March 28 2010
Sports can go in and out of fashion, just like clothing and hairstyles. For much of the 20th century professional boxing was as popular as football in Britain and baseball in the US but, by the new millennium, it seemed to be in irrevocable decline. Advertisers and spectators alike recoiled from the excesses of the Mike Tyson era, which seemed to confirm that the once “noble art” was indefensibly brutal and sleazy. It wasn’t always that way.
When Muhammad Ali attempted to reclaim his world heavyweight title from “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971 the contest was billed as the “fight of the century”. The 20,455-seater stadium was packed and about 300m viewers were watching on TV. Frank Sinatra, a passionate boxing fan, was the official Life magazine photographer and his buddy Burt Lancaster was one of the commentators on CCTV. Ali, rusty after a three-year suspension for refusing to serve in Vietnam, sparkled at the outset but faded and, after 15 gruelling rounds, Frazier got the verdict on points.
It was hard to believe anything could surpass that bout for tension and drama, but Ali managed it in 1974, when he took on George Foreman in the “Rumble In The Jungle” in Kinshasa. The ranks of the boxing press were swollen by heavyweight cultural commentators, including Norman Mailer, George Plimpton and Hunter S Thompson, who agreed they had been at one of the most extraordinary sporting events of all time.
Ali didn’t exactly float like a butterfly or sting like a bee; he spent much of the first seven rounds with his back to the ropes, hands over his face – he later called it “rope-a-dope” – encouraging Foreman to exhaust himself trying to land punches. Then in round eight, “The Greatest” explosively came to life and knocked out his opponent. The story was told brilliantly in the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings, and the gloves and robe that Ali wore that night are on permanent display in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.
There have been good and honourable fighters since then from the US and UK. The brightest hope in British boxing now is Amir Khan who, at 17, won an Olympic silver medal. The 23-year-old retained his world light-welterweight title with a first-round KO in Newcastle in December and looks a fair bet to hold all four world welterweight titles by the end of 2011 – at 8-1 in places. But with respect to Khan and his contemporaries, no fighter in the past two decades has come close to Ali’s charisma and skill, no matter how hard promoters keep trying. Floyd Mayweather Jr claims he is now “The Greatest”. He lives in Vegas and has a record label, Philthy Rich, which he uses to promote his sweatshirts, some emblazoned with “Mayweather”, “Money”, and dollar signs.
The sartorially immaculate Frank Sinatra, who attended Vegas fights in tuxedo and black tie, is probably turning in his grave. Ol’ Blue Eyes was often seen in a fedora, and any sports fan who wants to recapture that Rat Pack look, whether for a boxing match, a race meeting or a night on the town, should look up the Californian hatmaker Goorin Brothers at www.goorin.com. The 115-year-old firm has a range of titfers such as The King Of The Line ($100), a grey pinstripe number with a custom-woven hatband. Wear it with a dark suit, silk tie and a white shirt, and you’ll feel like a cross between Sinatra and Don Draper in Mad Men. How much cooler can you get?