Undici in partnership with Puma Eyewear presents #NoCage, a collection of 12 stories of past and contemporary athletes that have changed the history of sports, overcoming the barriers and obstacles in their path thanks to determination and willpower.
It’s not true that you don’t sweat. You are not a god. Not for anyone. Not even for yourself. Not yet. You are becoming one. On bare black skin, sweat tastes like salt, it crystallizes, shimmering under the lights. The night is all around, it is four in the morning, but the jungle does not sleep. No one sleeps. Nowhere. Their eyes are all here. The salt slips down the head to the eyebrows, onto the shoulders, the unscarred chest, then onto arms of black lava, granite legs and down to the toenails, where black becomes onyx. It’s the same for the other man, George, a human hero with the strongest fists of them all, stronger than Rocky Marciano, or Joe Louis, stronger that the last two to have brought you to your knees after your return, after the disqualification. He massacred Frazier and flattened Norton, he smashed your jaw. The secret to derailing the laws of man is to tell the salt that it is dew. It will always be sweat, but as dew, it turns into hope, into the future. It is bountiful. It is opportunity. It comes back every morning, as the day begins, every day, forever. This way, your words, who you are, your lips, your gaze, the shadow that you leave after each side gap, become the stuff of legends. Only first, you have to sweat, as no one has ever sweated before. You have to pay, pay for everything, every syllable, every ounce of bravado, every deceitful thought, as you play at the fair of words, knowing that fools vent everything, demanding marvels to sell as junk. You will sweat each “no”, and it will become dew.
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. First round. Ali looks for him, moves in, takes the center of the ring and attacks. He is more contemplative than he was in the past. He does not dance. He does not sting. He beats. He beats hard. It seems that he really wants to get it over and done with quickly, even attempting to sink his left hook a couple of times. Foreman does not expect all of this. Muhammad Ali does not flee. He almost forgets his grace. He is an infuriated animal that evokes his ancestors, exhuming and bringing back all of the Cassius Clay’s of this world. There is something lunatic or deranged about him. What Foreman does not know is that this is not a fight in the jungle, it is not a tremor or a rumbling noise. It is a revelation, an epiphany, a metempsychosis, an Orphic ritual, as Euripides states: «Who knows if life be but the state of death, And death be counted life in realms below?». This is the threshold that Ali must pass and he needs all of Foreman’s rage. He dogs him because he wants to drive him out of his mind, he wants him to be mean, as mean as George has never been. Foreman is a good black man. His appearance is deceptive, that frightening body, the immense force that demonizes that black heart, so black, but it is an innocent black heart. «They teach us to love white and to hate black. The color black signifies being excluded, ostracized. Black is bad. Just think of blackmail.» They made angel cake white and devil's food cake the color of dark chocolate. The ugly duckling is black. And then there is black magic… What I mean is that black is beautiful. In business, black is better than red. Think of blackberry juice: the blacker the blackberry, the sweeter the juice. The richest, most fertile soil is black. Black is not bad».
Muhammad Ali during the press conference before the fight with George Foreman in Kinshasa (Str/Afp/Getty Images)
George is good, as good as the blacks who have found a place in the house of whites. George’s space is the ring. Where four ropes make him feel invincible. Four ropes where you do not feel fear. Four ropes for an applause. Four ropes and you are a champion. Four ropes that create a border. And that is what they wanted from you, from what you were, from the Cassius Clay that gave America a gold medal. The Rome Olympics, 1960, a light heavyweight and an 18 year old who fights a low guard. Everything is already there, the surprise, the pride, the story to tell, Foreman would only be your copy. What changes? Mexico City, instead of Rome. But George is not you. George wants to stay in this ring forever. He doesn’t even imagine an “after”. God is in his corner. And this is his church. Not yours. In your church there are no ropes. There is no square. There is no boundary. Your ring is where your words and your eyes are. For America, the Black man is invisible. He has no face. He does not exist. But invisibility is the strength of «the greatest». Fragility becomes your dance. You are a voice. A voice that never stops talking. A voice that one cannot catch. A voice that challenges you. It tells you: you do not see me, but I exist. Not only do I exist. I am the strongest, the best. I am the most beautiful. «The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before I dance under those lights». Your church is your self.
Cassius Clay against Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in 1960 Olympic Games in Rome
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. Second round. Now let him vent. You see the anger. Here they shout Ali, bomaye, but it is he who must find the will to do it, to think. It isn’t a call for Ali to kill him, but the opposite. Let George try. Try to let it out. Try to be really bad. Ali chooses the angle of sacrifice. He places himself. Raises his guard. Holds it closed and waits. He waits for the punches: liver, glove, head, arm, liver, spleen, head, cheek, glove, guard, arm, again, again, again. Until Foreman’s strength starts to fade. Now Ali is the blackest black. You are Emmett Till. Do you remember that story? You were 13 years old. You did not talk to anyone, only to ghosts. One in particular, a boy just a little older than you, who was killed on the 28th of August, 1955 in Money, Mississippi. His mangled face, after hours and hours of kicks and punches, was yet another one on the ground against so many. He had looked up at a white woman. They dug out his eye and then shot him in the face, only to throw that bag of meat into the Tallahatchie River. As ballast, they tied the shovel of a cotton gin used to work the cotton to his neck with barbed wire. He remained in the river for three days. All blacks remember that funeral, with the coffin open, so that they could see. The whites, the murderers, were acquitted. Lack of evidence. Not guilty. It was from that day on that the name Cassius Clay sounded bad to you. Who are you? Who is Cassius Marcello Clay? It is the name of a slave driver. And that was when the dialogue with your demon began. And the voice. You are the megaphone. It talks, you talk. It says. You do. Like when you threw your gold medal from Rome into the Ohio River, somewhere near Louisville, Kentucky. Sinking it to the bottom, like the Money boy's body. «Listen, Emmett, hear my promise: to you, the one that no longer has a face, I give you mine. You will go forth into the world with my eyes and my mouth, under the protection of my fists».
