On Sport

February 23, 2007

The Greatest

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The Greatest turned 65 a few weeks ago. I celebrated by watching When We Were Kings for the dozenth time, joined by a girlfriend half-convinced by my saying that the documentary—about Zaïre’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” of 1974, involving an ageing Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champ George Foreman, and the awe-inducing “rope-a-dope” strategy—was about more than boxing. And it is, even if you hesitate to claim any recondite meaning from the cruellest sport of all.
The fight was made possible by Don King, a then obscure promoter who had done time for stomping a man to death in Cleveland (he had been trialled previously for a separate murder but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence), and while locked-down gorged on a Genet-like diet of Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. Released, King applied Machiavelli’s logics in the heavy shadows of boxing promotion, until the “Rumble in the Jungle” flighted him to the top of the food-chain. He is still there today, commanding a moribund sport with his uncanny mix of amorality and charm, and even promoting the president—during the 2004 US presidential campaign King travelled the country exhorting the people to vote for his man Bush.
When I consider King’s famous catch-phrase “Only in America!” I think of the America that rocketed a two-time killer and drug pusher to vertiginous heights in the boxing world—nay, American public life—and the America which ushered in a born-again ex-alcoholic as its two-term President.
King’s and Bush’s America is a similar one… and an old one. It is an America which places its trust in possessive individualism, and leaves the intuitive web formed between self-interested peoples to determine society; it is an America which believes in a self-generating order where ambition and piety absolve aggression. Well, that’s one America, and it’s served both of these gentlemen successfully. Those words “Only in America!” join the two like a lightning rod welding sheets of metal, and so the strange sight of King and the GOP isn’t really that odd, after all….

There were, of course, other characters in Zaïre: Ali and Foreman, plus their respective entourages: a mix of doctors, trainers, sparring partners, friends. There were Big Authors (George Plimpton and Norman Mailer were both there, and feature in this documentary as talking heads), and the press. There were organisers and soldiers, but, despite King’s lofty promises, next to no American fight tourists. There were black entertainers: BB King and a James Brown spanned by sinewy, sexy dancers. And there was the country itself: Zaïre, formerly the Congo, and controlled by President Mobutu. Here is a hint of the man who filled the vacuum left by the Belgians in 1960, courtesy of a story heard by Mailer from a dinner guest, a “most intelligent American living in Kinshasa”. The (partial) description concerns Mobutu’s dark use of the stadium scheduled to accommodate the fight:

“Late last spring, the crime wave grew so intense that thieves were posing as policemen. The wives of Americans were getting raped. A nightmare for Mobutu if foreigners should arrive for the fight and get mugged en masse. So his police round up in a hurry three hundred of the worst criminals they can find and lock them in some holding rooms under the stadium. Then fifty of the three hundred were killed. Right there on the stone floor under the stadium. For all we know, some of them could have been shot in the dressing rooms of the fighters. The key to the execution was that it took place at random… No one said, ‘Kill this particular fifty.’ No… the random destruction was more desirable. Fear among the criminal population would go deeper. Good connections with police are worthless in such an unstructured situation. For much the same reason the other two hundred and fifty criminals were let go. So they would tell their friends of the massacre. The crime rate for this brief period is down. Mobutism. Mayor, tycoon and tyrant all at once.”

Welcome to Africa.

