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5585 words
SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

Boxing Lessons

by David Axelrod

“You couldn’t beat your way out of a paper sack.” That’s what my maternal grandfather said as he crossed his arms, shook his head, and sighed with disappointment. My miserable state of existence seemed unmistakable: “You lack the killer instinct.”

And why this assessment? I’d come home in a panic from State Street Junior High School after my first day in the seventh grade. Robbie Thompson and his ally Turtle Young had promised “to hurt me good.” Why they singled me out, backing me into a corner of the hallway below the cafeteria, where they made their threats, I couldn’t say. Their loathing for me, however, seemed universally known, and word of it came to me early that first day.

The one boy, Robbie, the older of the two, who wished to hurt me the most, “was adopted”—a resonant phrase, owing to its Dickensian subtext. Robbie, though, lived in a swankier neighborhood up hill from ours, the son of a banker. His being adopted meant that his own status was, to a degree, more contingent than mine. My father had been dead eight years, my mother was living in exile in the next town, and so my maternal grandparents housed and fed me six days a week, with Tuesdays reserved for the ministrations of my father’s parents. My origins and rearing were, anyway, a matter of public knowledge; Robbie’s perhaps less so. His was a charity case.

To our way of thinking, there was nothing worse than being adopted. Not because of the adoption, but because of the damage that preceded it. The orphanage, the Fairmont Children’s Home, still operated south of town and in our imaginations was a circus of pathologies. Whenever we passed the old brick dormitories and surrounding farm fields, an adult warned against the consequence of such events as might lead to our servitude at the Children’s Home. “Settle down now or we’ll leave you at The Home,” was a common threat issued from the front seat. The conditions inside The Home were notoriously awful we knew because of the story that accompanied the warning: the orphans had lynched the depraved headmaster in 1944.

That Robbie was saved from the orphanage by a secure upper-middle-class family in no way changed the fact that he was a cruel, one-eyed son of a bitch. Yes, one-eyed. He had a glass eye that stared straight ahead, unblinking, even as he cast a cunning sideways glance at the world with his good eye. Turtle, whose origins he wore like a tattoo, evident even in the snarling expression of his face, came from the rougher, transient neighborhoods just uphill from the black ghetto and the mills. Initiated into the sectarian gang led by Robbie, The Brotherhood, Turtle tagged along to witness his leader’s threat. Whereas Robbie was well-dressed and neat in preppy, button-down Oxford-cloth fashion, Turtle was dirty and badly dressed in an old t-shirt and soiled jeans, with wavy hair that fell to the shoulders of his Army Surplus fatigue jacket. He was missing a front tooth. After Robbie sucker punched me and issued his threat, Turtle grabbed my open shirt collar, pressed me against the brick wall, knee in my crotch, and stared silently into my face. After a long pause, he said: “I’m gonna run race tracks round your eyes.”

I nodded, convinced he could and likely would do just that. Then he released me with a shove and followed Robbie down the stairs into the dungeons deep under the school.

That evening, therefore, my grandfather’s intention was to save my skin as he led the way down into the dank, paneled room in the basement that smelled of sewer gas. He produced a pair of moldy leather boxing gloves. These gloves had never appeared before, remnants of a time in his own childhood when fisticuffs were still a proper and necessary sport for healthy young boys to excel at. He laced these around my skinny wrists to demonstrate.

At 5′10″ and 225 pounds, his gut notwithstanding, he was a powerfully built fellow, whose hirsute body was laced with muscles such as were common when men still did physical labor, rather than the sculpted appearance of today’s protein-drink and gym-mirror Adonises. “Crouch low,” he said. “Keep your elbows close to guard your ribs. Lead with your left, counterpunch with your right. Never roundhouse. Try.”

I tried, swinging wide with my right hand. He stepped close, led with his left, and tapped me in the face as I stood there dumbfounded, the boxing gloves now hanging at my sides.

“You can’t leave yourself open like that,” he warned, stepping back and straightening up to discuss this point. “And remember this, too: under no circumstance should you sucker punch.” This he explained was utterly worthless; unless one is so strong as to be able to smash the sternum of one’s opponent, it will only piss them off. “Dauber,” he informed me, using his then preferred pet name, “you are not that strong. Instead, you might aim for the nose and throat.”

