Sunday, July 27, 2008

In The Ring: Muhammed Ali Meets Leon Spinks y Tony y Ernesto

Maybe it was all because we couldn't hear Howard Cosell. The bar was packed -- jam-packed to the point that getting a place meant you'd better have friends already there who were willing to shove aside, packed to the point that everyone was making queer jokes. In a Chicano bar, when someone gets off a good one, an appreciative audience gives a grito, a special sort of falsetto yelp --- the pachuco equivalent of a redneck holler. Anyway, the place was so full it made getting in and getting out of your seat a real challenge and the air was full of yips and yelps and gritos and laughter and the roaring boast of a bar on a championship fight Friday night.

So you couldn't hear Cosell for shit. And maybe that's why everyone I talked to for the next day or two told me what a joke fight it was, what a bore it was, how it was never really in doubt. Maybe that's what comes of hearing that stork of a voice intone its opinions at you for fifteen rounds. Maybe it damages your ability to get excitede to react the way you would react without it.

Then again, maybe it was the alcohol. Both screens were set over the bar, after all, and it was undoubtedly one of the barmaid's biggest nights ever The screen directly in front of most of us was a big fuzzy large-screen number; off to the side was another, a small and bright standard-sized model. When you wanted the grand picture, wanted to feel the force, it was the big one you watched. . . but when you wanted detail, when you wanted to know precisely where the punches were landing, you watched the little one.

Tony was just about the only one in Leon Spinks' corner. Tony's a truck driver where I used to be a truck driver. He doesn't speak English particularly well, but neither does Leon. Tony's pretty young still, fifteen or twenty years younger than Julian, and I think there must have been something about the idea of this young and illiterate guy climbing into the ring with Muhammed Ali and winning . . .winning! He's the new champion now! . . . that attracted him. Julian and Ernesto, the guys we started arguing and laughing with, they were both 45 or so, thereabouts. They both had those smooth black sweep-from-the-sideburns Big Daddy beards that so many Mexican guys their age have and they both had a firm and considerable but not really oversized gut. Jusian works in the production department of the same factory where Tony works; Ernesto, like Tony, had blue pachuco tattoos on his knuckles.

Ernesto was an Ali man all the way. About the only time the place ever quieted down was weh, just before the final bout, they showed the chronological clips of Ali's fight. Ernesto knew them all. The place was near-silent and you could hear Cosell's voice now but even before he could announce who Ali had been fighting, Ernesto would be telling you who it was and what round it ended. "Brian London" he chanted. "Down in three. Henry Cooper, stopped in five, TKO...." The man knew his fighter. Half the time, he remembered what punch it had been. "The day after the Spinks fight, my wife says to me, "I know what your trouble is -- Ali lost that fight." He laughed. "I saw this one in a dream. Spinks will go down in nine. Man, I saw it. It's a right in the ninth."

Only that historical film clip that led to the fight shook something loose in me. There was the young and clean-cut Negro boy of the post-Olympic press conferences, talking mildly and politely to reporters, trying to be a responsible citizen in a white on white world. And then, just before the first Liston fight, he appeared. Big ol' moon-wide eyes, howlin' and jowlin' and telling a moderately amused world that he was gonna take that big ugly bear of a man OUT! And then doing it. He was like the wild yuoung soul of the people nobody knew ever existed standing over the canvassed boy of Liston at the second match and demanding that he get up and get it on. There were howls of delight all over the bar as they showed those scenes, like memories of the best moments of your childhood coming back fresh and clean.

And for the first few rounds it looked like Ali was in trouble, or at least potential trouble. Many not to Howard it but it looked that way to us.. Tony scored the first three rounds for his boy Leon on his napkin and I think Ernesto remained calm only because he knew for certain that Spinks must go down in the ninth. I found myself concentrating on the little screen and not the big one.

I think it was the fourth round, though, or maybe the fifth, that really shook us up. Ali looked like he hade used himself upalready and was gong to be haning on weakly for the rest of the way, while Spinks looked like he was beginning to figure out how he was gong to win this thing. Ernie looked over at me and said, "I don'k know, sometimes when you think about things all day, you dream about them at night. You know?"

And then there was relief. You could feel it lift the entire bar. Ali started making it clear that the situation was easily in hand, that it always had been. He was not about to lose this fight, even if Tony's napkin had it scored 6-1-3 in favor of Spinks. "Gimme that piece of paper!" yelled Julian and Tony had to laugh as he snatched it away. He had wanted to see Spinks take it away for good, but he'd been smart enough not to put any money on it.

Ali didn't take Spinks out with a right in the ninth -- I'd told Ernesto I'd start going to Mass again if his dream came true, so I was especially relieved about that -- but no one lost interest in the fight at all, even as the closing rounds came along to make it clear. Maybe in homes across the country, people switched off the set, convinced it was just another boring fight . . . but when the official decision was announced, the place went silent again and then, when it was final, men jumped around and hugged each other and there were no thoughts of queer jokes I even saw a couple of guys cry. Maybe it was the alcohol.

(for Pat Murphy)