While Ali attempted to mobilise Zaïre, to engender respect and sympathy in its peoples, Foreman worked hard, and one of the documentary’s most impressive scenes is of the champ working the heavy bag. A heavy bag, punched impressively once or twice, by you or I, would not only fail to leave any impression, but could, if you were without the support of bandaging, dislodge a knuckle or two. In this one scene, we see Foreman, working out in the same gym as Ali, pounding the heavy bag during a fifteen minute session. Left-right-left-right-left-right, creating a devastating momentum which lifts and sways his trainer, desperately trying to hold on to the other side. Every time I watch this I’m reminded of a large wooden battering ram—the same power derived from the same efficient arc.
After the session the bag records a dent the size of a child’s head, and Mailer cites the scene as one of the more prodigious things he has ever seen. Meanwhile, in Ali’s camp, and amongst the press, there were some that thought that Ali, the rank underdog, could actually die out there. It is not difficult to imagine why. Foreman was a freak.
Ali’s proclaimed strategy for the fight was simple: he was gonna dance. During the weeks before the fight, Ali would boast about his speed and delight the press by performing animated mummy impressions. It was Ali’s caricature of Foreman: myopic, slow, dumb. But Foreman was no longer that simple or stupid a boxer, and most members of the press, while entertained by Ali’s histrionics, weren’t fooled: Ali was gonna get whupped.
Of course, Ali never did dance. He probably never intended to. Instead, he went to the ropes, a place you never want to be, and not against one of the hardest hitting boxers in history. But Ali went there. He had a plan. A stupefying and sickening plan. He was going to let himself get hit. And hit. And hit. Protecting his stomach with his elbows, his ribs with his forearms, and his face with his fists, Ali lay back on the ropes, and allowed an imperfect defence to be frequently broken by Foreman’s battering rams. Incredibly, Ali egged him on: “Is that all you got, George? That ain’t hard. I thought you was the champion, I thought you had punches”.
Before the fight Ali had been training himself to take punches. His sparring partner (and later heavy weight champ himself) Larry Holmes would brutally condition Ali, as so he could withstand future onslaughts. His stomach muscles needed to be strong enough to protect the organs, and the spine behind it.
Of course, the rest is history. Ali had psyched Foreman, and suffered the great pains that went with executing his strategy. In the eighth round Foreman had completely punched himself out, and Ali sprung off the ropes, and landed a succession of head blows. Foreman went down. Ali was champ again. Joyce Carol Oates commented later: “I pondered what sly lessons of masochism Mailer absorbed from being ringside that day, what deep-imprinted resolve to outwear all adversaries”.
Ali was a much different boxer in his early days, and there was a beautiful and brutal aesthetic to the way he fought. Ali was so good, and so different, that he rendered the artistry of boxing axiomatic.
Ali (or as Cassius Clay) would fight with his gloves lowered—much different to the “peek-a-boo” style of, say, a young Mike Tyson—and so his defence was dance, and a near-preternatural capacity to evade hostile fists. Ali would float around the ring, issuing lightning fast jabs, and, when he needed to, would lean sideways, backwards even, to avoid punches to the head. His evasions, when slowed, pay a remarkable similarity to the bullet evasion scenes in the first Matrix film. Try it.
Or don’t. The glamorisation of Ali is problematic, as are referrals to art, for it is that same glamorisation which helped keep Ali in the ring, prone to those sub-concussive blows that would later start the neural rot. The writer Garry Wills, once interested in the sport, is now repulsed, and his more recent writings on Ali stress a certain guilt he feels about celebrating the artistry that would later cripple the man:

This most articulate of men, who trained his young body as a holy thing, now lives inarticulate in the wreckage of that superb body, undone by the very skills it acquired…
When I met Ali after his decay had set in, I was so disturbed that I decided never to watch a boxing match again. I have kept that pledge, not even going to see
When We Were Kings when my friends raved about it.

Ali’s is a tragedy, yes, and certainly his mythology, fed by us, fed his megalomania. Certainly Ali fought too long, a protraction helped by glamour, but also by the questionable motives of promoters (and yes, Don King rears his ugly head here). But be just as certain about this: Ali has never remarked with bitterness, not publicly at least, about his affliction. Ali has said that “boxing was just to introduce me to the world” and that without it he would be a “house painter still in Louisville”. As Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Ali: “who is to presume to feel sorry for one who will not feel sorry for himself?”

Posted by Marty at 4:13 PM

June 23, 2006

On What I Did This Morning

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How much football is enough? I thought I had an answer to that last week, when my high standards of tolerance were threatened by a violently antagonised body-clock and eyes that were beginning to lose their peripheral ability. When I began wondering about advanced glaucoma, well, then I thought I might pack this whole World Cup thing in and turn my eye towards South Africa 2010, a host who can claim a much healthier time difference.
But one of the tensest games of football I have ever watched has restored my tolerance to happily childish levels. Croatia 2 Australia 2, and advancement to the round of 16….