Now, he was back in a boxing stance and moving in on me. “When you jab with your left—Dauber, listen to me—always twist your fist to cut flesh. Jab,” he said. He flicked the smelly gloves at my cheekbones, then commanded me to “Jab, jab, jab.”

He chose this moment, too, to sketch his own history as a pugilist. These tales may have been based, at least in their essential elements, on outright lies. He insisted that he had once been a great brawler. “I knew how to use my hands,” he said. He never bullied anyone, but was modest, polite, a perfect little altar boy, ecumenically feared by Catholic, Jew, and Protestant alike because, as he said, expecting me to be quick with a historical allusion, “I walked softly, but carried a big stick.” He allowed though that he once lost a fight, “took a dive” for his beloved brother, Norm, with whom he quarreled over Norm’s unfaithful wife. When challenged by Norm, who later fell apart because of said faithlessness, my grandfather permitted himself to take a beating rather than raise a hand against his own brother. “Am I not my brother’s keeper,” he asked, as we sparred. I had no idea.

Probably my grandfather was not a fighter, but rather more like the fruitcake he seemed, a grown man intoxicated by the comedy of his words. A lapsed Catholic, he enjoyed singing in the high style of the priesthood, gleefully quoting chapter and verse from his Good Book—a mishmash of early 20th century immigrant noises from working-class Alliance, Ohio: “Num sareta voita frenyso, chefatche pina mo. Peewee wankum zooy. Dushwuckdas do, yuckish mickafivish, mactavish, sanova beach dundee.” This sentence, or any variation on it that may have included as well the noun fistairus or pronoun Swinus Americanus, he spoke in all contexts, its meaning immediately self-evident.

“Dragoneer,” he would say, addressing me in one of the other half-dozen pet names he gave me—George, John Funk, Axeldragon (or Axle Draggin’?), Dobido, etc. “Make with the chafatche. Dushwuckdas do!” He danced around and stomped his feet like Rumpelstiltskin until I acted according to his desire, say, by picking up a drill bit from the workshop table and handing it to him.

For years I imagined myself on the brink of receiving a horse for my birthday, whenever we stopped near a field or wood lot and he announced, “I’m going to go see a man about a horse now.” Or, in a similar vein, whenever I farted: “Get a shingle and scrape your leg.”

Was it any wonder his pugilistic instructions did me little good in a street fight? Robbie and Turtle terrorized me with fists that combined the frightening qualities of quickness and concrete. They wasted no time thumping me after school that autumn, as I bobbed, elbows guarding my ribs, a first-class boob, assuming the proper stance to “Jab, jab, jab.”


Late on Saturday afternoons throughout the 1960s before I began working at the junkyard of my paternal grandparents, boxing lessons of another kind arrived via Wide World of Sports. First, one waited through the typical afternoon fare of monster shows—Ghoulardi on Channel 8 out of Cleveland, and, decidedly lower budget, The Cool Ghoul on UHF 13 out of Canton. Later at night, too, depending on the atmospheric conditions and the ability of the TV’s rabbit ears to bring in the signal, one could tune in to The Hoolihan and Big Chuck Show also on Channel 8 or Chilly Billy Cardilly’s Creature Feature on Steel City 2. Day or night, the monster shows were a satisfying aspect of each weekend. Being a child during a time of war, I set up an elaborate machine-gun bunker at one end of the basement opposite the TV, and thus was able to protect myself and a grateful nation from an endless variety of over-sized reptiles, the giant collective id from Forbidden Planet, to say nothing of Japanese actors dressed in baggy “tights” and wearing prosthetic penises for noses. Here was an entire adolescent imagination full of worthy monsters to slaughter as they attempted to exit the TV screen and approach across the concrete floor.

Assisting in my patriotic duties were the hosts of the shows, who at the moment of climactic violence appeared super-imposed upon the screen and singing parodies of popular songs, such as “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.” Which was my cue to open fire.

