The River City Renegade


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About Winnipeg Blue Bombers Coach D’oh!…an odd final round at Royal Birkdale…gay female athletes dating…pretty on the tennis court…and why don’t some guys just shut up?

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

I’m not sure what happens to Mike O’Shea when he gets to B.C. Place Stadium.

Coach D’oh

Maybe it’s the drinking water. Ya, that’s it. Someone is spiking his H2O with mind-altering drugs, because it’s become evident that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach is seeing things that aren’t there. I mean, the rest of us see an impossible 61-yard field goal attempt, but O’Shea sees a ho-hum chip shot. We see Justin Medlock as a punter/place-kicker, but O’Shea sees him as Dieter Brock or Kenny Ploen.

He’s delusional like the Nevada Parole Board.

Mind you, nobody can accuse the Bombers sideline steward of being a one-trick pony.

He did, after all, give us two displays of hocus-pocus for the price of one on Friday night in Vancouver. Trouble is, an argument can be made that O’Shea’s smoke and mirrors is the main reason the Bombers were found wanting in their Canadian Football League skirmish with the B.C. Lions.

Yes, I’m aware that a fake field goal was executed to perfection and resulted in seven points. Kudos for venturesome and creative football. Alas, we were also reminded that there’s a time and place for sleight of hand, and midway through the fourth quarter—on third-and-15 with the ball nestled on your own 26-yard stripe!—is neither the time nor the place for Justin Medlock to be passing instead of punting.

Unless, of course, you’re Coach D’oh and you’re hallucinating.

O’Shea’s fourth-quarter brain cramp also resulted in points. Eight of them. For the Lions, who were less into gimmickry and more into gutting it out while turning a 15-point deficit into a 45-42 success.

Go ahead and give O’Shea full marks for his daring if you like. It can be get-out-of-your-seat exciting. But it’s folly for a head coach to double dog dare himself into making dumb decisions, which seems to now be the rule rather than the exception for the Bombers puppet master on the Wet Coast.

Justin Medlock

It’s all about picking your spots, and when O’Shea allowed Medlock to pass rather than punt while nursing an eight-point lead on Friday he picked the wrong spot.

We don’t think of them as trick plays,” he advised news snoops after the fact. “They’re well designed and well thought out and well executed by the players that buy into that.”

Well, okay. Except receiver Derek Jones must have missed the memo, because he had his back turned to Medlock’s wonky pass on the “called play.”

It was just dumb, dumb, dumb.

So, was the faux punt really a “called play” as O’Shea insists or was it a Medlock ad lib? “I’ll take the blame for it,” Medlock said post-gaffe. “Whatever comes if it, I’m not going to sit here and point fingers.” And I’ll take that to mean someone else screwed up. In either case, it still comes down to coaching. Football is very much a situational game, and an alert coach doesn’t permit his punter to fiddle fart around when it’s third-and-15 at the 26-yard stripe while nursing an eight-point lead with slightly more than eight minutes to play.

A few words about the final round of the Open golf championship Sunday at the Royal Birkdale in Southport, England: Brutal and brilliant. Ragged and remarkable. Seriously. Champion golfer of the year Jordan Spieth was all over the British Isles through the first four holes, carding three bogeys, and his tee shot on 13 hole was so far off the mark that the ball almost landed in Ireland. It took him half an hour to complete the hole. Then he goes birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie in less time than it takes to whip up a full English breakfast. Incredible. What I like most about Spieth, who now has a collection of three Grand Slam titles, is his manner: He seems like a lovely, young man.

Garbine Muguruza

Attention Politically Correct Police: If sports scribes choose to describe ascending tennis star Garbine Muguruza as pretty or sexy, spare us your squawking because they have her blessing. “I see a lot of criticism sometimes when a sportswoman wants to feel pretty on the court,” the reigning Wimbledon and 2016 French Open ladies’ champion says. “I want to feel pretty out there, I’m going to feel more comfortable and confident if I have a beautiful dress on. It doesn’t go against being an athlete.” So there. Don’t scream sexism when a jock journo writes about her appearance.

Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, at 36 the oldest player in the Women’s National Basketball Association, tells ESPNW magazine that she’s a lesbian and, except for the fact she’s dating American soccer star Megan Rapinoe, it’s a ho-hum revelation. There’s a reason for that: Gay female athletes at the highest echelons are commonplace, whereas their male counterparts are about half a century behind when it comes to acceptance and inclusiveness. Both Bird and Rapinoe, by the way, are Olympic gold medallists, further evidence that having gays on a team roster is not an impediment to success.

