The Last Flight of the Comeback Kid

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

By Diego Morilla

We all wish for one miraculous, magic comeback in our lives.

For most of us, it is the return to a place or a time that we hold dear, a chance to relive a meaningful moment, or an opportunity to change destiny. And on the flip side of the semantic coin, many of us would give anything to fire a quick comeback to a hurtful remark by either a friend or a foe in our past.

In my modest case, it would represent a chance to embrace Lobo, the weary old dog I rescued from the fright and the cold of the streets when I was eight years old, one more time before leaving my hometown for good. Or a renewed opportunity to be the last member of my family to hold my mother’s hand while she was still alive, but only a few hours earlier than the moment I did so, when she was already in her deathbed and no longer able to hear the last words that I hardly managed to blurt out of my knotted throat.

For Muhammad Ali, the comeback was his art, his craft and his life’s mission. He mastered both versions of it: the unlikely return to previous glories, and the snappy, witty verbal retort that he dominated with such gracious belligerence.

A kid stole his bicycle in his early teens, and his comeback to that was his enrollment in the local boxing gym, which resulted in a stellar amateur career capped by an Olympic gold medal and a professional boxing career that had very few parallels in history. His government drafted him into the army to fight a war in a foreign land when he felt that the war for his own freedom was still unfinished, and his comeback launched a political, legal and ethical quandary that ended up in the Supreme Court and that still echoes today whenever someone questions the very nature of modern warfare. The world of boxing deemed him incapable of regaining his title after 10 years of his first and equally improbable title bout, and his comeback to that was one of the most memorable fights in history, a triumphant return to the land of his ancestors, and a victory that turned him into a superhero to his race – the human race.

Four years after that memorable African dawn in Kinshasa, Zaire, and a mere 24 years after having his bicycle stolen, a special issue of “Superman” had Ali fighting the red-caped superhero – and winning.

But his life, as it is customary for juggernauts, was not without controversy or contradiction. At times, he even became a victim of his own discourse.

He embraced Islam, a religion that claims to hold women as the most precious beings worthy of all the respect in the world, even though he remained a notorious womanizer.

His desire to avoid blows to the face made him develop a beautifully defensive style that kept foes from hitting him as much as possible, but in doing so he took much more punishment to the body in his later years, and this resulted, according to his own physician, to liver and kidney damages that worsened and accelerated his physical downfall. But he happily paid the price of his own vanity and his desire to emerge unblemished and unpunished from his fights against some of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history just to continue on his mission to be the defiant face of black triumphalism in a white man’s world, and an icon to his people.

He refused to give in to America’s imperialist and dictatorial wars abroad, but he later empowered foreign dictators and took their money in two of his most famous fights overseas in Zaire and Manila. 

But for all of his contradictions, it was his loyalty to his beliefs that kept earning him a second chance in the hearts and minds of both fans and detractors. From his earliest life, it was clear that young Cassius always had his sight on achievements that others would have considered impossible to achieve.

Just as his comeback to a simple act of petty larceny triggered an epic quest towards greatness, and his comeback to accusations of cowardice in the face of war was answered by his bravery to stand up to war itself, his comeback to racial integration was an increasing demand for much higher goals.

His grandfather’s slave master, after whom he was originally named, may have been a staunch abolitionist, but even so young Cassius considered his name a “slave name.” His first backers may have been a group of white businessmen who offered him a lucrative and advantageous deal in an era in which the mob still ruled boxing, but he still asked for more.

And more he got. He became a star beyond his realm, the most recognizable face on Earth, deemed capable of impossible deeds. Like clashing with Superman equipped only with his trademark white boxing trunks as a nameless superhero that could easily have ditched his known early monikers (“The Mouth of the South”, “The Louisville Lip”) in favor of a more appropriate “Comeback Kid,” a name worthy of a character with the power to turn back time and shoot back stingy rhymes.

But just as Superman had to be shipped out of his exploding planet by his dying parents to find his mission in life, Ali’s greatness was built on his ability to meet the challenges that his life placed on him, first as an angry teenager, and then as a boxing champion, a soldier of peace and a role model.  After all, a stolen bike didn’t provide enough rage to fill an entire career as a prizefighter, so Ali had to find new causes. New comebacks to add to his legendary ability to turn challengers and doubters away.

And he didn’t have to look too hard.  He came back from his banishment from boxing to regain his title against the most fearsome of foes in the form of George Foreman, in an African country that now exists only in the history books and is mentioned almost solely to honor his accomplishment, like the name of an ancient city now lying in rubble mentioned only when the name of his conqueror is recalled. And he defied the odds once again when he took on the much younger and inexperienced Leon Spinks in his quest to regain his belt a record third time. And somewhere in between, he came back from the brink of death from exhaustion to defeat his archenemy Joe Frazier in one of the most grueling battles in memory.

The comeback was his magic trick, and Ali’s claim of greatness was his comeback to everyone else’s claim of greatness. The measure of his success toppled every bragging right in boxing, both in and out of the ring – and to some extent, in life itself.

And his forced reclusion after the last two punishing bouts of his career left him progressively silent was our cue to generate our own comebacks, our own wars against war, our own struggles for our own lofty goals. And here we are, speechless, waiting for another illuminated sportsman to use his notoriety to stand up for the beliefs of his people with his same passion and eloquence that Ali stood for.

The wait, as it turns out, may take a long while. __________________________________________________________

Up until his very last breath, Ali kept dreaming about one last comeback.

“My father is one of those people who would have spent all of his life trying to come back,” said Hana Ali, one of his nine children, in a recent documentary. “He joked about it up until he was probably 65. ‘Wouldn’t it be something? We’ll shake up the world! I’ll come back and take that title back!’”

We never give up on our desire to see one last, miraculous, magic comeback in our lives.

In my book of wishes, the Comeback Kid takes to the skies once more, and flies one last mission to make a perfect version of my most cherished memories come to life once again before disappearing into the night of time.

A frightened paw scratches my front door, and it’s Lobo. An eight year-old me embraces him, and we’re neither afraid nor cold anymore. I hold my mom’s hand once again, and instead of the pale, unanimated limb that lingers in my most painful memory, I find the same vibrant, warm, loving hand that steered my childhood into manhood.

In the book of wishes of the people that he touched through his passage in this world, Muhammad Ali, terror of bicycle thieves worldwide, vanquisher of Superman, poet , loudmouth, soldier of peace and warrior of the ring, suddenly sheds the spell of his heinous malady to stop trembling, and he stands up upright and firmly once again on those two long and wide legs, with his voice un-slurring away from his illness and back into coherence, to explode in another fearless, brilliant, poetic rant that destroys and silences every warmongering politician, every hater, every boxing challenger and every doubter and naysayer in the world.

The last flight of the Comeback Kid will never take off. A long shot worthy of his destiny-defying prowess will remain unattainable. An unfinished rhyme will forever echo in the square circle that he turned into his preaching stand, his soap box, his dancing floor, his battleground and his springboard to immortality. His last challenge will remain unmet, open to all of us to pick up where he left off, should we ever dare.

“He has always defied impossible odds by doing the seemingly impossible”, said Hana, ”and proving to himself and to the world that he could accomplish it.”

We could try to summarize Ali’s mission on Earth more succinctly.

But in fact, not even Muhammad Ali could muster a comeback for that.