The time here is 9.55 am, but the numbers are now only abstract doodles—my body appreciates the time as something closer to mid- to late afternoon, and my gut hurts.

I’ve watched the game, and so have you if you’ve read this far, so no prosaic run-down—plus, The Guardian does a far, far better job than I could here, but I can’t resist including a little bit of the gonzo description myself. So, The Guardian on the referee, Graham Poll:

90 min: Another red card!… Graham Poll, who is a stupid bastard, is not getting the final, we can tell you that for nothing.

And on Kalac’s first, not-so-fatal blunder:

40 min: Under no pressure whatsoever, Kalac catches an easy ball, then fumbles it, falls on his knees and nearly pushes it into his own net with his nose, like a puppy.

Indeed.

A game is a game is a game, but something that encourages men and women to dance in the streets of Northbridge at 5 in the morning, in the blistering cold, is pretty damn cool in my book. Northbridge has needed something other than drunk scum-fuckers cracking skulls to techno, and we got it last night.
This morning my avocado on toast came out late because the chef at Tarts hadn’t slept, and my friend had to wait 25 minutes to have a savoury muffin heated. But none of us minded, and the nice old lady behind the counter informed me that she had had little sleep herself. I told her we were doomed to enter a recession.

And I’ll tell you something else: when the six of us played football in the Hyde Park, at five in the morning, with only a dim lamplight and the heat of That Game to illuminate our playing space, well, East Timor was still failed, Bush was in power, and two parents in Collie couldn’t sleep for the news that their 15-year-old daughter had been murdered by two of her friends. There were streets on fire somewhere, and a landmine destroyed somebody’s face, but last night I really, really enjoyed being human.
I really, really enjoyed being alive.

It’s platitudinous, it’s middle-class, and it’s probably even cruel, but Australia’s ascension to the next round means my community—my friends, their friends, the people who sell me coffee—are all warmer.
AHHH, such sweet triteness.

There’s little else to write that won’t slip into sentiment or dull analysis, and the shakes are setting in, so, farewell, and well done Aussie.

P.S. Kid, if you’re reading this bloody thing, I got your texts, and they were superb. Obrigado amigo.

Posted by Marty at 9:50 AM | Comments (6)

June 22, 2006

An Update on the Beautiful Game

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It’s just a few hours now until Australia’s clash with Croatia, and a mere draw away from securing passage to the round of 16—an unlikely position when the World Cup groups were pulled out of a hat last year. We’re also just a few hours away from knowing if Croatian police-officers, assigned to protect Aussie captain Mark Viduka’s villa in Croatia, will be tested by piqued fans. The measure was thought necessary after a Croatian television reporter disclosed Viduka’s address during a feed from Germany, and joked about the home’s vulnerability should the Aussies go through. Croatian authorities weren’t joking, and quickly dispatched guards to the disclosed address.
Viduka enjoys Croatian heritage and once played his club football in Zagreb. He used also to wear the Croatian red/white checks on an armband worn on his Australian strip, and kissed the item in celebration of goals scored. He will suffer a mild headache, the result of an inane juggling of nationalistic identity, but he is, after all, a professional, and surely consumed by that most professional of symptoms—devout myopia. He can contemplate on his identity, his villa, his history later—Australian coach Guus Hiddink will permit him no such indulgence now.

England have a few difficulties of their own, and none of them so abstract as Viduka’s. Michael Owen left the pitch against Sweden in the first minute of the game, the result of cruciate ligament damage, and he is unlikely to play football again before Christmas.
England’s performance against the Swedes was only marginally more acceptable than the previous two. Once again, England showed that they have individual brilliance—Cole’s goal, and runs, is plenty of evidence for that, not to mention the silky Gerrard—but these flashy, isolated virtues have shown little to no ability in assimilating themselves into the larger structure. In short, England are terrible, and I’ll be surprised if they make it past Ecuador in the next round.

