Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Fortysomethings' Guide To TV's Great Sporting Moments

One of the - several - book proposals I've still got sitting on a publishers desk somewhere is The Fortysomethings' Guide To TV's Great Sporting Moments. It's - as the name might suggest - a kind of aide-de-memoire to approximately one hundred and ten era-defining bits of sporting TV magic from the years 1966 through to 1981. As you may imagine considering my involvement in the project, it's actually far less a straight sports book per se than a book about pop-culture subjects and social history which happens to feature sport as its central prop ... Albeit, it's one written from the point of view of someone who was a - genuine - fan of the vast majority of the sports involved. Like all great television, the classic sporting event has become an essential part of all of our lives. The "do you remember...?" conversations in the pub, the restaurant or the workplace may concern, for example, an episode of Doctor Who as often as it does the Brazil versus England match from 1970, but the memories triggered by such conversations are - chillingly – similar. Some may regard all this as, well, a bit sad really but it’s an undeniable fact that whenever four or five fortysomething blokes (and the odd fortysomething lady) are gathered together and there is alcohol and pizza or a curry involved, there they shall speak of that time when the Cambridge boat sank. When Kevin Keegan fell off his bike on Superstars. When the streaker ran on at Lord's and hurdled the stumps. Or when Gareth Edwards scored that try and Cliff Morgan went totally off-it.

The television link, of course, is what's really vital here. Great televised moments of sport transcend the mere newsworthy; this isn’t "I saw a great goal scored by some bloke down the park, once." Instead we're talking about something that we shared with million (sometimes billions) of fellow viewers. For many of those who watched it, Eddy Merckx winning the Tour de France on 20 July 1969 remains just as historic a moment as the Apollo 11 Moon landings which occurred a few hours later. In this context, therefore, it is easy to see why we cherish such moments so dearly. They capture, in perfect 625-line clarity, a part of our own history. Frozen forever. Ageless and unchanging.

So, I thought I'd offer blog readers the first in a (very) occasional series of extracts from the proposal. You never know, one day you might be able to buy a whole book with stuff like this in it. (But, don't hold your breath!)

57
THE RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
30 October 1974


Over to Our Live Outside Broadcast From: Mai 20 Stadium, Kinshasa, Zaïre.

Action Replay: 'Once there was a battle there. Hundred thousand people there,' sang Johnny Wakelin. 'There came a man named Elijah. With him came a superstar. In Zaïre.'

Muhammad Ali spent the three years immediately following his 1967 refusal of the draft suspended from the ring. When he regained a boxing license, he made a winning comeback against Jerry Quarry before attempting to regain his lost heavyweight championship from Smokin' Joe Frazier. They met in 1971, in New York, in a bout dubbed The Fight of the Century which Frazier narrowly won. It would be three more years before Ali got another title-shot.

After George Foreman stopped Frazier inside two rounds in 1973 to take the title, the new champion tightened his grip over the division by beating Ken Norton, the only man besides Frazier to have defeated Ali, breaking his jaw in the process. By the time that Ali and Foreman finally met, Ali had beaten both Norton and Frazier in punishing rematches, but Foreman was still an overwhelming favourite against the aging ex-champion. He was too big. Too powerful.

What Happened Next?: The event was the flamboyant Don King's first venture as a promoter. He managed to get both Ali and Foreman’s signatures, but King simply didn’t have the money and needed a country to sponsor the bout. Zaïre's dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko was eager for the publicity such a high-profile event would bring. He is said to have diverted $10 million from state funds as prize money. The original scheduled date for the fight was 25 September 1974 but a week before this in a sparring session Foreman was cut above his eye and the fight was delayed by a month. Ali spent the time becoming popular with the Congolese people and using their love of his showmanship to play brilliantly opportunistic mind-games with his opponent. (He claimed to have insiders in the Foreman camp who were practicising voodoo and may poison the camp's food at any time.) Before he arrived in Zaïre, most Africans had assumed Foreman was actually white and when he did arrive, he brought his pet German shepherd dog with him - an unfortunate faux-pas since this was the same breed which had been used by Zaïre's hated former colonial rulers the Belgians. Whilst Ali was winning hearts and minds, Foreman remained locked, sulky and paranoid, in his hotel room. A popular local chant leading up to - and during - the fight was ‘Ali bomaye!’, which roughly translates as ‘Ali, kill him!’

The fight’s start time, in the early hours of the morning in the UK, was designed to catch prime-time in America. Nevertheless, a British company called Viewsport pulled off something of a coup by showing a live-feed of the bout on closed-circuit TV to an estimated audience of 100,000 at thirty five cinemas and theatres throughout Britain. Everyone else had to wait until 8:00pm for the BBC's coverage.