So I spent dreary Ohio Saturdays awaiting the first notes of the brass fanfare, the voiced-over: “Shill of bigotry and the agony of my feet,” the appearance of the baggy-eyed, hang-dog stare of Howard Cosell and his hyperbolic introduction of my hero Cassius Clay. A manly Little Richard, Cassius Clay would be hyping his next fight, declaring, “I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast on my feet, I can’t be beat!” Cassius Clay, who was mocked and abused; Cassius Clay, with whom I fell in love; Cassius Clay, whose joking and dancing play defined for me how arrogance, beauty, and courage are the indivisible, child-like elements of genius only fools dare to despise. Listening to him rhyme, who could doubt that he would win the fight? All he had to do was simply throw a few quick punches during the middle rounds. He spent the early rounds enacting a farce. His arms waving high in the air, he mugged, dodged, fled wide-eyed in mock terror, until his opponent, appalled by how Clay betrayed conventions, was KO’d as much by confusion as the sudden flurry of left jabs, and one deceptive, crushing right hook.

Fighters denounced him, called Clay hateful to everything American, a freak, a clown, “irritatingly confident,” a pretty face that needed “butchering.” But no one could touch him. Not Sheriff Tuney Hunsaker, not Alonzo Johnson or Floyd Patterson, not Sugar Ray Robinson or Zora Foley, not even the terrifying, renowned thug, Sonny Liston, who was last seen flat on his back, after calling Cassius Clay “a faggot.” That’s an iconic image: Cassius Clay standing over Liston, going berserk, shrieking, “Get up and fight, sucker!”

Clay was no doubt the greatest, “the double-damn greatest,” one might say. And more. Much more. What I’m about to repeat is probably a lie, a story from that time still well before Muhammad Ali’s rehabilitation as the embodiment of self-congratulatory good intentions toward racial progress. It’s a lie about Cassius Clay, before he turned professional, a young boxer just returned triumphant from Greece, but dejected and in despair because of his nation’s racism. He stands down by the Ohio River shore, ready to throw away his Olympic medal, let his gold sink as quickly from sight as any black man might vanish in America, consumed by what preys upon him. It’s a lie, a god damn lie; or if it’s the truth, it’s a truth that hurts and confuses still.

Either way, a treacherous river flows at the center of it, a river drifted deep with toxic shoals, a river across which slaves who knew they were slaves swam to freedom, if they didn’t first drown. As everyone knows who has read through the lead-footed authorized biography of Muhammad Ali, there is one astonishing paragraph in the book sure to capture attention. It wasn’t written by the biographer, but is quoted from a newspaperman, Jimmy Cannon. The column it’s drawn from first appeared in the venerable New York Daily News, and is offered here as a tactless, clearly non-academic, tertiary source:

Clay is a part of the Beatle movement. He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear, and punks who ride motorcycles with iron crosses pinned to leather jackets, and Batman, and the boys with long dirty hair, and girls with the unwashed look, and college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments, and the revolt of students who get a check from dad the first of every month, and painters who copy the label from soup cans, and surf bums who refuse to work, and the whole pampered, style-making cult of the bored young.

Cannon must have been having a good time writing that. He wasn’t serious (was he?), because the world he describes with apparent contempt is thoroughly benign. Is it reasonable to suspect poor Jimmy Cannon of a bit of longing for what he missed out on, namely, dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments, or that far more exotic and dangerous dance floor at The Factory? Andy: call me, please!

The idea that Cassius Clay was somehow, even in a subterranean way, connected to any of this is ridiculous. Really Cannon is missing the point. And probably deliberately. My pugilist grandfather ignored Batman and forgave the Beatles for being whatever they were in his mind, admitting that, “Hey Jude” (perhaps their all-time worst song) “might last.” Cassius Clay, however, never enjoyed such absolution in our household. And that is because, as Cannon used him in his catalog, Cassius Clay was code meant entirely for the consumption of working-class white men, for whom he signified their dismay at the cultural ascendancy of Black Pride.