And what else? The Iranian presence—the one that so irritated Senator John McCain—has come to an end, and I’m yet to find out where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been watching their games. Italy have appeared little interested in disproving stereotypes of petulance and defensively fought victories, and Brazil have still failed to impress, and I must say that Ronaldo’s bloated, lumbering presence has saddened at least this viewer.
But Ghana have surprised, with an electric performance against the Czechs last week. They still haven’t booked their place into the next round yet (anyone in that group could still go through) but I hope they do, and preferably at the expense of the Italians.

So Croatia awaits—now less than 11 hours away. A draw or better will mean the round of 16, and hopefully a securing of football into the imagination of this country. Fuck Mundine and Green, perhaps the last event outside of the Socceroos to cement a live feeling across the country—after that match bloody punch-ups were reported around the country, and a man died as the result of one in this city. No, not for football the audience of thugs and television executives (although they certainly number in the spectators)—this is for all of us.

And good luck with your villa, Mark.

Posted by Marty at 3:18 PM | Comments (3)

June 9, 2006

The Beautiful Game

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Patrick’s already written this piece, far better than I could ever hope for, but as I count down the hours to the lavish frivolity of the opening ceremony, and the opening game that will come after the smoke from the fireworks has drifted away, I have only one thing on my mind: the World Cup.

Sometime in winter 1998 I rose at a horrible hour to tune into England’s sudden death bout with Argentina. It was a remarkable game, blessed with 4 goals (including that one by Michael Owen), Beckham’s infamous dismissal, and, yep, a heartbreaking loss for England on penalties. My parents and four siblings were all in bed while this took place, and so my joy at Owen’s run from halfway, and shock at Campbell’s disallowed goal were voiced only with suppressed yelps, and runs around the couch. When the game ended, a few hours before high-school started, I sat on the rug in the family room in silence, pondering how I would feign a sickness that would keep me at home for the day.

In the end, I told my mother the truth: I was heartbroken, and the kids and teachers at school would crucify me. My mother didn’t care, and when first period showed up—ironically it was phys. ed.—it seemed that everyone in the gym was pointing at my England shirt and laughing. I distinctly remember one teacher taking a perverse sort of pleasure in teasing me, too. It was all in a good spirit, but it hurt, and the rest of the day past slowly.

I think it was that year that I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, a hilarious treatise on obsession, and it became a source of comfort and legitimisation. It made sense. Of course, it shouldn’t have—Hornby’s life was a strange torment, as he made the lives of those who loved him, but in the end he grows up a little, as we all have to, and learns to appreciate the game, rather than sanctify it.

Before the World Cup in 1998, there was the European championships in England, and the host’s remarkable progress to the semi-finals (which were, naturally, lost on penalties to the Germans). Led by Alan Shearer, England routed Holland 4-1, and beat Scotland 2-0 in a game synonymous with Gazza’s moment of brilliance, and the subsequent dentist-chair goal celebration. A few days after that game, I bleached my hair white(ish) and cut it in a ridiculous parody of a Texan military cadet. Just like Gazza. My father called me names, none of which I can recall, but looking back, I’m sure he was right. I looked absurd.

Fast forward to November 2005, and the Socceroos are in a familiar position. Playing the fifth-ranked South American side in the second leg of a do-or-die play-off. The tension is unbearable, as famous memories of failed qualification play out in the shadows of Telstra Stadium. And, as the drama-gods often do, the game, ultimately, is decided on penalties, and when Aloisi netted his, well… there was spilt beer, there was not caring about it, and there was Jackson, hitherto untouched by football, dancing and jumping wildly.

And so the practical fruits of that victory begin now. A World Cup campaign for Australia, only the second, and the first for 32 years. Johnny Warren is sadly not here to watch it, but we can hear him from the grave—his desire to see “football” as the predominant term to describe the beautiful game in this country is coming true.
And so beer and X-Box and late nights for the next four weeks. Perhaps some three-a-side in the streets during half-times. Jumpers for goal-posts. That sort of thing.