The quote machine has gone into overdrive the past couple of weeks, and much of it has been painful to hear and read. For example…

  • Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. said this about Conor McGregor, his opponent in an Aug. 26 bout: “He totally disrespected black women. He called black people monkeys. Then he spoke disrespectfully to my daughter’s mother and he spoke disrespectfully to my daughter.” Yo! Floyd! You’re a serial woman-beater. You’ve gone to jail for beating up women. Don’t talk to us about disrespecting women.

  • Former National Football League quarterback Michael Vick had these words of advice for blackballed QB Colin Kaepernick: “(The) first thing we got to get Colin to do is cut his hair. I’m not here trying to be politcially correct, but, even if he puts cornrows in there, I don’t think he should represent himself in that way. The most important thing he needs to do is just try and be presentable. He may need a life coach.” Yo! Mikey! You used to torture and kill dogs in a dog-fighting operation. You went to jail for torturing and killing dogs. Don’t talk to us about life coaches.

  • Unconvicted killer and convicted armed robber O.J. Simpson said this while sweet-talking four members of the Nevada Parole Board into granting him his freedom after almost nine years behind bars: “I basically spent a conflict-free life,” and “No one ever accused me of pulling a weapon on them.” Yo! Juice! You beat your ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson so severely one night that she was taken to hospital, you hacked her and friend Ron Goldman to death, you robbed people at gunpoint. Don’t talk to us about non-conflict and deadly weapons.

Frankly, while wooing the Nevada parole commissioners, I’m surprised the dreadful Simpson didn’t tell them that he absolutely had to get out of jail to resume his bogus search “for the real killers” of his ex-wife and friend. No doubt he’ll resume his search on the first tee of some swanky golf course in Florida. What a disingenuous, deplorable cad.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.


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The Travelling Testosterone Show: Why won’t the media mention Floyd Mayweather’s history of hitting women?

Is it just me, or does anyone else find the fawning over two of the most vulgar men in sports offensive, with gusts up to repugnant?

I mean, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor have taken their vaudeville act—with its faux fury, in-your-face swagger and gratuitous F-bombing—from Los Angeles to the Republic of Tranna and the rabble, forever primed and prepared to be flim-flammed by any carnival barker with a bottle of snake oil and a bearded lady, adopts a mob mentality and the mainstream media plays along by looking the other way.

I have no issue with fight fans and their blood lust. It’s that whole Christians-vs.-Lions thing. People are easily duped (for evidence, see: Trump, Donald).

Floyd Mayweather, left, and Conor McGregor.

The media, on the other hand…shame, shame.

Steve Simmons of Postmedia, for example, described the preening, posturing and profanity at the Toronto stop of the Mayweather-McGregor Travelling Testosterone Show as “fun, fascinating, funny.” And “amusing.”

I suppose the circus act would be giggle-worthy if you’re not a woman. Especially a woman who has been on the receiving end of Mayweather’s bare knuckles. That’s right, the undefeated and champion fist-fighter is a man who beats up women. In front of children. His own children. He has been charged with domestic violence on numerous occasions. He has been placed under house arrest for beating women. He has spent 60 days behind bars for beating the mother of his children. Other times, he has “negotiated” his way out of room and board at government expense.

This is what mainstream media has chosen to ignore now that the blah-blah-blah engine for the Mayweather-McGregor boxing match is at full throttle. And these, keep in mind, would be the same people who roasted National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell like a pig on a spit for botching disciplinary action in the Ray Rice-whack-a-woman case.

All that righteousness after Rice punched out his soon-to-be bride and dragged her limp body off an elevator, where is it today?

We have a serial woman-abuser peacocking himself on stage to promote a boxing match that will earn him in excess of $100 million, and it’s all nyuk-nyuks and knee-slapping. Nary a discouraging word from scribes and talking heads, except perhaps a whisper or two about Mayweather’s difficulties with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Apparently, he can give a woman the back of his hand, but the IRS is a different head of lettuce. The taxman fights back.

At any rate, I won’t presume to tell people how to spend their money. If someone chooses to shell out the pay-per-view sticker price of $99.95 to watch a wife-beater and a foul-mouthed Irishman scramble each other’s brains on Aug. 26, go for it. Same for those who spend anywhere from $500 to $10,000 to be on site at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Their choice.