Ali told his trainer, Angelo Dundee, that he had a plan to combat Foreman's fearsome punching power. And, indeed, he did - to dance Foreman off his feet just as he had done with Sonny Liston a decade earlier. But, by the end of the first round Ali realised that in the savage jungle heat, he was doing more work than his opponent. The look on Ali's face at the end of the opening round when he, seemingly, realises that Foreman is simply too strong for his intended tactics is very revealing. Was that, for possibly the only time in his life, fear in Ali's eyes? If it was, it didn't last long. From round two, Ali began an apparently desperate defensive policy, lying against the ropes, allowing Foreman to come at him and absorbing punishment (a strategy which Ali later dubbed 'rope-a-dope'). As a result Foreman expanded all of his energy in the early rounds, throwing many punches that either didn’t hurt Ali or which were easily blocked. It should be noted, however, that contrary to many subsequent retellings of the bout when Ali did come off the ropes and the two fighters were locked in clinches, it was Ali who consistently outboxed Foreman. He also taunted his opponent, provocatively yelling 'they told me you could punch, George!' at regular intervals.

Foreman soon began to tire. The effects were increasingly visible as Foreman was clearly hurt by an Ali combination at the start of the fourth round and, again, towards the end of the sixth. Finally in the eighth round, Ali landed a killer left hook followed by a hard right to the chin. Foreman staggered across the ring before landing on his back, unconscious.

Back to the Studio for a Summing Up: 'Oh my God! He's won the title back at thirty two!' Harry Carpenter's moment of epiphany seemed to encapsulate the epic nature of the occasion and Ali's truly staggering achievement. Many commentators still argue that this is the single greatest demonstration of strategic planning ever displayed in a boxing ring and, certainly, Ali's greatest triumph in a career literally full of great triumphs. Ali would fight - and beat - Joe Frazier again, a year later, in another epic - The Thriller in Manilla - but he was never, quite, the same boxer again. He lost his title, in 1978, to Leon Spinks but, astonishingly, won it back for the third time – at thirty seven – later the same year before retiring. Sadly he attempted one more, very unwise, comeback against Larry Holmes in 1980, a cruel mismatch that was genuinely painful to watch.

The Rumble in the Jungle came to have a huge cultural significance quite apart from the reverence with which it is held in sporting circles, being the basis for Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning 1996 documentary When We Were Kings and Norman Mailer’s best-selling book The Fight. Both of these works sought to place the events of, and surrounding, the fight within the context of wider black American culture. Many years later, Foreman – having gone through some dark times, becoming an ordained Christian minister and making a fortune as a businessman – returned to boxing and would become World Champion once again, at the astonishing age of forty five beating Michael Moorer. Ali (by this time, a close friend of Foreman and stricken with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease) would not attend the title bout. 'I would deviate attention from George' he said. 'It was his moment, not mine.'
What the Papers Said: Muhammad was in truly sparkling from in the, chaotic, post-fight interview for US TV with David Frost. 'Everybody stop talking! Attention!' he bellowed, magnificently, before one of sports greatest ever tirades. 'I told you all I was the greatest of all time … I’m still the greatest. … All of my critics crawl! All you suckas, bow!'

Also That Day:

- In Music: Ken Boothe’s UK pop-reggae hit ‘Everything I Own’ sat proudly at no. 1 ahead of the likes of Slade (‘Far Far Away’, no. 2), Andy Kim (‘Rock Me Gently’ no. 8), David Essex (‘Gonna Make You a Star’, no. 10), Sparks (‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’, no. 21) and Queen (‘Killer Queen’, no. 23). The Bay City Rollers’ Rollin’ topped the LP charts.

- On TV: The fight was shown on BBC1 after Ask the Family and Softly Softly: Task Force. There was more sport later, (England beating Czechoslovakia in a Nations Cup qualifier). The evening ended with Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night. BBC2’s Chronicle featured Henry Lincoln’s ‘odd story about a treasure discovered by a French village priest’ something that would - twenty odd years later - be a major part of The Da Vinci Code plagiarism trial. The David Frost Interview was with US Senator Edward Kennedy. On ITV Anglia's Survival presented a feature on ‘the microscopic marvels of nature.’ This followed sitcom hijinks in Man About the House and Bootsie and Snudge.

- In The News: Police were still searching for those responsible for the Guildford pub bombings earlier in the month. Opposition peers said they would protest to the BBC about the noise from radio commentators in the House. The life of former president Richard Nixon hung in the balance after an emergency operation to remove a blood clot from his leg. Clerical staff as the London HQ of the engineering workers union went on strike, describing the AUEW’s President, Hugh Scanlon, as ‘a terrible employer!’ ‘The Shrewsbury Two’ – Ricky Tomlinson and Dennis Warren – lost their appeal against a 1973 conviction for conspiracy to intimidate and returned to jail. Labour’s National Executive Committee criticised the government for allowing naval exercises with South African under the Simonstown Agreement. Roger Bannister resigned as chairman of The Sports Council citing a 'lack of rapport' with the Sports Minister, Dennis Howell. There were hopes that Rolls Royce's controversial RB211 engine might be used to power Boeing's 747 jumbo jets. Meanwhile, spoon-bending mystic Uri Geller flew into London to promote the release of an LP containing his songs.

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