The New York Times obituary of Kram in June, 2002 saluted his work in Sports Illustrated by calling him one of its "most lyrical writers of the 1960s and 1970s." Great Men Die Twice selects his best work with a moving introduction by his son, Mark Kram Jr., the PEN/ESPN Award-winning author of Like Any Normal Day.
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About the Author
MARK KRAM, JR. is the author of Like Any Normal Day, which received the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. His feature articles have won the Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists and has been published six times in The Best American Sports Writing Anthology. Kram lives in New Jersey with his family.
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Great Men Die Twice
The Selected Works of Mark Kram
By Mark Kram Jr.
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Mark Kram, Jr.
All rights reserved.
GREAT MEN DIE TWICE
There is the feel of a cold offshore mist to the hospital room, a life-is-a-bitch feel, made sharp by the hostile ganglia of medical technology, plasma bags dripping, vile tubing snaking in and out of the body, blinking monitors leveling illusion, muffling existence down to a sort of digital bingo. The Champ, Muhammad Ali, lies there now, propped up slightly, a skim of sweat on his lips and forehead, eyes closed, an almost imperceptible tremor to his arms and head. For all his claims to the contrary, his surface romance with immortality, Ali had a spooky bead on his future; he never saw it sweeping grandly toward him but bellying quietly along the jungle floor. "We just flies in a room," he liked to say, moving quickly across the ruins of daily life, plane crashes, train wrecks, matricide, infanticide; then after swatting half of humanity, he'd lower his voice and whisper, as if imparting a secret, "We just flies, that's all. Got nowhere to fly, do we?"
Images and echoes fill the room, diffuse and speeding, shot through with ineluctable light and the mythopoeic for so long, the glass darkened to a degree no one thought possible; his immense talent, his ring wisdom, his antipathy for chemicals, argued against destructibility; all he would ever do is grow old. For twenty years, while he turned the porno shop of sports into international theater, attention was paid in a way it never was before or has been since. The crowds were a wonder to behold. Kids scaled the wings of jets to get a glimpse of him; thousands, young and old, tailed him in masses during his roadwork. World leaders marveled at the spell he cast over the crowds. "If you were a Filipino," joked Ferdinand Marcos, "I'd have to shoot you." The pope asked for his autograph; sure, he said, pointing to a picture, but why ain't Jesus black? A young Libyan student in London sat on his bed, kept him up half the night with dithyrambic visions of Muslim revolution. "Watch, one day you will see," said Mu'ammar Qaddafi. Half-asleep, Ali said, "Sheeeet, you crazy." Leonid Brezhnev once dispatched a note to an official at Izvestia: "I would like to see more on Muhammad Ali. Who is this man?"
The Ali Watch: how absurd that it would one day drop down here on a little hospital on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The nurse dabs his face dry. What is he thinking? Never has his favorite phrase sounded so dismally precise: My, my, ain't the world strange. If he could root back through the maze of moment and incident, would he find premonitory signs sticking out like dire figurations of chicken entrails? Does he remember King Levinsky, one of the many heavy bags for Joe Louis, in the corridor after the Miami Beach weigh-in? Boldly colored ties draped Levinsky's neck (he sold them on the street), his synapses now like two eggs over light, in permanent sizzle, as he tried to move into stride with a young Cassius Clay. Over and over, like a one-man Greek chorus, Levinsky croaked, eyes spinning, spittle bubbling from his lips, "He's gonna take you, kid. Liston's gonna take you, make you a guy sellin' ties. ... Partners with me kid, ya kin be partners with me." Does he remember a shadowed evening in his hotel room a day or so after the third Joe Frazier fight, moving to the window, his body still on fire from the assault? He stood there watching the bloodred sun drop into Manila Bay, then took a visitor's hand and guided it over his forehead, each bump sending a vague dread through the fingers. "Why I do this?" he said softly. Does he remember the Bahamian cowbell tinkling the end of his final, pathetic fight, a derisive good-bye sound stark with omen? What is he thinking?