Conor McGregor’s Fuck You suit.

The media has a choice as well, though. The very people who used Ray Rice and Roger Goodell as pinatas can stop giving Mayweather a free pass and call him on his history of domestic violence.

But, hey, why go to the dark side when McGregor is filling notebooks and air time with all that colorful Dublin blarney, right?

It’s quite clear that the wee Irishman has captivated the masses and news scavengers, and it doesn’t matter that he is the crudest man in the fight game (he will relinquish that crown the moment former heavyweight champion Tyson Fury returns from a spell in drydock while sorting out personal issues). McGregor can’t put two sentences together without dropping an F-bomb or calling someone a bitch, and he even allows his clothes do his talking.

In the first gum-flapper on the Travelling Testosterone Show, in L.A., the mixed martial arts scrapper was snappily decked out in a dark blue, pinstripe suit that drew the attention of a female reporter who asked, “Can you please tell me about the suit?”

It’s nice, isn’t it?” replied McGregor, running a finger along the left sleeve. “It says ‘Fuck Off’ on the pinstripes. That’s a cracker!”

I must confess that I giggled at that, in part because it’s clear that McGregor is a showman of the Gorgeous George ilk, albeit much more profane. He knows he’s pulling one over on the rabble.

There’s nothing funny about Floyd Mayweather Jr., though. Support him and your money goes to a man who beats women.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling mostly about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she’s old and probably should think about getting a life.

 


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About Kevin Cheveldayoff’s playoff guarantee for the Winnipeg Jets…Festus Haggen running the Vancouver Canucks…Genie Bouchard’s hissy fit…the heavyweight boxing alphabet…and those darned kids are playing on Steve Simmons’ lawn again

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Kevin Cheveldayoff

Interesting exchange between John Shannon of Sportsnet and Kevin Cheveldayoff before the ping pong balls went bouncy-bouncy at the National Hockey League draft lottery on Saturday in the Republic of Tranna.

Shannon: “I mean this sincerely, I don’t wanna see you (here) next year.”

Chevy: “I’m not coming back.”

I suppose we can read that light-hearted bit of good, ol’ boys banter one of two ways:

1) Chevy, after half a dozen years of generally (mis)managing the Winnipeg Jets, is telling the faithful that there shall be meaningful games played at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie next spring. That’s right, playoffs. You have his guarantee. No ifs, buts or maybes. It’s iron-clad.

Or…

2) Should the Jets fail to qualify for the 2018 Stanley Cup tournament, Chevy is telling Jets Nation that he no longer will be generally (mis)managing the Jets. They’ll kick him to the curb.

Which of the two is it? Well, I don’t think Puck Pontiff Mark Chipman is inclined to kick Chevy anywhere, although a good, swift boot to the seat of his britches might serve a useful purpose. So, he’s guaranteeing us that the Jets will not be a lottery team next year.

Trouble is, nobody will hold him to it.

Yo! Kevin Cheveldayoff! This is your weekly reminder about how to build a playoff team. If you’ve been paying attention to the Edmonton McDavids’ postseason run, you’ll know they’ve gotten game-winning goals from Zack Kassian (two), David Desharnais, Adam Larsson, Patrick Maroon and Anton Slepyshev. All but Slepyshev were acquired in trades, Chevy. Oh, and that goalie who stole Game 2 for the McDavids in their skirmish with the Disney Ducks? That’s right. Cam Talbot was acquired in a trade, as well. But, hey, you just keep drafting and doing nothing else, Chevy.

Why do I keep reading and hearing that it will be an upset if the McDavids knock off the Ducks? Edmonton was a mere two points in arrears of Anaheim at the close of regular-season business, they racked up the same number of Ws (regulation/overtime), and their goal differential was 12 better. So how would that qualify as an upset?

Festus Haggen and Trevor Linden: Separated at birth?

That hot mess that is the Vancouver Canucks doesn’t look any prettier after they dropped three spots, to No. 5, in the draft lottery, but it won’t prevent Trevor Linden from peddling his flock a snootful of hooey. “We could get a better player at five than the top two, and that’s what we’re focused on,” the Canucks chief cook and bottle washer said. “We’re thinking about the entire draft. We’ll have six picks in the top 120 and we’re going to add to our group of prospects. That’s the message to our fans.” Which is like trying to sell mosquitoes to Winnipeg.