When Cassius Clay claimed in public he had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” it was the first time I heard him called Muhammad Ali.

My grandfather was apoplectic. Ali was an unpatriotic abomination. This sudden appeal to pathos was something new and strange. It made me very suspicious of patriotism, as it seemed to be the rhetorical field onto which my grandfather retreated when reason failed. Otherwise, he was anything but a patriot. Once, for instance, when asked what brave deeds he accomplished in the Second World War, he said he served “a proud tour of duty in the Salvation Army.” That is, my maternal grandfather, an otherwise self-ironic man, a unionist and a Roosevelt Democrat, when he first heard the name Muhammad Ali, crossed his arms and in a tone of heavily-hyphenated invective, pretty much came unhinged. “His name’s Clay. And he’s a yellow-bellied, draft-dodging, son-of-a-bitching communist.”

From that point everything seemed to go wrong. Wars, race riots, coups, assassinations. In 1966, I was eight years old and had no clue about Vietnam or the draft, much less about the Nation of Islam or the Civil Rights Movement. But we all understood even then that Ali’s defiance, like the defiant image of Malcolm X that held my attention on the cover of his autobiography, betrayed an old silence about what we feared lay at the foundations of our country. Ali, no less then than President Obama today, challenged that old silence and thus threatened our belief in the most restrictive notions of exceptionalism. White men were as determined then to “take back their country” as the Tea Party today. Ali—who never played the Tom nor sucked up, but worshipped Allah, a foreign God, who followed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and learned to “Walk the Way of Free Men,” who remained autonomous and apparently refused even the rich white women who offered visits to the Big House for pussy—Ali declined to compromise the way the rest of us do. He refused to drink the poisoned water of that familiar river of self-hatred, and long before it became the fashion, declined to fight in the racists’ war.

Before they stripped Ali of his title, before he lost his boxing license, he entered the ring a last time against Ernie Terrel. I watched the fight in the filthy, crowded back room at the house of my friend, Gary Mann. Howard Cosell had made a big deal of how Terrel refused to address Ali by his Muslim name, and so as the fight progressed (though one might say it deteriorated) Ali baited him, called Terrel “Uncle Tom,” pummeled him all around the ring, shrieking, round after round, “What’s my name?” until Terrel began to convulse and flinch before feinted blows. Ali shouted himself hoarse, “What’s my name?” as if the sad case of Ernie Terrel, no different than my oddly patriotic grandfather, had the slightest idea why he would form those five dangerous syllables on his own American tongue.


There was wealth in our town, but it held itself apart, uphill from the houses of labor, in the neighborhoods where my nemesis, Robbie Thompson, lay his head nightly upon a feather pillow. The city below arranged itself as an amphitheater, or a cutaway of Dante’s Inferno: each neighborhood divided along ethnic and racial lines, each neighborhood forming one more semi-circle of Hell: in the outermost were the wide, tidy streets and “naturalized” forest lawns of the professional class of respectable Catholics, Protestants, and a half-dozen elderly Jews, then German, Irish and Italian Catholics, descending downhill to grimy slums of eastern European Catholics, and then the inner rings, nearest the factories, in perpetual stink of industry: the ruins of the black ghetto. At the dead center of which stood my paternal grandparents’ junkyard: Axelrod Auto Parts.

Every one of us knew his true identity, and it was a lot closer to Ernie Terrel’s narrower perspective than Ali’s. And we knew that our school (the one to which we stayed true in 1971) was our equivalent of the factories where we planned to matriculate as hod-carriers. That is, at school, we assembled, uncomfortably removed from our neighborhoods, gathered around long tables, face to face at lunch time, passionate to argue the political case of Muhammad Ali, who had returned unvanquished from exile.

