican heavyweight champ is called a “unicorn” – because none were known to exist. Now that one has triumphed, (and I truly hope he starts to use that nickname) it tempts me to hope that maybe better heads will prevail – that the magic will spread – that after Arum and King and Lord Voldemort and whoever else is really pulling the levers dies, that better folk will take over . . . .


So boxing purists long ago, disgusted with the soup and the four-champion phenomena, started tracking the “lineal” champion in each weight class. (For a most excellent record of this, see, past lineal champions. But don’t use their search box. It doesn’t work.)

The theory here is that the real champion is the “man who beat the man.” There is no belt involved with this title, just the knowledge that men who care regard you as the champ.

For instance, Lennox Lewis beat Shannon Briggs to become the lineal champ. Briggs took that title from George Foreman, who took it from Michael Moorer, who took it from Evander Holyfield and so on. The problem is, Lennox Lewis retired before anyone took it from him, so like the Ring title, it was vacant for a time. And, like the Ring title, it was magically bestowed on Klitschko after he beat Chagaev.

So it kind of puts the stank on their ‘purist’ stance when they do this. I don’t know how they decide this and frankly, I don’t know who the hell “they” are. But all in all, there is a logic to what they say, and I support their purpose. If I find out how this is decided, be sure that I will pass that knowledge on to you.

So right now the lineal champion is Tyson Fury, as he beat Klitschko, and has yet to be beaten in the ring. True, he wiggled out of a rematch, then went coo-coo bananas and lost all his belts and even lost his license to box. It took him a couple years, but he got healthier and is back. He had a great fight against Wilder, came away with a draw, and somehow earned the Ring number one ranking.


Anyway, he’s up this week. His bout has been arranged by the ghostly hand of the powers that be (pay no attention to the tapeworm behind the curtain) but I’m going to watch. No boycott by this boy. I am not a man of action; I am merely a man of acrimony.

And the New…

You felt it, didn’t you? Sunday morning when you woke up? The world was somehow . . . righter. It was as if the whole planet was spinning on its axis tilted one click closer to good and justice. The sun shone a little brighter, the birds sang a little merrier. Even my old frame seemed a little lighter.

Andy Ruiz was the heavyweight champ.


He did it by beating the “invincible” Anthony Joshua, and not by a controversial decision, bestowed by rogue, glue-sniffing judges, but by knockout, and not once, but twice.

That’s right. He knocked Joshua out the first time in the third round. He floored Joshua toward the end of the round, and while he got to his feet, he was not steady. The ref asked him to walk forward and he didn’t. It looked like didn’t understand the ref’s instructions.

The ref cut him some slack, you know, because he was the champ. He let him continue, having heard the ten-second knock, and the round ended without Joshua absorbing any more blows. If the positions were reversed, and it was Ruiz hanging onto the ropes with noodle-knees, the fight would have been halted, no doubt.

But that was okay. I understand. You don’t want to turn over the title in a potentially controversial manner. The commentators said that the ref “gave him a mulligan” in that round. Seems fair.

Then in the seventh round, Ruiz floored Joshua two more times, and this time the ref had no choice but to wave it off. The talking heads tried to stir up trouble, saying that Joshua was ready and willing to continue, that the ref stopped the fight too soon, but that was malarkey. After the count (and true, Joshua was standing), he asked “Are you okay?” but Joshua had spit out his mouthpiece and turned his back on Ruiz, walking to his corner. There, he leaned on the ropes, as if taking a break (not allowed in this sport). The ref asked him again if he wanted to box, to which he said “yes” while still leaning on the ropes.

Let’s be clear. Joshua was not cheating or expecting preferential treatment. He was addled, after the noggin knockin’ he got from Ruiz. The ref then gave him a couple more mulligans, letting him turn his back, ignoring the mouthpiece, etc., and Joshua didn’t even recognize it. He didn’t know where he was, or thought the round had ended. Like I said, the ref had no choice but to end it there.

So Andy Ruiz, who by fight time was an 11-1 underdog, won the title. Not as surprising perhaps as Tyson / Douglas, but still one for the ages. I’ll never forget it. Those of you who opted to go to Aunty Petunia’s quilting bee missed out. Big time. The bee will be there next week. These fights only happen once.

“So why is the sun shining brighter?” you ask. “I mean, Joshua’s a good guy, why celebrate his defeat?”

You misunderstand. There were no villains in the ring. But what Andy Ruiz did was to upset the whole corrupted apple cart. He was supposed to be the opponent, the lamb. He was supposed to get knocked out like Breazeale, to raise Joshua’s stock among American fans. That was the plan. I wrote about this recently, bemoaning the lack of a real title fight, like Wilder / Joshua or Fury / Joshua, and how Fury and Joshua were taking time off it seemed, fighting lesser men to boost their record and fatten their wallets.

But that’s not on the fighters. I believe if left to their own devices the top fighters would readily face each other. But there is this cadre of promoters and sanctioning bodies and venues and TV networks, etc. steering the whole thing. They’ve got a big pie to slice up, and they aim to make it bigger, not necessarily better. They rule without scrutiny, turning screws and pushing buttons, moving men like game tokens, running a lucrative business in the name of sport. And their shadowy presence in the world of boxing is as parasitic and intractable as a tapeworm.

It was this body that made Pacquiao / Mayweather five years late, when it was no longer relevant or even very credible. It was this same body that decided that Fury would fight Tom Schwarz and Joshua Jarell Miller. When Miller crapped out, they picked Ruiz.

Remember when Don King tried to get the result of Tyson / Douglas reversed?

No, sportsmanship and fairness are merely sizzle to these guys. They sell the sizzle and keep the steak.

Well, Ruiz didn’t read the script they gave him, and substituted his own. He turned the boxing world on its head like others have done before him. Men like Braddock, Clay, and Douglas. Rarefied air, and the fact that he is breathing it makes me smile.

And I readily admit that I had little hope for him. I too made jokes about his paunch, his “dad-bod.” But there have always been heavyweights that were overweight. Buster Mathis fought both Frazier and Ali with boobs. Buster Mathis, Jr., and the aptly named Tony Tubbs fought Mike Tyson. Hell, Eric “Butterbean” Esch fought and won weighing as much as 400 lbs. You saw the layer of insulation on Dominic Breazeale two weeks ago. George Foreman in his comeback had a spare tire. Even Buster Douglas had a little upholstery on him. But not like Ruiz. They talk about him being the first Mexican heavyweight titleist; well he’s also the first fat one.

Ruiz has a ritual – he eats a Snickers bar right before he enters the ring. “It gives me energy,” he says. He’s not trying to lose weight and failing, he’s just trying to knock your head off and have fun while he’s doing it. If you watch the slow-motion replays of the highlights from Saturday, you’ll see a real athlete working. Between those rapid-fire punches, he’s shifting and stepping and leaning and all to make each blow land as hard as possible. You can miss it in real time because it’s so fast.

The beast, meanwhile, is squirming and turning and will (of course) make for itself a bigger payday, whether that means making a rematch, or having Ruiz fight a succession of dead men. Time will tell.

In two weeks is the Fury / Schwarz fight, which I’ve already referred to as a “debacle.”

Now I wonder . . . .