Ali poses a question, his eyes closed, his lips parting as if he were sliding open manhole covers. "You die here ... they take you home?" he asks. The nurses roll their eyes and smile, struck by his innocence; it has nothing to do, they know, with morbidity. He is not joking either. The practical aftermath of death seems to stimulate his curiosity these days; nothing urgent, mind you, just something that begins to get into your mind when you're watching blood move in and out of your body for half the day. Though he is very much a mystic, there is a part of Ali that has always found security and a skewed understanding of life in the quantifiable: amounts, calibrated outcomes, the creaking, reassuring machinery of living. The night before in the hotel lounge, with his wife, Lonnie, beside him, bemusedly aghast, he grilled a pleasant waitress until he knew how many tips she got each week, how many children she had, the frequency of men hitting on her, and the general contour of her reality. "She have a sad life," he said later. The nurse now cracks with a deadpan expression, "You die, we take you home, Muhammad."
Still, a certain chiaroscuro grimness attaches to their surreal exchange and cries out for some brainless, comic intervention. He himself had long been a specialist in such relief when he would instantly brighten faces during his favorite tours of prisons, orphanages, and nursing homes. When down himself (very seldom), he could count on a pratfall from his hysterical shaman, Drew "Bundini" Brown, on the latest bizarre news from his scheming court, maybe a straight line from some reporter that he would turn into a ricocheting soliloquy on, say, the disgusting aesthetics of dining on pig. No laughs today, though.
"Don't make him laugh," a nurse insisted when leading a writer and a photographer into the room. "Laughing shakes the tubing loose." The photographer is Howard Bingham, Ali's closest friend; he's been with the Champ from the start, in the face of much abuse from the Black Muslims. Ali calls him "the enemy" or "the nonbeliever." His natural instinct is to make Ali laugh; today he has to settle for biting his lower lip and gazing warily back and forth between Ali and his nurses. He doesn't know what to do with his hands. Ali had requested that he leave his cameras outside; just one shot of this scene, of Ali on his back, the forbidding purge in progress, of fame and mystique splayed raw, would bring Bingham a minor fortune. "He doesn't want the world to see him like this," says Howard. "I wouldn't take the picture for a million dollars."
The process is called plasmapheresis. It lasts five hours and is being conducted by Dr. Rajko Medenica. The procedure, popular in Europe, is a cleansing of the blood. Ali is hooked up to an electrocardiograph and a blood-pressure monitor; there is always some risk when blood is not making its customary passage. But the procedure is not dangerous and he is in no pain, we are told. Two things, though, that he surely can't abide about the treatment: the injection of those big needles and the ceaseless tedium. When he was a young fighter, a doctor had to chase him around a desk to give him a shot, and chaotic mobility to him is at least as important as breathing. Bingham can't take his eyes off Ali; the still life of his friend, tethered so completely, seems as incomprehensible to him as it would to others who followed the radiated glow of Ali's invulnerability. The nurses cast an eye at his blood pressure and look at each other. His pressure once jumped twelve points while he watched a TV report on Mike Tyson's street fight with Mitch Green in Harlem. It's rising a bit now, and the nurses think he has to urinate. He can't bear relieving himself in the presence of women; he resists, and his anxiety climbs.
