GOOD professional athletes often acquire mystical followers. People accustomed to the skills of the superstars come to believe that the good guys can only win. I once so worshipped the New York Giants, Y. A. Tittle and Del Shofner handled the football so beautifully that they could not fail. On Sundays I could balance Tittle's lyrical bombs with the brutal contact of Roosevelt Greer and Sam Huff and happily watch the Giants mutilate they lost and their following dwindled.
Muhammad Ali has been more than a moment; for a decade he has been the best boxer in the world. I can remember eight years ago huddling in a boarding school cubicle, secretly listening to the few brief minutes that Sonny Liston withstood the beautiful onslaught. We had heard stories that Liston had sent cab-drivers to the hospital for a few bucks fare, and we knew that Clay would win. Liston did not have a chance. He was slow, and he was ugly, and Clay was the King. The graceful dance, the long left, with the twist at the end, the handsome face, uncut and smooth. Ali's greatest quality is his beauty. Many boxers are strong, but few are graceful. They can all set and punch and guard, but how many can dance? How many can dominate the ring before they have thrown a punch? Ali is the only boxer who could fall gracefully.
Faith is difficult to analyze. I was in England in 1966 when Cooper fought Clay. At a pub in Cambridge a drunken racist kept saying that "Cooper's the hand of God. He's the white hope. He's beautiful." Of course, he was all wrong, but I liked his reasoning. He had faith, misguided though it was, in the slow, brick-like frame of Cooper. He is the only person I've ever met who really had faith in an athlete. Sure, people have bet fortunes on one man or another, but they bet on statistics. They are people who believe the computer that said Marciano beat Clay. This drunk was prepared to bet on faith alone; he believed in Cooper, and would still believe after the mercurial odds-makers went away.
Many, myself included, have discovered a similar faith in Ali. At first it was just a feeling, intrinsic and inarticulate, that he could not lose. Then, from fight to fight I came to understand his beauty, to hear his insolent jibes, and to know he was the best. The smoothness of his form and motion dominated the ring; his left moved the fight around and around, clockwise, while his feet beat the time. The sluggish, solid challenger could only stand still and let it happen.
That's not to say that Ali cannot be beat, although I sincerely believe that he cannot. Frazier is the best boxer he has ever faced, but Frazier is ugly. Whatever the outcome, Clay will dominate the fight; he will dance, duck, strike, and dance again. He may bleed and he may fall, but Frazier will never dance. Some say, speaking of their styles, that this is a battle between the beauty and the beast. That's false; there can be no battle because Ali's beauty is incontestable. Frazier has no style nor grace nor beauty. As they say, he is a beast. A World Championship is at stake, some money and some pride, but that is all. Frazier could murder Ali, but he still would be ugly; he can never win.