One had the perfect traits of a boxer – quick hands, unparalleled foot speed, great reach. The ability to avoid, and later take, most punches, all with the grace of a gazelle. The other had all the fine makings of a singer: perfect pitch, vibrato, presence, incredible phrasing, a finger snapping style. He was, in short, the voice.
When Ali commanded his stage, no one even came close. The self – proclaimed “Greatest of all Time” forced the world to listen, but he needn’t have raised his voice. His was a picture certainly worth the thousand words. Just watch any Ali fight in his prime and you’ll understand.
The crooner was no different in his element. Singers come and go but this one was different. He inspired the writers and the arrangers, the conductors and the players to deliver the goods. He created the mood album, the saloon song, swing with a crashing orchestra, and a whole lot more. He spawned countless copycats, but only his voice and his presence could illuminate the stage for over fifty years.
Ali too, elevated the game, changing boxing from just another sport to a spectacle, an event, all the while raising the purse, as well as the audiences, to newer heights. And yet when religious idealism got the better of Ali, he left the stage rather than sacrifice his beliefs. And while he may have given up the “heavyweight champion of the world” title, he obtained yet another admirable one: the ambassador of standing up for what you believe at any cost. Later, when fate decided to let him regain his title after a two and a half year hiatus, he came back with a vengeance.
At first, we tried not to notice the slower hands, the slower signature Ali shuffle, the not quite as quick reflexes. But it didn’t really matter. He kept winning, right? Maybe not with lightning quick combination punches, but it seemed that this magician traded in his old bag of tricks for a couple of new ones. Most surprising was his unrelenting ability to take a punch. And how about the Ali Rope a dope? That little scheme on George Foreman that blistering hot night in Zaire some 35 years ago gave Ali what he had been fighting for, for almost seven years: his title.
Sinatra also had his own bag of tricks and like Ali, he needn’t only rely on just one style. So when the fifties said goodnight to big band and hello to rock and roll and the Beatles, Sinatra could easily have been catapulted into extinction, but true to form, he remained relevant. He recorded with a wide array of arrangers, never settling within a groove that he couldn’t get out of. Riddle, Jenkins, May, Costa, Jones, Count Basie, Mandel, Jobim. They kept the crooner alive and topical without sacrificing his artistic roots. All The Way, Fly Me to the Moon, The Gal That Got Away, One For My Baby, The Way You Look Tonight, Girl From Ipanema. You get the idea. And like Ali, he could never leave well enough alone. He needed to matter, needed to feel a connection to the one thing that made him tick – his audience. And so when most older entertainers are sitting on a golf course or restaurant, remembering the good old days, Frank was singing about them. Whether It Was a Very Good Year, or That’s Life, My Way or the much later New York, New York, Frank kept going to the office. He even reinvented himself as performer. As he crept closer to the big Five-O, Sinatra gave birth to yet another institution: The Rat Pack. Vegas would never be the same. Talk about those thousand word pictures – the marquis at Caesars simply read “He’s here” and the room would be sold out before you knew who “he” was.
It was the same with Ali. Even after his Thrilla in Manilla when it seemed as though his tank was almost on empty…well, this bunny just kept on going. For me, Ali’s greatness was encapsulated in a 1977 bout with the much younger, much stronger, Ernie Shavers. Not a great fight. Not much dancing. No rope a dope. But after 14 rounds of hard hitting, mostly to Ali’s head, Ali musters up the strength from I don’t know where and lands several consecutive punches, almost knocking Shavers out, if not for the sound of the final bell.
That fight said it all.
He had the heart to win, even when his body said no. The will and determination to keep on going when most others would be ready to throw in the towel.
I guess that’s what all the commotion was really about. Their resilience. Their ability to take a punch and get right back up. And of course, their longevity. Ali taught me that the fight ain’t over till it’s over. Just look at how many fights he won in the last few rounds. Sinatra’s lessons too taught me that a vocal hemorrhage, a dropped record label, falling out of favor with the public, musical fads, were no reason for a good singer not to be able to reinvent himself and reach further heights.
It could be said that Sinatra and Ali had many rebirths, without many deaths. They both recited poetry, both danced in their respective genres, and made ratings soar. Whenever either of them was a part of something, it BECAME something, just by their association with it. And the older they got, the more their mystique grew. It didn’t matter if the punches were as fast, or the voice as nimble. The world still wanted to see them, to catch one last glimpse of living legends, if nothing else.
Both were the greatest, both did it their way, and while I guess they may have stayed on stage a bit longer than they should have, who could blame them? Wouldn’t you wanna see what all the fuss was about?