Yo! Trevor Linden! It’s one thing to look like you’re in the fourth month of a hunger strike, but what’s with those scruffy chin whiskers? If someone were to stick a tattered, old cowboy hat on you, we’d be looking at Festus Haggen from Gunsmoke.

Would I be out of line if I suggest someone other than Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player in the world? I mean, I don’t see anyone better than Erik Karlsson these days, and the Ottawa Senators captain is playing on a foot with two hairline fractures.

I see our girl Genie Bouchard had herself quite the hissy fit when the Sharapova Shriek returned to the Women’s Tennis Association tour this week after 15 months of shriek freedom. Maria Sharapova, of course, had been in exile for using the banned substance meldonium, and the return of Her Royal Blondness as a wild-card entry in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix at Stuttgart, Germany, inspired Genie to label the former world No. 1 a “cheater and…I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again.” Geez, who knew Genie Bouchard was still on the circuit?

Maria Sharapova

Yo! Genie and all you other ladies (hello, Caroline Wozniacki) who would have Sharapova grovel! Listen up. Serena Williams is away having babies. The Sharapova Shriek had been silenced. You have no star power without them. Zero. Zilch. Nada. So give your heads a shake. Of course event organizers want the tall Russkie in the main draw. That’s why she was offered wild-card entries at Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. She sells. It’s a no-brainer. Will she receive a free pass into the French Open at Roland Garros? We’ll know mid-May. In the meantime, the WTA needs her as much as she needs it.

Once upon a time, a heavyweight title bout was the biggest sports story of the day. Heavyweight champion of the world was the most exalted position in all of jockdom. Today? Dispatches on the title tiff between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko on Saturday night at Wembley Stadium in London didn’t even make it on the front page of the Sportsnet website (I guess they couldn’t work a Toronto Maple Leafs angle into the story) and it made the bottom of the page on TSN’s site. For the record, Joshua (19-0, 19 knockouts) stopped Klitschko in the 11th round and he now owns two of prize fighting’s alphabet belts—the IBF and WBA. Deontay Wilder is the WBC champeen and Joseph Parker holds the WBO title. No word on the three champions going dukes up to sort out boxing’s alphabet, but if they do fight I’m sure Sportsnet won’t care.

Grandpa Steve Simmons is in the Bow Wow Bungalow again.

Oh, dear me, those pesky kids are playing in Grandpa Steve Simmons’ front yard again. The Postmedia columnist tweets: “Shouldn’t playoffs be enough to get people excited? Why this need for blaring noise and screaming half hour before Raptors game?” Shhhhhh. You kids keep it down out there! Grandpa Stevie has to get in his nap before tipoff.

Just wondering: Is there a Canadian Football League rule that Chris Jones hasn’t broken since taking over Gang Green. The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ Mr. Everything has been levied fines totaling $116,500, which could buy him a backup quarterback, a rookie O-lineman and a fine to be levied later.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

 

 


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About Jim Kernaghan…the Grim Reaper…charismatic jocks…and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Wall of Honor

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

Jim Kernaghan

Jim Kernaghan

The trouble with aging isn’t in the living, it’s in the dying.

Not in our dying, understand, but in the passing of so many of our contemporaries, the people we grew up with, worked with, learned with, played with, laughed with, cried with. The people we watched and admired. The people who inspired and delighted.

No one here gets out alive. We know that (although Keith Richards appears to be pushing the envelop). But the reminders come too rapidly once we have arrived at a certain vintage.

On Friday, Muhammad Ali leaves us. Two days later, Jim Kernaghan is gone.

Those who knew him best might suggest that it’s just like Kernaghan to check out so soon after the former heavyweight boxing champion died. That would be ‘Kerny’. Chasing the story. Still. Always.

Kernaghan, one of the flowers of Canadian jock journalism during a 42-year print run that stretched from 1964 to 2006, was someone to be admired and respected as a person and writer. He spent a considerable amount of time chronicling the fascinating deeds and derring-do of Ali, initially for the Toronto Star then the London Free Press. He was on site to deliver daily dispatches to readers for more than two dozen of the champ’s 61 fist fights, including the night he bade farewell in a cringe-inducing tiff with Trevor Berbick.

That was in Nassau, Bahamas, early in December 1981. I remember spending time with Kerhaghan in a Paradise Island bar, talking Ali, trying to soak up his knowledge and listening to tinny Christmas carols being played by a steel drums band.