There was no way for us then to judge the change four years had made in him, nor how, in some way, it would happen to each of us. Even Ali, once the most beautiful man alive, had grown slower, puffy-faced, unable to dance for hours on his toes. Nevertheless, his boast about how he could still “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” remained what our white fathers feared and therefore despised in free-minded black men, and what the black sons who shared that table with us longed for in their own fathers. Having experienced their own moment of outrage at the river’s shore, their fathers had learned to become conveniently invisible, to keep quiet after surviving past their twentieth birthdays. These men were allowed only to perform an obligatory, comic display of joy—perhaps a little celebratory dance—when their own sons earned their allowance of life’s acclaim on the track oval, hard-court, or gridiron, before they, too, were smothered by what Ira Johnson, one of my older teammates on the basketball team, called “the simple facts be facts, fool.”

Quiet and shy as they were in the classroom, there always flared in those young men an articulate rage that verged on self-immolating joy whenever they described Ali’s return to the ring after three long years banishment for criminal lack of patriotism toward his racist nation. They regarded his return as an event of historic proportion. Never mind that he returned merely to box a journeyman like Jerry Quarry, who was happy just to be slaughtered by Ali, or stout Oscar Bonavena, the Argentine Bull, who stood in the ring, mouth gaping, just another dumb ass destined to die in a Nevada whorehouse. These skinny black sons of almost invisible fathers leaped from folding chairs to demonstrate the Ali Shuffle and, a few years later, Rope-a-Dope, recited his couplets as though reciting catechisms, playing the dozens, embellishing his lines with poetry of their own. We laughed throughout the entire lunch hour. “Listen, you ratchet-nose motherfucker, if my man don’t take Frazier down in three, I’m going to leave this town in your daddy’s LTD!”

Frankie Everett’s father, however, had been on Candid Camera. He was a traffic cop, and a famous one, and for a time the exception to the rule of invisibility. There was a circle painted on the asphalt at the center of the intersection of State Street and Union Avenue, where, periodically, the Police would turn off the traffic light and Frankie’s father danced. To say he directed traffic would be like saying that Thelonious Monk played a keyboard. Frankie’s very dark father would pull on fine white gloves and proceed to spontaneously interact with the chaos of approaching traffic in such a way as to render it a work of art. There, at the center of the busy intersection, surrounded by the fumes of leviathan-like Chryslers, Chevys and Fords, was a point of human calm and grace, albeit a decidedly funky grace. If a motorist from out of town did not know what to expect, that motorist would gape in astonishment at the human perfection of movement that danced before him. For those of us familiar with his presence, we took him a little too much for granted. Frankie’s father, as though hyper-aware of everything in his immediate surroundings or preternaturally capable of anticipating its approach, dipped, wove, feinted like Ali, spun around on the ball of one foot, and pointed with those blindingly white gloves the direction each motorist must go. He dazzled.

There were many others at that table besides Frankie: Tony, soft-spoken and gentle with an afro like a thundercloud; bitter Daryle, who seemed eaten alive from the inside by his hatred of white people; sweet Homer; Kevin and Ernie; and fat Luther with his gold front teeth, who drove along the strip in his father’s white on white in white Eldorado, with wide whitewalls, fuzzy dice, and scented with Strawberry Pimp Oil purchased exclusively at Axelrod Auto Parts. There was also Gary Lynn “Papa Doc” Dozier; William Williams, a.k.a. “Bill Bill”; Buffalo and Wolf; weird Ralph, who talked only to himself, and poor, retarded Clancy, who never talked at all, but could smile in perfect, cross-eyed astonishment at whatever he heard.

And then there was practical-minded Dick Babb, who saved me once from a sure beating.

This was no small matter.

One night after football practice, I turned on someone who had been harassing me all day, calling me whitey and honky and pushing me around. This was odd because the someone, Dwayne, was not a hostile fellow at all; he was a very mild and gentle guy. He was not a fighter in any sense of the word, which may explain why he chose me as an adversary. His locker was next to mine in the dressing room and he continued to give me a hard time after practice, until I spun around and glared at him. Then he pulled a pencil—yes!—and gestured as though to stab me.

We wrestled for that yellow No. 2, but he did not put up much resistance. I shoved him back into his locker. We continued to wrestle around. His metal-tipped football cleats slipped on the concrete and he fell down, pulling me on top of him. I punched him a little half-heartedly. It was awkward and bumbling as neither of us were brawlers, and it was over almost as quickly as it began. The coach pulled us a part and sent us to the showers. Sore at each other still, we glared naked from opposite ends of the shower room, and then went home.

