Things That Make You Go Hmmm... The Greatest?

Grant Williams  |

I was just a kid during the golden age of heavyweight boxing.

I would lie in bed in the middle of the night listening to fights being held in faraway places between giants whose names were all too familiar to me. Ken Norton, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ernie Shavers, Leon Spinks, and, of course, the greatest of them all: Muhammad Ali. Before cable TV, all we had in the UK were radio commentaries, but as a young boy with a vivid imagination, I could picture every punch landing as the commentators described the violent dance that was unfolding in places I had never even heard of. Zaire and Manila meant nothing to me but conjured up images of palm trees and jungles, and I reveled in every stolen moment of every fight.

I was seven years old when Ali fought Foreman-in what was then Zaire but now goes by the far less evocative name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo-in the famous Rumble in the Jungle, and I was eight when Ali and Frazier met in the Thrilla in Manila a year later.

Back then, heavyweight boxing WAS Muhammad Ali. Foreman, Frazier, Norton, et al. were all benchmarked by how they fared against Ali. When they fought each other, it was always an event, but when Ali took his place in one corner of the ring, it became a spectacle.

In July 1979, having reclaimed the heavyweight title after a shock loss to the unfancied Spinks eight months earlier and in the process becoming the first man to win the world heavyweight title on three occasions, Ali announced his retirement.

As a young boxing fan, I was devastated that the greatest boxer of my (or arguably any) lifetime was hanging up his gloves and that I would never again listen to him fight (though history and hindsight have taught me that relief and delight were the appropriate emotional responses to the news). Yes, Ali was going out on his own terms as a legend, but for one young boy in England, the realization that I had listened to him dancing round the ring on the other side of the world for the last time was a hard thing to come to terms with. The beauty of listening to Ali's fights on the radio was that, in my mind's eye, he was forever Cassius Clay-young, lithe, and lightning-fast. The reality, of course, was that by 1979 he was a shadow of his imperious younger self.

Had I known then what I know now about human nature in general and the egos of athletes in particular, I would have known full well that I hadn't heard my last Muhammad Ali fight, but the circumstances under which I would witness his return were tragic in the extreme.

In early 1980, Ali announced that he was coming out of retirement to face the new, undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes.

Holmes was eight years younger than the 38-year-old Ali and was in his prime. He had taken the title by defeating Norton in June of 1978 and had been unbeaten ever since. Holmes was in great shape, and his body had suffered a fraction of the damage that had been inflicted upon his former employer, but Ali was still Ali, and fans around the world truly believed that their hero could defy both time and the ageing process to beat Holmes and cement his legacy once and for all. For Ali, alongside a longed-for return to the spotlight, an $8 million purse was temptation enough to bring him back to the sport that had given him everything and to which he had given everything in return.

Around the time of this fight, Ali had begun to ail, and although it wasn't widely known, his health had begun to deteriorate quickly. It was only with the subsequent release of Thomas Hauser's book "Muhammad Ali, His Life and Times" in 1989 that the truth became clear:

(James Slater): Now, for the first time, it was apparent just how dangerous it was for Ali to have fought again. No doubt the majority of fans will be aware of the 1980 findings of the Mayo Clinic; how they noted that Ali had "mild ataxic dysarthria," which is a problem using the muscles required to coordinate speaking, and how Ali had problems even conducting a basic finger-to-nose coordination test. Despite all this and more, however, the most beloved boxer in history was allowed to risk serious injury, perhaps even a fatality, against a primed and peaking heavyweight champion of the world.

Ali's rapidly deteriorating health was hidden by his bluster, hyperbole, and outlandish statements about how fit and strong he was. His confident assertions were enough to fool fans into thinking this was a fight in which he stood a good chance of winning, even though, deep down, they most likely all knew something was wrong.

(James Slater): People had such faith in the great man that if he said he was going to do something, no matter how illogical it seemed, they believed he would do as he said. No one was ever going to tell Ali he was a shot fighter and that he was unable to do what he said he would. Ali was bigger than life, and even members of his own family were unable to stop him doing what his ego told him he still could. Putting it more succinctly, promoter Don King asked, "How are you gonna tell God he can't make thunder and lightning anymore?!"

By now, a couple of pages into this week's Things That Make You Go Hmmm..., you are possibly wondering once again where the hell I am going with this. Well, seeing as you've made it this far, I'll tell you.

Ali was so confident and had so much apparent belief in what he said about the state of his health and his chances of success that a public who genuinely wanted to believe in him were easily convinced that he would triumph even though the cold, hard facts should have been apparent to any objective observer.

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There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between the reality behind Ali's pronouncements and those of today's politicians and central bankers, and the reaction of boxing fans in 1980 and those of the investing public in 2012.

Investors desperately want to believe the words of the likes of Schaeuble, Geithner, Merkel, Bernanke, Obama, Hollande, and the rest of the gang, while they in turn are desperate to convey a sense of invincibility in the hope that nobody will see the real sickness that lies beneath the thin veneer of confidence.

This is a highlight from Things That Make You Go Hmmm, a free weekly newsletter by Grant Williams, a highly respected financial expert and current portfolio and strategy advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore. Each week Grant draws on his 26 years of financial experience in the Asian, Australian, European and US markets to bring readers his analysis of economic and world affairs. Register today and get Grant's insights – ranging from eye-opening to mind-boggling – delivered free each week to your inbox.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:

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