Tales of Bessman: Of Magic and Muhammad Ali

I don’t believe in magic or anything, but I did actually levitate once.

It was at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, the night of Oct. 30, 1974–until Obmama’s election, the happiest night of my life, the night Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire.

Not a day had gone by from June 25, 1967, when he was stripped of his heavyweight title five days after his conviction by an all-white jury for draft evasion (“I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong,” he said, famously. “No Viet Cong never called me nigger.”) and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” with the seemingly invincible champion Foreman, that I hadn’t dreamed of him regaining that which had been taken, not only from him but from all of us for whom he represented so very many things starting with opposition to the war in Vietnam and ending with the fight for justice for all—including, on this glorious night, himself.

Maybe someone did, but I don’t recall anyone giving Ali much of a chance in hell. In fact, the few people who loved him since his Cassius Clay beginnings (including me) and the many more who had grown to love him for the dignity in which he dealt with his questionable crime and its indisputably costly consequences, genuinely feared for his health, if not his life at the hands of the feared Foreman, who punched so hard that he seemed to actually lift both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton into the air.

But when he dropped Foreman at 2:58 of the eighth round, as Foreman went down, everyone in the small Coliseum crowd stood up simultaneously, and when I sat down again, after the knockout’s count-out, I was in a different row. I was so high on joy that I levitated myself into the row behind me.

It was his greatest victory—that and his 8-0 unanimous Supreme Court decision overturning his draft evasion conviction and affirming his right to refuse induction on religious grounds—when everyone knew that, in fact, he never would have seen combat anyway, and had refused induction—at the incalculable price of the best years of his boxing career and the intense hatred of much of white America–out of principle.

I’ve been lucky to meet Ali over the years on a handful of occasions (including a small dinner party) and even spoke with him on the phone and become big friends with his best friend, the legendary photographer Howard Bingham. And today I wish the Greatest of All Time a happy 73rd birthday after defying the odds once again.

I’m referring, of course, to his biggest and longest fight, against the ravages of Parkinson’s Syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in 1984. I just read where the average survival span while suffering from Parkinson’s is 16 years. “By that estimation it is extraordinary that Ali has lived beyond his late 50s,” wrote Jeff Powell in a South African independent newspaper group’s online service.

“Thirty years, going on 31 now, is a monumental tribute to the fighting spirit which continues to infuse Ali’s life so long after it galvanized the hardest game of all, nerved him to champion civil rights in America, steeled him to oppose the Vietnam War and even now rouses him to condemn the violent extremists who pervert the religion to which he converted,” wrote Powell. I couldn’t have put it better myself, hence I gladly quote him.

Powell’s full piece is here, but I’ll take one more line from it—“Parkinson’s has virtually silenced what was once the most loquacious tongue in sport but it has not dulled a kaleidoscopic mind as dazzlingly brilliant as his footwork and handiwork in the ring”—while adding that the awful disease has not stopped him from continuing his path of greatness, albeit at a much slower pace, never complaining, never shutting himself off from people, though he long ago lost the ability to dance, as he did so adroitly in the ring, let alone speak.

But today, on his birthday, fears for his life have resurfaced to a greater degree than before the Foreman fight. Just after spending two weeks in the hospital for what was thought to be pneumonia, then diagnosed as a severe urinary tract infection, he was readmitted after reportedly being “unresponsive” at home, then released again yesterday. All this follows his absence at the October premiere of the I Am Ali documentary, and periodic reports of his imminent demise.

Yet somehow he’s still with us, thanks to his courage, determination and will to live and essentially be there for us all.

He has blessed us with a career of history as an athlete, celebrity and world statesman, and blessed us more with his continued example of over 30 years of holding his head high in proud in the face of the most debilitating adversity. Again, the word “dignity” comes to mind.

My birthday wish for him remains selfish, that he will continue to bless us and the planet with his presence, against the inevitably ever-increasing odds that he always manages to surmount with his special magic, or as Powell put it, “with the fortitude with which he resisted the sledgehammer punches of Sonny Liston, Foreman and so many others in a golden era for heavyweight boxing.”