"Ali," one of them calls. His eyes remain closed, his breathing is hardly audible. The nurse calls to him again; no response. "Come on now, Ali," she complains, knowing that he likes to feign death. "Now, stop it, Ali." He doesn't move, then suddenly his head gives a small jerk forward and his eyes buck wide-open, the way they used to when he'd make some incoherent claim to lineage to the gods. The nurses flinch, or are they in on the joke, too? Eyes still wide, with a growing smile, he says to the writer weakly: "You thought I dead, tell the truth. You the only one ever here to see this and I die for ya. You git some scoop, big news round the whole world, won't it be?" He leans his head back on the pillow, saying, "Got no funny people round me anymore. Have to make myself laugh." The nurse wants to know if he has to urinate. "No," he says with a trace of irritation. "Yes, you do," the nurse says. "Your pressure ..." Ali looks over at Lonnie with mischievous eyes. "I just thinkin' 'bout a pretty woman." The nurse asks him what he'd like for lunch. "Give him some pork," cracks Bingham. Ali censures the heretic with a playful stare. Ali requests chicken and some cherry pie with "two scoops of ice cream." He turns to the writer again: "Abraham Lincoln went on a three-day drunk, and you know what he say when he wake up?" He waits for a beat, then says, "I freed whooooooo?" His body starts to shake with laughter. The nurse yells, "Stop it, Muhammad! You'll drive the needles through your veins." His calms down, rasps, "I'll never grow up, will I? I'll be fifty in three years. Old age just make you ugly, that's all."
* * *
Not all, exactly; getting old is the last display for the bread-and-circuses culture. Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it's been noted, die twice — once as great, and once as men. With grace, preferably, which adds an uplifting, stirring, Homeric touch. If the fall is too messy, the national psyche will rush toward it, then recoil; there is no suspense, no example in the mundane. The captivating, aspiring sociopath Sonny Liston had a primitive hold on the equation of greatness. "Clay [he never called him Ali] beeeg now," Sonny once said while gnawing on some ribs. "He flyin' high now. Like an eagle. So high. Where he gonna land, how he gonna land? He gonna have any wings? I wanna see." Sonny, of course, never made it for the final show. Soon after, he checked out in Vegas, the suspicion of murder hovering over the coroner's report.
Who wanted to ask the question back then or even be allowed to examine in depth its many possibilities? It was too serious for the carnival, immediately at odds with the cartoon bombast that swirled around Ali, the unassailable appeal of the phenomenon, the breathtaking climb of the arc. Before him, the ring, if not moribund, had been a dark, somber corner of sports, best described by the passing sight of then-middleweight-king Dick Tiger, leaving his beat-up hotel wearing a roomy, black homburg and a long pawnshop overcoat, a black satchel in his hand, heading for the subway and a title fight at the Garden. But the heavyweight champions — as they always will — illuminated the image sent out to the public. There was the stoic, mute Joe Louis, with his cruising menace; street fighter Rocky Marciano, with his trade-unionist obedience; the arresting and dogged Floyd Patterson, who would bare his soul to a telephone pole at the sight of a pencil; all unfrivolous men who left no doubt as to the nature of their work.
With the emergence of Muhammad Ali, no one would ever see the ring the same way again, not even the fighters themselves; a TV go, a purse, and sheared lip would never be enough; and a title was just a belt unless you did something with it. A fighter had to be; a product, an event, transcendental. Ali and the new age met stern, early resistance. He was the demon loose at a holy rite. With his preening narcissism, braggart mouth, and stylistic quirks, he was viewed as a vandal of ring tenets and etiquette. Besides, they said, he couldn't punch, did not like to get hit, and seemed to lack a sufficient amount of killer adrenaline. True, on the latter two counts. "I git no pleasure from hurtin' another human bein'," he used to say. "I do what I gotta do, nothin' more, nothin' less." As far as eating punches, he said, "Only a fool wanna be hit. Boxin' just today, my face is forever." Others saw much more. The ballet master Balanchine, for one, showed up at a workout and gazed in wonder. "My God," he said, "he fights with his legs, he actually fights with his legs. What an astonishing creature." Ali's jab (more like a straight left of jolting electricity) came in triplets, each a thousandth of a second in execution. He'd double up cruelly with a left hook (rarely seen) and razor in a right — and then he'd be gone. Even so, it took many years for Ali to ascend to a preeminent light in the national consciousness. In the sixties, as a converted Black Muslim, he vilified white people as blond, blue-eyed devils. His position on Vietnam — "I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway. They never called me nigger" — was innocent at first, but then taken up as if he were the provocateur of a national crisis. The politicians, promoters, and sweeping sentiment converged to conspire against his constitutional right to work; states barred him from fighting. He resisted the draft and drifted into exile. Three years later he returned, heavier, slower, but with a new kind of fire in his belly. Though he had defeated heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and defended his title nine times, Ali had never had a dramatic constituency before. Now a huge one awaited him, liberals looking for expression, eager literati to put it into scripture, worn-out hippies, anyone who wanted to see right done for once. The rest is history: the two symphonic conflicts with Joe Frazier; the tingling walk with him into the darkness of George Foreman. Then, the Hegelian "bad infinite" of repeating diminishing cycles: retiring, unretiring, the torture of losing weight, the oiling of mushy reflexes. The margins of dominance compressed perilously, and the head shots (negligible before exile) mounted.