I never thought I’d ever be sitting in a bar in the Bahamas, a couple of weeks before Christmas, listening to Jingle Bells and Silent Night being played on steel drums,” I said to him. “It’s real strange and different.”

You can’t have a big fight without strange and different,” he said. “Especially if Ali and his people are involved. They’re always strange and different.”

I never saw much of Kernaghan after the Ali-Berbick bout, because I soon was off on other adventures that landed me at the Calgary Sun and Winnipeg Sun. But I never forgot his kindness and I never stopped reading him. He was terrific.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

I know Kernaghan was there. I know legendary Toronto Star columnist Milt Dunnell was there. And I know I was there. If there were other Canadian jock journalists at the final Ali fist fight in Nassau, I don’t recall. Two of our unholy trinity are dead. As are five of the boxers on the Drama in Bahama card: Ali, Berbick, Greg Page, Scott Ledoux and Jeff Sims. Makes me wonder why the Grim Reaper has spared me.

Just wondering: Would there be a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or an Ahmad Rashad if Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. hadn’t become Muhammad Ali in 1964? Somehow I doubt it. There’d most likely still be a Lew Alcindor and a Bobby Moore.

Ali’s passing put me in ponder of the charismatic jocks and/or sportsmen I was fortunate enough to meet and write about during my 30 years in mainstream media. They are:

  1. Muhammad Ali: One of a kind.
  2. Pinball Clemons: A pure joy to be around.
  3. John Ferguson: The former Winnipeg Jets general manager was a keg of dynamite, but he had a compelling, powerful personality. Everyone knew when Fergy was in the room.
  4. Cal Murphy: Yes, the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach and GM was curmudgeonly and oft-cranky, but he was also a sackful of howls. Oh, how he would make us laugh. And he filled notebooks.
  5. Vic Peters: The curling legend had an every-man air that was very inviting and appealing.
  6. Chris Walby: The big man on the Bombers’ O-line seemed ever-present. Even when he wasn’t in the room, he was in the room. If you catch my drift.
  7. Pierre Lamarche: Most of you probably don’t recognize the name, but Pierre is a long-time big shot in Canadian tennis. I covered him at the Canadian National Tennis Tournament in the early to mid-1970s, when the event was staged at the Winnipeg Canoe Club. He was a big, happy-go-lucky French-Canadian who delivered great quotes and brightened your day.
  8. I’d say Bobby Hull, but I can’t get past the domestic violence stuff.
Indian Jack Jacobs

Indian Jack Jacobs

So, the debate is on: Which names belong on the Wall of Honor at Football Follies Field in Fort Garry? And in what order? Well, much respect to Chris Walby, one of my top-five fave Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but no, he ought not be the starting point when the Canadian Football League club begins to salute its legendary workers. You begin with Indian Jack Jacobs and the Galloping Ghost, Fritz Hanson. I never saw either of them play, but I know what they did, and anytime you need to build a new stadium basically because of one man (see: Jacobs, Jack) he has to be first in the roll call. Next up would be Bud Tinsley, then Ken Ploen, Leo Lewis, Herb Gray, Gerry James, Frank Rigney and Walby. That’s your starting nine. Old friend Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun has other ideas, but it’s apparent that he’s unaware they played football in River City prior to the Bud Grant era.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

 


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Muhammad Ali: Kicking the ‘shit’ out of Sonny Liston and getting a kick out of life

I don’t pretend to have known Muhammad Ali, even though I am like many folks of my vintage who like to think we knew him.

Ali arrived in my consciousness early in the 1960s, when he began shooting off at the mouth (a la flamboyant grappler Gorgeous George) and wrested the world heavyweight boxing championship from the dreaded, mob-linked thug Sonny Liston. He was called Cassius Clay then, and I recall listening to the first of his two fights with Liston on the radio.

The grownup men had gathered in our kitchen, the non-interested women sat in the living room.

“Come on, Clay!” I yelped with the enthusiasm of any 13-year-old sprig. “Kick the shit out of him!”

This was the one and only time in my youth that I used profanity in the presence of grownups and, although there was mild tittering at the kitchen table, I was scolded, yet spared the harrowing punishment of my mother shoving a bar of soap in my mouth and giving it a good scrubbing. Perhaps it helped that Clay did, in fact, kick the “shit” out of Liston.

Whatever, little could I have imagined that, not quite 18 years after that Feb. 25, 1964, incident I would meet the great man.