But the next morning everywhere I turned I found trouble. Every black kid in school, male and female alike, was trash-talking about my “messing with” Dwayne. That the largest and toughest guys, who seemed like malevolent giants to me, eyed me with smoldering contempt was bad enough, but by mid-morning, threats began: I was going to get my ass kicked, my ass was grass, I better watch my ass, etc., etc. And when confronted, the best I could muster were sputtered denials, which did no good at all and seemed only to make matters worse.

Dick Babb and I often found ourselves sitting together in class or study hall, the last A and the first B. In study hall that day, Dick told me what to do, and it was perhaps the best boxing lesson anyone has ever given me in all of my life.

“Did you fight him?” he asked.

I nodded, a little apprehensive by then about that question.

“Did he start it?”


“Did you kick his ass?”

“Well, yeah,” I said, though this description seemed a little exaggerated. “More or less.”

“What the fuck? ‘More or less?’”

“OK, OK. I kicked his ass. And he deserved it because he’d messed with me all day.”

“So when somebody asks about it, just tell the truth,” he said.

What an idea! It had not occurred to me that everyone among my antagonists knew exactly what happened in the locker room the previous evening.

“You mean everyone already knows?” I said.

“I think so,” Dick said. “I know, and I wasn’t there.”

“So everybody is just curious to see if I’ll own up to it?”

“Something like that,” Dick said and chuckled.

It wasn’t long before the opportunity arrived to test this approach. As I was walking down the hall between classes, someone grabbed me and threw me against the locker, pinning my shoulders to the door. It was an older student, Harold, right up in my face. A crowd gathered.

“Did you mess with my cuz?” he asked, staring me straight in the eye, his face close enough to kiss or bite me on the tip of the nose.

This was no time to miss a cue. I nodded.

“Dwayne messed with me all day, and then he pulled a pencil and tried to stab me.”

“Did you kick his ass?”

“I kicked his ass.”

That seemed to be all that he and the crowd wanted to hear. He nodded and said: “OK.”

The crowd, too, assented to this version of events. A few even made disparaging remarks now about poor Dwayne. Roxanne, who was big as a VW, cursed: “That god damned Dwayne.”

Harold let me go. “That’s all I needed to know,” he said and stepped back, releasing me. “Take it easy, man,” he said and walked away. The crowd dispersed.

To say that I was amazed at the power of the truth to ease my mind would be an understatement.


The night Ali lost in the ring to Smokin’ Joe Frazier, I sat in my room listening in amazement to my father’s old Zenith Wavemagnet Trans-Oceanic shortwave radio, tubes glowing inside of its leather-covered box.

Ali was in good form through the first three rounds, but Frazier caught him out at the end of the third, snapping his head back with a hook, and then started in on Ali’s body. From that point, my expectations proved flawed. Smokin’ Joe put it to Ali, round after round, knocked his beautiful head off his shoulders, and then even knocked Ali down.

Knocked Ali down?

This was inconceivable. No one had ever so much as landed a blow before this night, or so I had convinced myself. Wasn’t he invulnerable, invincible, god-like, returned from Olympus, choruses singing him Pindaric odes?

And yet, by the late rounds the announcers shouted through the speaker that Ali was slumped on the canvas. He was on his knees. He was struggling back onto his feet. They said he looked dazed, subdued, even crushed by the blows Frazier landed.

Then he retreated, trying just to survive to the bell. In the early rounds I tried to convince myself that Ali was putting us on, but it was evident his distress was no act. Both fighters’ faces in the newspapers the next morning looked like tenderized meat.


A month after the fight, my grandfathers performed a rare bipartisan service, as a manly field trip with pedagogical intention: pooling their mutual interests in my moral education, they took me to a closed-circuit re-broadcast of the fight in Canton.

