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Human Face

May I change the topic?

The postelection atmosphere is getting more and more toxic and foul from political, sexual, gender-insensitive and murderous tirades from you-know-who, and every time I hear more of the same the blood in my feet rises to my head. There is too much malodorous saliva flying around. Call it diarrhea of the mouth.

Sometimes we need to turn off the sights and sounds and look elsewhere to revive our sanity and breathe new air. And so I look to another arena that is hardly familiar to me but is full of human faces and stories nonetheless.

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With the death last week of Muhammad Ali, considered boxing’s greatest, the world of sports was at a loss for words in describing the absence that will not be filled.

I don’t like boxing. I don’t think I will ever fall in love with the brutal sport. I think it should be outlawed. I sometimes wonder what extraterrestrials would think if they came upon a boxing match, which, if you ask me, isn’t too different from a cockfight or a spider fight, a fight to the death between gladiators while the blood-thirsty spectators in the arena lustily cheer.

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Boxing is the sport of the underdog from the underside. I have yet to know of a boxer who was born rich. Like boxing, long-distance cycling is also for the anakpawis. Although every other rich kid now owns a mountain bike, I have yet to know of one who would desperately want to win a bike tour—in a blistering Philippine summer, that is. In boxing and long-distance cycling, one has to have a high threshold for pain. In golf, you walk on soft grass and you have to have lots of money, too, unless you are a caddy with access to the green.

I remember Ali as the lighter of the flame in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. The signs of Parkinson’s disease were already evident then.

I have a copy of the April 25, 1988, issue of Sports Illustrated with him on the cover and the cover story “Ali and His Entourage.” It is about “The Greatest” and the people who waited on him when he was the greatest. The blurb says: “The champ and his followers were the greatest show on earth, and then the show ended. But life went on.”

I’m no boxing and Ali fan, but the story by Gary Smith is a great one. The black-and-white photographs by Gregory Heisler are just as great.

The story is about decay and decline. It is also about moving on. Here are the portraits of the men and women who doted on the champ. Here they are, long after the show had ended. All together, they paint a portrait of Ali, even as they paint a portrait of themselves as individuals and as members of an entourage.

Ferdie Pacheco, the doctor: “The first signal of decline was in Ali’s hands. Pacheco began injecting them with novocaine before fights, and the ride went on. Then the reflexes slowed, the beatings began, the media started to question the doctor. And the world began to learn how much the doctor loved to talk… The slower Ali spoke, the more frequently spoke the doctor.”

Gene Kilroy, the facilitator: “The trouble with facilitating was that it left no mark, no ‘Kilroy was here.’ He has covered the walls of his rec room with 50 Ali photos. He reminisces every day. He watches videos of old Ali interviews he helped facilitate… .”

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Lana Shabazz, the cook: “Some days, though, I just have to hear his voice. I call him, ask him what he’s eating. People ask me all the time how he’s doing. Know how that feels, when people ask you how’s your child, and you don’t know what to say?”

Luis Sarria, the masseur: “His hands, splayed from long, long arms, were broad and black and powerful from years of hacking Cuban sugarcane. I remembered them, working endlessly up and down the smooth ripples of Ali’s body until he drifted off to sleep. His hand I remembered, but I could not remember him.”

Pat Patterson, the bodyguard: “But the Bodyguard had to sit on the corner stool and watch helplessly when his man needed protection most, in the ring when the end was near. ‘Watching him get hit was like watching someone stick my mama with a knife.’”

Herbert Muhammad, the manager: “His dream of building 49 more mosques like this first one, using the money Ali and he could generate, was drifting further and further from his reach. Ali slurred words and shook and didn’t want to be seen on television.”

Drew “Bundini” Brown, the motivator: “…[T]he ghetto poet who motivated Ali and maddened him, who invented the phrase, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ … who licked Ali’s mouthpiece before sliding it in but never said a yes to him he didn’t mean; who could engage the champion in long discussions of nature and God and man, then lie in the hotel pool before a fight and have his white woman.”

Despite his immense wealth, Ali remained trapped in a ghetto.

The world of boxing is a surreal world, a gold mine for stories. Consider the many movies and novels—Norman Mailer’s “The Fight” among them—on this bloody sport. Mailer was in the Philippines to cover the “Thrilla in Manila” between heavyweights Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975.

I cannot help but think of the Philippines’ boxing great, Manny Pacquiao, a newly elected senator of the republic, (he was congressman before that, with the most absences), who rose from poverty and had little education, but is now a multibillionaire, and a lawmaker. Like Ali, he has an entourage that is at his beck and call, who live off him.

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For those who need to brush up on gender issues in the religious life:

The Office of Women and Gender Concerns, a mission partner of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, is holding a “Gender Orientation for Formators” on June 22-24 at the Benedictine Sisters Retreat House, Wagner Road, Military Cut-off, Baguio City. This is a subsidized seminar, so the fee is only P500. Call 2636208 or 0942-9804343.

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Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com.

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TAGS: Boxing, Manny Pacquiao, Muhammad Ali
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