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. Third round. Norman Mailer tells us: «When there are only a few seconds left to go, Foreman pulls the strongest punch of the match, a left hook with the power of a train that cuts through the night with its passage. But it is just a little too slow. Ali watches it go past, languidly, unhurried, like Archie Moore watching a hook miss his chin by a centimeter. Without the impact to stabilize him, Foreman falls off balance, to the point that Ali could throw him through the ropes. – No – he says through his mouthpiece – You have no aim». Fight back, George, fight. You bear the name of a white man, George Edward Foreman. You like being white. Like when they call Marciano black. But this is Ali and he knows how to roll with the punches. Do not say this aloud, because this is a real secret. You cannot be the greatest if you do not know how to roll with the punches. Learn to resist. It's not that it hurts. Feel the pain, control it, exceed it, forget it, lean on the ropes, swinging, to absorb the impact, but do not dodge, do not slip, do not become invisible, you can only let everything be done and pay the price. «He who is not courageous enough to take responsibility will not accomplish anything in life». Can’t you do it George? Is that it? «They told me that you could hit like Joe Louis». They said that you hit harder. «They told me that you know to punch, George!». Norton exaggerated: «The night that I confronted him was monstrous: for five minutes it was a personification of the Red Army attack». You punch, but you do not get hurt. You made a yo-yo of Frazier? He should have been unwell that night. You are not bad enough. Not strong enough. No, George, «you cannot throw me down». It doesn’t matter that all of this is not new. Ali is not a wild bull. He is not the black La Motta. Ali is everything.
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. Fourth round. I bind you, hook you, I only have to lean on you, on your body. Passive resistance. There was another jungle and it felt like hell. Some say that America lost its innocence there. No, there America only discovered fear. Its innocence had already been buried on the Mason&Dixon line, in the clashes between the blues and the grays, in Kentucky and Tennessee, in the Shenandoah Valley and at Gettysburg, in the fires, and in the mud of Sherman's march. Or maybe America was never innocent, and it was enough to listen to the songs of the cotton fields. No war is your war. And neither is Vietnam. «My conscience does not allow me to go and shoot my brother, or some other person with darker skin, or poor, hungry people in the mud, for the great and powerful America. Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, I was never attacked with dogs, they never deprived me of my nationality, raped and killed my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot those poor people? Then take me to jail. You are my enemy, my enemy is the white man, not the Vietcong, the Chinese or the Japanese. You are my opponents if I want freedom, you are my opponents if I want justice. You are my opponents if I want equality. You will never support me in America because of my religious beliefs. And you want me to go somewhere and fight, even though you will never defend me here at home? ». This is why he cannot dance and cannot sting now. Four years have passed since he was punished: his title taken away, along with his license to fight. Three and a half years on hold. What do you do when you come back? You are no longer the same. The enemy sees you, he catches you, he hits you. You are no longer invisible. When you lose your speed, and have to deal with the slowness, you can only change the way you fight. But you do not give up, you do not hang your head, you do not flee. You tire your enemy out. Like Mandela in his prison.
No Viet Cong called me nigger
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. Fifth round. Now the punches are weaker. You know what you call this, George? Rope-a-dope. It’s the advice of a sports photographer, George Kalinsky, George like you. «Why don’t you try something like that? A kind of drug on the ropes, letting Foreman slip away but, like the photo, make him hit nothing but air». This is the art of surviving in defense. Let the others exhaust themselves. It is like the book of Job. «There was a man from the land of Uz whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil». Job is guilty of nothing, yet he suffers. Job is one of God’s cynical bets. Satan says that this man, blessed by the Bible and the Koran, is devoted only because he fears losing his wealth. God is sure his love is pure, but puts him to the test. Job loses his home, his family, his wife, his respect and his dignity, but he does not stop loving. He does not give up. He takes on misfortune and injustice. And when Job is touched by disgrace and his wife urges him to curse God and die, he refuses to go back on his word, and replies: «You speak like a fool. If we accept goodness from God, why should we not accept adversity?».
