THE GREATEST

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A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the ring are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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(The famous cover from Esquire.)

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

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Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with thefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

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Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.

 

But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.

 

In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.

 

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.

 

 

I SEE BY THE PAPERS……

E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

As regular readers know by now, I remain a big fan of newspapers, despite their ever-diminishing state. Why, just this weekend, I found all sorts of goodies distributed among their varied pages. The treasures are still there. You just have to look a bit harder and be a bit more patient these days. This being both the end of B.C. Day and the end of the full moons, I thought I would share a few. rnewspapersok1. I hadn’t quite realized before that the state most affected by climate change is not media-saturated, rain-starved California, but, of course, Alaska. So far, this summer, wildfires have burned through more than 20,000 square kilometres of Alaskan forestry, a swath larger than all of Connecticut. Other bad stuff, too. An excellent story from Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, written by the Washington Post’s environment reporter, Chris Mooney. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/07/26/alaskas-terrifying-wildfire-season-and-what-it-says-about-climate-change/ 2. The legendary Mark Starowicz, former editor of the McGill Daily and part of so many great things at CBC (As It Happens, Sunday Morning, The Journal, Canada: A People’s History) reflects on the Mother Corp’s decision to kill its in-house documentary unit: “There’s a sadness that comes form the realization that the institution has been totally starved. Starved. The price is extraordinary in what’s not being produced.” 3. In his newly-published autobiography, NDP leader Tom Mulcair says it took him a while to learn that “not every shot has to be a hardball to the head.” 4. North Korea has hopes of becoming an international surfing destination. 5. It’s possible to write about Nantucket without a rhyming couplet in sight. 6. Photography doesn’t get any better or more imaginative than this. Amazing series of photos by the Globe and Mail’s John Lehmann, featuring artists from B.C. Ballet in locations and poses you won’t believe. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/in-photos-bc-day/article25806490/ 7. The per-night price of a room at the storied Hotel Vancouver this weekend was $849. 280715-MATT-WEB_3389347b 8. Lord Sewel’s favourite bra is orange. 9. Stephen Harper once wondered out loud: “Why does nothing happen around here unless I say ‘fuck’?” 10. In the week before Sunday’s election call, the Conservative government announced nearly $4 billion worth of government projects across the country. 11. PostMedia columnist Stephen Maher reminded us that when Stephen Harper was head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, he challenged election spending limits imposed on so-called third parties all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, that same Steve guy is justifying his early election call to give his party the chance to drown the country in their own ads, over fears of alleged big bucks being spent by those once-lauded third parties that might sway voters, too. images-2 copy 4Only these third parties are “big unions and corporations…staffed by former Liberal and NDP operations,” the Conservative Party warned its members last week. 12. It has taken Russell Brown less than three years to rise from law school professor to a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada. Apparently it didn’t hurt to have blogged in 2008 that he hopes Stephen Harper wins a majority, and that the Liberals “just fade away” by electing a leader who is “unspeakably awful”. 13. The word “terrorism” is now being used openly by Israeli authorities, including Benjamin Netanyahu, to describe recent attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on unarmed Palestinians. 14. The Bay Area (San Francisco et al) has two dozen transit agencies, each with its own system, funding sources and fare structure. And we complain about TransLink…. 15. Surrey’s Adam Lowen is close to a first in baseball history: going from pitcher to hitter and back to a pitcher, all in the major leagues. Story here: http://www.theprovince.com/sports/Ewen+league+pitcher+Check+Outfielder+Check+Pitcher+again+Could+happen/11261040/story.html 16. On Aug. 1, 1959, Premier W.A.C. Bennett fired a flaming arrow at a raft piled high with voided government bonds from a distance of five feet. He missed. Luckily, a well-prepared Mountie, hidden at the back of the raft, managed to light the paper bonfire, and lo, one of the province’s most outlandish political stunts, dubbed by Paul St. Pierre “the biggest thing” since the cremation of Sam McGee, became part of B.C. lore. (Thanks to John Mackie.) 17. Premier Christy Clark orders a crackdown on gun violence in B.C. That should be easy….

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

18. Get this. According to an independent review: When a large, toxic fuel spill began fouling English Bay last April, Canadian Coast Guard staff were unsure of their roles. What????? Then, when Port of Vancouver said they couldn’t see the spill and were taking water samples, the private sector response team thought the Port meant they were “standing down”, passed that on to the Coast Guard, who then de-escalated their alert. Further delay resulted from cellphone and computer problems. Oh yes, and once they finally did figure out what to do, there were not enough Coast Guard staff around, since a bunch of them had been busy doing something else in “Granville Channel”, wherever that is. As a result of this Comedy of Errors, which would have done Shakespeare proud, review author John Butler concluded: “The response was delayed by one hour and 49 minutes due to confusion of roles and responsibilities, miscommunications and technology issues.” This is what federal cabinet minister James Moore at the time called a “world class” response. 19. Sally Forth continues to be unfunny, and Rex Morgan, alas, unreadable. 20. Baseball in Toronto is fun again. Oh, and i’m still working my way through the Sunday New York Times. j-seward-johnsons-statue-of-newspaper-reader-at-princeton-uni-garden

TOP TEN LIST OF BC GOVERNMENT CLANGERS

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Whew, good old Mickle the Grouse is back.