***

ali6It was early December, 1981, and I stood within heckling distance of Greg Page, a growing concern among the world’s preeminent heavyweight fist-fighters.

Page was moving briskly to and fro in a makeshift ring, bobbing and weaving and flicking left jabs and right crosses into the thick air of anticipation that accompanied all big bouts back when boxing still was big. In a few days, the product of Louisville, Ky., would be throwing down against Scott Ledoux, a Minnesota miner’s son and a plodding palooka best known for his mental toughness and inadvertently knocking the toupee from the head of bombastic broadcaster Howard Cosell. This was Page’s final prep as part of the undercard to the Drama in Bahama and its main event, Muhammad Ali vs. Trevor Berbick.

As I watched Page punch at shadows while all manner of misfits consorted with seedy, nefarious-looking leeches on the periphery, I felt a presence to my left flank. It was heavy. Imposing. I turned, ever so slightly. The man standing beside me was dressed in black. Shoes. Trousers. Untucked shirt hanging over a substantial girth. All black. I looked up. Way up.

Muhammad Ali was listed at 6-feet-3 and he would weigh in at 236 and change for his bout with Berbick, but he seemed so much taller. His crop of short, curly hair surely seemed at least seven feet above the soles of his shoes.

“Hi Muhammad,” I said. “How’s it going today?”

“The kid,” he said, nodding in Page’s direction, “thinks he’s as pretty as me. But he ain’t. Ain’t nobody as pretty as me.”

When I met Ali during the run-up to his Dec. 11, 1981, bout with Berbick, he wasn’t pretty anymore. His belly was layered with flab and he shuffled along. Parkinson’s syndrome had begun its assault, although we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought he was punch drunk, which is why no athletic commission in the United States was willing to grant him a license to fight again. He was forced to take his act to Nassau, Bahamas, where he and Berbick pitched duel on a parched patch of earth known as the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre.

The entire production was patchwork. The ring was set up on a pasture disguised as a sandlot baseball infield, at second base. Nobody thought to bring an official timer, so a stopwatch was used. Nobody thought to bring a ringside bell, so a cowbell was located. There were only two sets of gloves for a dozen fighters. All but Ali, Berbick and Thomas Hearns were required to squeeze together in one tiny, cramped changing room, like so many cattle in a pen.

ali1Only a month shy of his 40th birthday, by the time Berbick was done boxing his ears, Ali looked to be on the far side of his 60th birthday. It was to be the last of his 61 professional fist-fights, the final two of them humbling losses at the fists of Larry Holmes and Berbick.

All considered, it was an inglorious way for the most glorious of gladiators to bid farewell to a sport that for the best part of two decades had ridden the coattails of his boxing skills, charm, charisma and social awareness.

Still, I often cite covering that event for the Toronto Sun as the signature assignment of my 30 years in jock journalism.

In the few hours since his death on Friday, there has been an outpouring of admiration and affection for Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (his “slave name,” as he called it). Many have said he was larger than life, but we know that isn’t so. No one is larger than life. But Ali’s life was larger than most. From the moment he whupped Liston, his life was large.

His joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name and refusing induction into the U.S. military amplified it.

It has also been submitted that Ali was the first athlete whose impact transcended sports. Again, no. Jack Roosevelt Robinson beat him to that punch when, in 1947, he became the first black man to perform in a Major League Baseball game. The difference was that Robinson was advised to zip his lips. To play the part of the humble worker. Ali, on the other hand, never shut up.

Much of what the three-time heavyweight champion had to say was silly, spoofish stuff. He would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He’d recite hokey poems predicting the outcome of his fights, and the round in which his foe would fall. That part of his shtick entertained and amused the masses. He was a man-child, walking through life with a wink and a nod.

Yet for every chuckle there was a harsh criticism. And flat-out hatred.

ali4Many, like myself, saw him as a hero for saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and refusing to be shipped off to a senseless battle on the other side of the world. But his anti-Vietnam War stance rankled and raised the ire of millions of Americans. Even the aforementioned Jackie Robinson turned on him.

Ali didn’t care, though. He was willing to forfeit his lucrative boxing career and, indeed, go to jail, but he was not willing to compromise his beliefs and go to Vietnam.

Each of us is a song of life, and I’ll always remember Muhammad Ali as a song of joy and freedom.

“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he once told the braying jackals who would condemn him. “I’m free to be what I want.”

Words to live by.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.