Posted by Marty at 8:43 AM | Comments (7)

September 7, 2005

The Fifth Test

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Much has changed since I last wrote about the cricket. America’s grim racial politics were exposed in one fell, cataclysmic swoop, prompting one BBC journalist to comment on the fact that nothing has changed since the Watts riots 40 years prior. President Bush’s presidency has never been under so much pressure and Karl Rove seems stumped as to a successful spin strategy.
In Australia, the young, brash, and supremely confident leader of the NSW opposition party, John Brogden, resigned in disgrace after admitting to the sexual harassment of female journalists. Brogden also admitted to a racial slur directed at Bob Carr and his Malaysian wife, and apologized for it. Carr did not accept the apology.
Less than 40 hours later police were called out to Brogden’s electoral office in Sydney, where Brogden was found to have survived a suicide attempt involving a blade.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Tony Abbott is under pressure after being heard making fun of Brogden’s suicide attempt. In response to a suggestion that the government adopt a certain health proposal, Abbott remarked that the government would be as “dead as the former Liberal leader’s political prospects”. People weren’t amused.
Since last writing about the cricket, Matthew Hayden’s form fell from bad to dreadful, and England discovered the golden potential of a young all-rounder that one day may well size up against Ian Botham. Ricky Ponting complained long and hard about England’s use of specialist fielders, and star England bowler Simon Jones was ruled out of the fifth test.
Aussie bowler Glenn McGrath, on the other hand, passed a fitness test, while nationwide plans were being drawn up should England reclaim the Ashes—if they do it will be for the first time in 17 years. London police are also organizing: an unprecedented level of security will be in place for the fifth and final test starting tomorrow.

Posted by Marty at 2:58 PM | Comments (3)

July 26, 2005

On Not Writing About the Ashes

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Last Thursday I came very close to writing up my first Sports entry. I like sport very much, but bombs and music and attempts to write a good short story always seem to take up the time. But here I was, piqued by the opening day of the Ashes, and I thought: “what could be a better subject?”
For the past decade and a half, England had fielded a charming but thoroughly incompetent bunch—incorrigible fielders, dope-heads, has-beens and atavists. They were unified in their awfulness and their crippling inability to play Shane Warne. But no more! This year it seemed that England’s large and healthy crop of youngsters had matured, in a sense. The one-day series conferred a long-missed respectability on England’s shoulders, and so England’s pre-series psych-outs with Australia actually had a modicum of credibility. Maybe England wouldn’t be so crap.
The lead-up was seasoned further by Warne’s personal blow. His serial sleazing had finally cracked his wife and she filed for divorce and took the kids back to Oz. Warne increased his daily fag ration, and we all laughed at the kinky, caricatured countenance of one of Australia’s greatest cricketers. Yes, what could be a better subject?
England sure did get off to a great start—Harmison was bowling straight, with pith and poise; Hayden lost his wicket cheaply and Ponting was struck on his grill, splitting his cheek open. He required eight stitches. And then, in the same city, some fascist waterheads planted death in their backpacks and rode the tube, assuming that today would be the last day in their lives. And for some others, too.
There were four of them, we’re told, and they had dangerous pieties and determinism in their backpacks also. It was a kinked operation from the start, and all four bombs failed to detonate, meaning that, on this day at least, there would be no terror-related deaths on the London tube.
People sure were jumpy, and whilst the media’s vox-pops showed plenty of the stiff-upper, the dream state of Britain turned decidedly dark. This, surely, was the hammer falling—we’re in this for the long haul.
The cricket wasn’t cancelled, by the way. Why would it be? This was quickly written off as a nasty couldabeen, nothing to worry about, and so at Lords Australia were bowled out quickly, only to pave the way for England to be destroyed even quicker. Glenn McGrath was the champion of the day, passing the 500 test wickets mark whilst he was at it, and the next day an innocent man, suspected of packing explosives, would be shot dead on a London train.
England went on to lose the Test. By a lot. Of course they bloody did.

Posted by Marty at 10:20 AM