After my year-end Top Ten list detailing good deeds by the Christy Clark government, it’s time for the much meatier list of its worrisome doings since the Liberals’ triumphant re-election. (Speaking of which, where is the premier, anyway?) In fact, there seems to be such ample material I’m going to spread it out over several Mickleblogs. You know, the way Dickens did with Great Expectorations, or whatever it was called. Be still thy beating heart, o reader.

Here’s the first installment, with items in no particular order.

1. One otherwise peaceful Sunday during the campaign, a guy named “Mike” called in to CKNW. “Mike” wanted station listeners to know: “The NDP is running a candidate in Richmond by the name of Frank Huang, who can’t really communicate in English.” Nice guy, that “Mike”. Of course, the caller wasn’t “Mike”, at all. It was, of all people, Dr. Kenneth Fung, an associate professor with UBC’s School of Population and Public Health.

When his subterfuge was uncovered, the worthy Dr. Fung was by no means apologetic. Rather, he continued his bizarre onslaught against the NDP candidate, accusing the Chinese immigrant of being a member of the Chinese Communist Party, which has had virtually nothing to do with any kind of communism since Mao died in 1976. He further hinted that Huang might be a spy. This time, however, Dr. Fung at least used his real name for his canditorial red-baiting. Progress of a sort, I guess.

None of these shenanigans seemed to bother the Liberals’ Advanced Education Minister, Amrik Virk, however. The rookie minister thought so highly of “Mike”, er Dr. Fung, that he appointed him late last year to UBC’s Board of Governors. Of all the possible appointees in all the land, he had to settle on this one.

I can see it now. Maybe Dr. Fung, with his talent for impersonation, could pretend to be UBC president Stephen Toope at a BOG meeting. “Hi, I’m Steve.” Or he could complain that too many students on campus can’t really communicate in English. In the meantime, let’s hope Dr. Fung doesn’t find out that students from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) have been attending UBC. Real communists! Spies, for sure.

By the way, if you’re wondering how Dr. Fung came to the minister’s attention….According to an email he sent to the National Post, Dr. Fung applied for the Board of Governors vacancy, himself. Oh, what a lovely appointment.

2. Among the worst policy decisions made by the Clark government continued its non-merry way, as the months went by. I’m referring to the coming referendum on funding public transit in the Lower Mainland. In fact, the cock-eyed pledge by the Premier got even worse, when Clark pulled the rug right out from under her new, hard-working Transportation Minister Todd Stone, who had taken his responsibility for the ill-advised vote seriously. After Stone revealed his preference for a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, adding that he would campaign strongly in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, the Premier gave the Globe’s Justine Hunter her own chilling view. The referendum would not be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, at all. Instead, voters will be offered a variety of options, with the government taking no position, Clark told the Globe, in a year-end interview.

“People will need to do their homework to make sure they get the answer that is right for them, but I’m not going to try to decide for people what their answer should be,” Clark said.  Wow. Now there’s a sure-fire formula for clarity. Guaranteed to convince the 85 per cent of voters who don’t use public transit to support more taxes to provide service for the 15 per cent who do.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the premier has meddled in critical public transit matters. In 2011, she blundered into a funding deal former Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom was trying to broker with Lower Mainland mayors, who wanted a small gas tax increase. Clark publicly frowned on the idea of motorists paying more. In this case, Lekstrom stared his leader down, and she quickly issued a statement “clarifying” her comments.

One can only hope a similar result evolves here. So far at least, Stone is sticking to his guns. “It is imperative to get this right, to win this referendum,” he insisted, after his boss’s remarks. Meanwhile, the premier might take her own advice to Lower Mainland voters and do a little “homework” herself on how referenda are won, plus the dire implications if this one is lost. She could start by asking the man she appointed to the transportation portfolio.

(Incidentally, being the cheeky kind of fellow I am, I can’t resist re-publicizing this observation by the then Mayor of Langley, Peter Fassbender, on an even earlier transit funding scheme by Lower Mainland mayors that was kiboshed by Premier Clark, without even talking to them. “I’m never surprised at things the Premier says. I think she makes decisions in isolation,” the perturbed mayor told reporters at the time.  Fassbender is now the province’s Education Minister.)

TO BE CONTINUED….