My grandfather Axelrod had probably bet on Ali, and having lost a good sum of money, wanted to see for himself how his own assumptions had gone awry. My grandfather Peters, however, still gloated over Ali’s demise, as it confirmed his long-held bias against my hero. He intended to use this opportunity to deepen my instruction in the finer points of self-defense. All the way along the highway to Canton, my grandfather Peters drummed the dash with delight, listening to WMMI and scatting along to Benny Goodman’s solo in “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”

Square, butch-cut, fifty-year-old white men, a virtual VFW post, packed the seats at the Highway Cinema. I seemed to be the only person my age in attendance. The theater owner warmed us up with a reel of soft-porn, though my grandfathers on either side of me tried to shield my eyes whenever a naked woman’s 10-foot tall breasts wobbled across the screen.

When it finally began, the brawl seemed as though it were acted out in a smoky, nightmarish cavern, where two grim men, unable to achieve the ecstasy of dance, stalked one another, crouched, elbows guarding their ribs, their muscled arms huge, glistening as they hooked and jabbed in brutal spasms. The two fighters, like the men watching them fight, battled to exhaustion, disfiguring not only themselves, but those for whose competing ideologies they fought, and were convinced they must hate. In every seat in that theater, white men winced, ducked, sucked wind, and bobbed, taking punches through the screen. And when Ali fell, even with the plot already revealed, Frazier might just as well have killed and disemboweled him, then handed around his warm liver. I felt humiliated by my love for the joy I remembered once inhabited every word of Muhammad Ali’s. I had placed him so high above us, that when he fell it was as though he had thrown himself into the river that summer night in Louisville a decade earlier, vanquished forever.

Everything in my life up to that point had testified to the contrary, but I had imagined my hero, Muhammad Ali, exempt from miscalculation, from failure, from self-betrayal, and most improbably, exempt from time. Though my father’s death had prepared me for how we could base our lives on folly, I’d set all that aside in the case of Muhammad Ali. Our pride may be scaled to romantic proportions, but pride disappoints because it leaves us vulnerable to the hostility or worse, to the indifference that accompanies our demise, and not the hysterical choruses of bare-chested virgins we may prefer. Watching that fight only confirmed what listening to it already established, a deep hole had opened in the world again, a hole it was reckless to ignore. Not only did my father get sucked into it, then my mother, but now even God, Muhammad Ali.

But those seated around us longed for something a bit more pedestrian. One man in the back of the theater, having come unglued, crowed, “Kill the fucking nigger bastard! Kill him!”


Ali fought other fights as long and as brutal—the Thrilla in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle—regained his title, lost it again, disgraced by his former sparring partner Leon Spinks. And still he did not quit, but stumbled after an inflated Vegas purse against a third-rate no-account, Trevor Berbick, a fighter so dull he could not off Ali, finish him right there in the ring, but instead embarrassed the punch-drunk fool, who shuffled along, a sad, old, thick-tongued boxer, his words slurred, his mind seemingly lost in haze. Was this the man who once brought back gold from the Olympics, and spent it all too early crossing a river too wide, too poisoned by hatred for any of us to cross to the other side? This all occurred well before Ali’s rehabilitation in the American mind, long before he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta, long before he began to appear in Louis Vuitton ads in The New Yorker, long before he was portrayed by sycophantic actors in Hollywood bio-pics, or became the subject of fawning reminiscences of well-pedigreed liberals. This all occurred when he was still the object of America’s hatred and contempt, that is, if anyone noticed him at all. There was a time not all that long ago when someone might have asked, “I wonder whatever became of Muhammad Ali?”

I had no words then for what becomes of even beautiful men betrayed by stubborn reality. But leaving that theater with my grandfathers on a balmy night in May I vowed to allow no one I loved to pass from this life without praise, even if I must praise them in their most bewildering defeat.


SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

David Axelrod

has published seven books of poems and a collection of nonfiction. Folly is forthcoming in March 2014.

He teaches at Eastern Oregon University, where he directs the Ars Poetica Lecture Series and edits (with Jodi Varon) the award-winning basalt: a journal of fine and literary arts. Co-Director of the new EOU low-residency MFA, he is currently at work on new collections of poems and essays, and editing an edition of the complete poems of the late Walt Pavlich.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury