My mother was a huge sports fan. She followed college football as closely as anyone I ever knew. In fact, she developed a method for recording a football game in a written system that was unique and remarkable. It’s amazing to look back through her old binders and see accounts of all the great Longhorn games, especially in seasons in which they won the national championship.
Well – sports was more than sports to her. She had the view, and frequently taught us based on it, that sports is a metaphor for life. We learned more from her about the proper conduct of our lives from events in sports than lessons in the Bible. Often, it had to do with never giving up. Sometimes, it was about how to confront difficult challenges. It always had to do with understanding and living true to the traits of good character. You get the drift.
Now that Mother is no longer here to teach from this perspective, I find myself teaching from it myself, as those who live on after their parents’ death tend to do. So, let me say it right here: you understand, dear reader, that Sports Is a Metaphor For Life.
The other night I happened upon the YouTube of the first fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. It’s tempting to look back at that fight with a lens colored by our strong current view that Muhammad Ali was probably the greatest fighter who ever lived. So, of course, we reason, it’s only natural to think, he won. It was the fight that got him started on the path.
Unless we lived through those times or know the history, we might not realize that Liston was an 8-1 favorite and that the debate among those-in-the-know at the time was whether Liston would knock Clay out in the first round or the second. This was hardly the expected win of a future superstar.
Sure, Clay bragged he was great and would take Liston down. Who can forget his pre-fight histrionics? We know now things folks then didn’t know. But, then, perhaps with the exception of maybe Howard Cosell, no one took Clay seriously.
It’s very much worth your while to watch this video of that fight. It’s amazing simply to see how archaic TV was at the time, as was coverage of sports generally. It’s of interest to watch the way the reporters and the crowd responded to the fight, including the inimitable Joe Lewis who provided color commentary.
But, mostly, it’s worthwhile to watch how Clay handled himself. How does a quite good and cocky young person handle such a challenge? That’s the magic to see here.
Yes, he was better – by far – than anyone at the time knew. Further, he had assets few knew were as valuable as they turned out to be. But what truly impresses is how he built on these assets.
He was extraordinarily fast. So, while Liston was powerful, Clay prepared, obviously tirelessly, to stay away from Liston’s punches through his speed and foot movement. He had a tremendous reach advantage over Liston (and most fighters he would later face). Keep Liston away with that reach, and use it to probe for openings, he strategized.
While not the stronger fighter, he figured to be stronger than he appeared, and to use combinations in fast flurries when there were openings.
Finally, Clay determined first to win the battle psychologically. Ali did this frequently in his career. Here once the first few rounds were over and Liston not only had not won but also was actually behind and fatigued, Clay was well on the way to victory. Listen for the moment after a few rounds when Lewis observes this reality in stunned surprise.
I can hear my Mother’s thoughts as I write: listen, we’re not all Muhammad Alis. We’re not even Cassius Clay in his first fight. But we all have strengths that if we work to develop and use we can surprise all those who take us lightly. We can win battles that others (and perhaps we ourselves) are unsure we can win. Confidence in our selves is important. If we don’t think we can win, we probably won’t. And, if we don’t have confidence and the will to succeed, we won’t do what it takes to prepare ourselves to have the best chance to win.
Watch the fight. It’s truly one of the great events in sports. Look at what Clay does. Look for the little things, such as how winded he was after the first round. Look at how he took advantage of his strengths and the mammoth preparation he did in advance of the fight that made a good deal of what he did seem effortless.
It’s a joy to watch on its own as sport. But, as my mother would insist, it’s great evidence of Sports As a Metaphor For Life. Don’t you agree?