The truth is that God’s bet had no motive. It was a game, an end unto itself. What really matters is Job’s resistance. But do you know how it ends, George? Do you know what God's answer is? It is almost as if he boasts, or so it seems. «Have you ever been to the source of the sea, or hiked into the abyss? Have you ever come to the snow stores, or seen the hail tanks? Who gave the ibis its wisdom or the rooster its intelligence? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth or have you witnessed the birth of the deer? Who freed the wild ass and loosens the onager’s ties? The wing of the ostrich beats cheerfully, is it not the pen and feather of the stork? Perhaps the hawk launches into flight on your signal, or the eagle rises on your command?». All these good things are unraveled as nonsense, and then suddenly he hits a left hook. «Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ». And this is God’s answer. Dear Job, where were you when I created the universe? And above all, what do you want? What are you complaining about? Do you really think I am here worrying about a nobody like you? Here George, Ali learns the lesson of Job to be like God. You, meanwhile keep punching, and hit hard.
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. Sixth round. Angelo strokes your shoulder, pretending to quarrel with his glove to steal time from the gong. Breathe, Clay, breathe. It doesn’t matter if you have a white name. Like you, Angelo Dundee, the Italian of Philadelphia, changed its name, at least a part of the name. He was born Angelo Mirena, but thanks to a typo made on Ellis Island, he ended up as Merenda, a family from Roggiano Gravina, Cosenza, southerners like Salvatore Lazzara, the welterweight world champion of 1927. The same Salvatore Lazzara who called himself Joe Dundee so he could find peace in America. And so, Angelo became a Dundee. Because even Italians were invisible, they were beggars, they were hung from the gallows. Angelo defended you when you chose Islam, when you devoted your life to Malcolm X, when you talked too much, when you said no to Vietnam. He was waiting for you outside the prison to bring you back here, into this ring. Angelo is white without being white. He does not come up against your identity. He does not make you say that blacks go with blacks and whites go with whites, that there can be no contamination of races. Angelo is the man against whom you do not want to, and cannot, rebel. Angelo has counted all the punches you have taken. «People say that I speak slowly today. Well that is no surprise. I have taken 29,000 punches to the face. But I have also earned $57 million, and saved half of it. Truly powerful punches, of those I have only taken a few. Do you know how many black people are being killed today by gunshots or stab wounds without collecting a penny. I may talk slowly, but my head is fine».
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. Seventh round. The Foreman's arms are rags. Drum sticks that no longer beat out a rhythm, the cadence of a tired litany. His face is swollen. Ali’s hits were few, but precise, and George felt them. He was not ready. Too blinded by rage, anger, fury, fear. No one had taught him how to lose and now, for the first time, he had learnt that it can happen. Ali bomaye, bomaye Ali, Ali bomaye. Ali kill him. This heart of Africa does not recognize Foreman. He feels him to be an American. He does not feel him to be universal. Ali is all men. Ali is leaving his human part to be transfigured into a God. Ali is at the end of his ordeal. Ali feels that now time is moving fast. Ali is the whole and the whole is America. Ali is going to fulfill the prophecy of Ralph Ellison and, like him, the author of Invisible Man, the bible of black America, will soon be able to say: «When I find out who I am, I will be a free man». The fists of George are his pass. But he and George are always the same person. Boxing is an exchange of souls. In the end, the I is the other. «I am America. The part in which you do not recognize yourself. Get used to me. Black, self-confident, conceited; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, mine; get used to me». It could end here, but Foreman must know defeat.
The seventh round of the match between Ali and Foreman
Kinshasa. Rumble in the Jungle. Eighth round. It lasts only a few seconds. Ali comes back from the ropes. You see a fist hitting Foreman in the neck. He is clearly tired. He feels it. Ali pushes him towards the center of the ring. He dances. Part. One, two, three, four, five hits to the face. It’s hard to count. A quick burst, invisible, relentless. The last is a right hook into the middle of the face. Foreman sways and falls. Why does George not get up? What are you waiting for? Three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, then I let it go again. It's over. Like a nursery rhyme.
They say that Parkinson's was already there, beside him, in that autumn of '74 in the jungle. Maybe Ali knew. Twenty-two years later, it was clear to all. It is the 9th of June 1996. The sky over Atlanta is Coca-Cola dark. It no longer burns. These are the Olympics, the centennial edition. They should have taken place in Athens, but sponsors are more influential than history. The name of the last torchbearer is kept a secret. The public does not know which athlete will light the brazier. The penultimate is a girl with a sweet face and strong arms. It is Janet Evans, four gold medals in swimming between 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle. When you see a shadow pass the torch, as it lights up. It is he, but many struggle to recognize him. He is heavy, and moves with difficulty, like a butterfly dying in the night. But that night will last another twenty years. The left arm trembles, and the right does not seem to hold up the torch, only his look does not change. It is direct, distant and proud, so proud. It is the gaze of the greatest. There is a sacred, majestic silence, not even a sob or a sigh, you only see the tears of an entire stadium shimmer like a constellation of stars. Like sweat. Like salt. Like dew. Ali has made peace with America. America with itself. Not for forever. But for that night, yes. Only the gods can stop history, and at that point, it will be the end. This is the lesson of Job. And Cassius Marcelo Clay, who wanted to be Muhammad Ali, told it to the world, so he could become a legend. «Inside the ring or out, there is nothing wrong with falling. What is wrong is to stay on the ground».
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