Greatness trickled from the corpus of his image, his career now like a gutshot that was going to take its time before killing. His signing to fight Larry Holmes, after retiring a second time, provoked worried comment. After watching some of Ali's films, a London neurologist said that he was convinced Ali had brain damage. Diagnosis by long distance, the promoters scoffed. Yet among those in his camp, the few who cared, there was an edginess. They approached Holmes, saying, "Don't hurt him, Larry." Moved, Holmes replied, "No way. I love Ali." With compassion, he then took Ali apart with the studied carefulness of a diamond cutter; still, not enough to mask the winces at ringside. Ali failed to go the route for the first time in his career. Incredibly, fourteen months later, in 1981, his ego goaded him to the Bahamas and another fight, the fat jellied on his middle, his hand-speed sighing and wheezing like a busted old fan; tropic rot on the trade winds. Trevor Berbick, an earnest pug, outpointed him easily. Afterward, Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali from the start and had to be talked into showing up for this one, watched him slumped in the dressing room, then turned away and rubbed his eyes as certain people tried to convince Ali that he had been robbed and that a fourth title was still possible.
The public prefers, indeed seems to insist on, the precedent set by Rocky Marciano, who quit undefeated, kept self-delusion at bay. Ali knew the importance of a clean farewell, not only as a health measure but as good commercial sense. His ring classicism had always argued so persuasively against excessive physical harm, his pride was beyond anything but a regal exit. But his prolonged decline had been nasty, unseemly. Who or what pressured him to continue on? Some blamed his manager, Herbert Muhammad, who had made millions with Ali. Herbert said that his influence wasn't that strong.
Excerpted from Great Men Die Twice by Mark Kram Jr.. Copyright © 2015 Mark Kram, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword by Mark Kram Jr.
I. GREAT MEN DIE TWICE (Muhammad Ali)
II. THE BOXING BEAT
1. At the Bell... (Ali-Frazier I)
2. The One-Minute Angels (Cornermen)
3. "There Ain't No Others Like Me" (Don King)
4. -Manilla-for Blood and for Money (Ali-Frazier III)
5. "Lawdy, Lawdy, He's Great" (Ali-Frazier III)
6. ...But Only a Farce in Tokyo (Ali-Inoki)
7. On the Throne Behind the Power (Herbert Muhammad)
8. Not the Greatest Way to Go (Ali-Norton III)
III. IN THE TELLING
1. A Wink at a Homely Girl (Baltimore)
2. To the Brinkand Beyond (Niagara Falls)
3. All the Best (George Best)
4. No Place in the Shade (Cool Papa Bell)
5. Why Ain't I in the Hall? (Hack Wilson)
1. A Hurdler in Inner Space (Edwin Moses)
3. Jerry Glanville's Unbuckled Ego
4. The Betrayal of Michael Levine
5. No Pain, No Game (Joey Browner)
V. DEAD END (BEETHAVEAN SCOTTLAND)