Does it really matter? Does anyone really care about the quality of the production of the closed-circuit television of a fight? It is rather like critiquing the captions on a color page of a skin magazine. Certainly, the people who presented Holmes-Ali on TV couldn't have cared at all about the workmanship they offered the poor stiffs who bought tickets. Kris Kristofferson, the Rhodes scholar, singer, actor, was enlisted as the expert analyst, and his devotion to the task was illustrated by the fact that he brought his young daughter along to sit on his lap. Kristofferson's main contribution was to keep invoking the memory of Ali's first fight with Sonny Liston until finally, in exasperation, his broadcast partner, one Bob Sheridan, said, "But that was 1963 [actually 1964], and this is 1980."
The audio was so dreadful it was only by chance that I heard that exchange. In fact, in the whole telecast, only one word was spoken clearly (and ever so often): Donking—always said that way, never just Don, never just King, but always Donking, until I thought it must be some Chinese municipality. For most of the fight the ubiquitous Donking also sat with the Kristoffersons, père et fille, and the silk-throated Mr. Sheridan, shrilly screaming puffery and claptrap into his microphone at the expense of eardrums and taste. Donking was, of course, the promoter of the fight and the TV fight, and also cast himself as commentator, ring barker, benefactor of Nevada, the U.S. Olympic movement, the World Boxing Council and mankind, and the possessor of many other titles too numerous for Sheridan or himself to mention, although this is not to suggest that they ever stopped trying. This cockatoo of a man has the most insufferable ego since Idi Amin. Such are Donking's excesses that, by comparison, he makes boxing pretty and Las Vegas precious.
Donking's company's camerawork was uninspired. Replays revealed nothing new, perhaps because nothing much ever happened in the fight. Also, little illumination could be provided between rounds, because, despite the fact that theater spectators paid as much as $30 a ticket, they were bombarded with commercials. Is there no shame or limit to the greed of these people? The next time I order a beer, I will well remember that Budweiser, Michelob and Natural Light took unfair advantage of me and the rest of a captive audience. Worse, the only background interview was shown precisely at that wonderful moment when the champion came down the aisle. The camera cut away to a toady of an interviewer posing puff questions to one of Donking's pals, Josè Sulaimàn, the head of the WBC, about how wonderful the WBC is.
Myself, I paid $22 to watch on screens hoisted at the Bridgeport (Conn.) Jai Alai fronton. This was an appropriate setting; P.T. Barnum was once the mayor of Bridgeport, and it surely was my fellow viewers and I that he must have been anticipating, when, long ago, he reflected on what happens every 60 seconds. The main screen, much too small for such a large hall, was without color until shortly before the title fight. When the color came in, it was washed-out and blurry. Many in the crowd abandoned their reserved seats and went out to the common areas normally used for betting, there to lie supine on the cold floor and watch the small TV sets usually employed for reflecting quinella odds.
October 12, 1980
Twenty-two bucks to lie on the floor and watch a distant overhead TV: Where is our meddling big-brother government when we need it?
The crowd, about 97% male, suffered its expensive travail politely. It was subdued throughout, only briefly animated when Ali put on a transparent tough-guy act before the opening bell. Thereafter the place became increasingly depressed. It was not that everyone was for Ali. Many had cheered the champion at the start. But then, nobody seemed anti-Ali, either. You can't be vociferously against a phenomenon. You can't be against Old Faithful or the swallows coming back to Capistrano. It wasn't even that it was such a rotten fight.
Of course, I don't know what the people who were actually at the fight felt, because we were allowed no expression of that—no atmosphere, no sense of place or time. Less only than himself does Donking adore Names, and snapshots of those in his audience were all else we were treated to. Richard Crenna! Leroy Nieman! Norm Crosby! "Just one more of the celebrities here at Caesars Palace!" Sheridan cried, again and again, beside himself. No, I only know of us watching through the miracle of closed circuit: we felt so exploited that Ali's pathetic effort seemed of a piece with the contemptuous television production.
You see, we wuz robbed. He didn't have to win. If the telecast, and he, could only have been honorable. If Ali could have gone out on his shield, like old Jersey Joe, old Joe Louis, even old mean Sonny. But cowering in the corner, like some ancient friar huddled over his beads—that took more of us. Always, this remarkable creature had represented both the innocence and the mischievousness of youth. Whomever he conned, even us, it was boyish fun. "When I tell you a mosquito can pull a plow, don't ask how: hitch him up!" Remember? And so, this one last time, we had adjusted the mosquito harness, willingly. That's a small price to stay young in Bridgeport, or anywhere. So many people fell for his promised final miracle because if Ali could at least stay in the swim, then we could pretend that a part of us remained evergreen too. What's left? Elvis dead, in the ground; the Beatles forever apart; the last of the Kennedy boys a reject; no more crew cuts making voyages to the moon—no more money for that; no more poetry for anything.
And there, on Donking's screen, goes Ali—cringing, targeted, looking every day of 38 years old. God forbid: middle-aged. The last of our illusions (pretensions?) destroyed. When the end came, it was as if a curtain had been drawn; the people in the fronton immediately rose, turned and started filing out, with hardly a murmur, and certainly without ever looking back at the fuzzy screen.
It was almost eerie, the silent way in which the people left. Everyone knew Muhammad Ali had to go sometime, but not this way, not sitting down on a stool, not without dignity, not as a tacky evening's excuse for testimonials to beer and Donking. That made it harder still to go home and unleash the mosquitoes.