“Cassius and Jack”
by Neil Tarpey

Note: This column originally appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007 edition of the Times-Standard

It happened on a Monday night when I was twelve.

I was in my dark second-floor bedroom, lights off, lying on one of the twin beds, listening to my transistor radio, a hand-size pre-ipod of the baby boomer era. Sportscaster Howard Cosell’s excited voice was coming out of the radio, but apparently Sonny Liston was not coming out of his corner for the seventh round.

Cassius Clay was the new heavyweight champion.

Back in 1936, twenty-eight years before Cassius took the crown, my father, Jack Tarpey, a fan of the fights, was courting my mom and took her to a boxing match. One boxer was pummeled, sent lights out down to the canvas. My mom thought he was dead. My dad told her the guy was just knocked out.

Mom was right.

The following year my parents started their marriage which lasted almost 56 years. By the time I arrived in 1951 as the last of their four sons, my parents had made a post-nuptial agreement: we did not watch boxing on TV.

In grammar school, the nun who taught my class had us write letters to two people whom we admired. One of the two letters I sent went to Floyd Patterson. At age 21, he was the youngest fighter to ever win the world heavyweight crown, and also the first to win it back after losing the title. To my surprise, Patterson sent back a signed, glossy, black-and-white photograph.

The year after Clay and Liston’s first fight in Miami, my family was at a gathering of the paternal clan at an aunt’s house. A cousin and myself—both 13 and almost the same size—stepped down into his cement basement, laced up two pairs of big, brown, leathery gloves, and started shuffling back and forth in half-circles, throwing punches.
What I thought was great fun suddenly turned shocking when, neither of us wearing mouthpieces or head gear, I knocked out his front teeth. Some adults took my cousin to the emergency room, while others admonished me for my aggression.

That was the final time I wore boxing gloves.

While I put down the gloves, I picked up an interest in Cassius.

America was proud of him. Cassius won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics with incredible footwork, stamina and a lightning-quick left jab.

After Cassius beat Liston for the second time, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

America started to hate, or at least greatly dislike, Ali. He was brash, opinionated and stood up for his religious beliefs by refusing to fight in Vietnam. He was given a suspended five-year prison term and stripped of his heavyweight title.

It was the 60s, I was a rebellious teenager and became fond of Ali.

For one thing, Ali not only tolerated, but he constantly poked fun at, the narcissistic Cosell, who wanted to sound off on everything. Even Woody Allen, in one of his earlier films, Bananas, cast Cosell as a play-by-play announcer sitting next to Woody and his bride in bed on their honeymoon night.

Ali was good with words, funny and poetic. “If you wanna lose your money, then bet on Sonny,” he had warned the public before his Liston fights.

For some, Ali’s prediction was arrogant, boastful. “Pride comes before a fall,” others warned.

But within two years, another sports figure, Broadway Joe Namath boldly predicted his upstart  AFL Jets would take down the mighty NFL Colts in Super Bowl III. Namath became a heroic bad boy after his actions backed up his mouth.

When it came to strategy, Ali had a famous rhyming one: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.” Modern day rappers could have a worse fate, than to study Ali for better rhymes to create. And, anyone who has been on the receiving end of a painful, pesky or poisonous sting can understand Ali’s message. My favorite Ali-ism was what he said in 1974 before he fought George Foreman, future grill master and father of five sons all named George. “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark."

In 2004, I enjoyed Clint Eastwood's film, Million Dollar Baby, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture. The film was based on Rope Burns, a collection of stories written by F.X. Toole when he was almost 70 years old.  The picture reminded me of a time in my early 20s when I watched the Golden Gloves at a smoke-filled arena in Queens. I learned two important things that night: even three to five rounds looked exhausting, and boxers had to breathe in a smoke-filled arena. In the Eastwood movie, I liked the strong characters. Frankie, the reluctant trainer who reads W.B Yeats poetry, played by Eastwood. Maggie, the talented and determined boxer, played by Best Actress Hilary Swank. Scrap, the gym manager and narrator, played by Best Supporting Actor Morgan Freeman. And yes, I felt sad at how a life sometimes unravels at the end.

I saw the first Rocky movie in 1976. But I've never seen Rocky II, III, IV, V or Balboa (VI).

As we all started growing older, Ali’s slow speech in an interview, and mild tremors, gave the first indication that something was amiss. That something turned out to be called Parkinson’s Disease. But even though Father Time had slowed down Ali, his eyes still sparkled, and his smile warmed the hearts of many people worldwide, especially kids.

Last Wednesday, Jan. 17, was a slower-moving Ali’s 65th birthday.

I was driving in my truck and thought about my dad, Jack, a certified public accountant with a wise, razor-sharp mind. When Jack was 78 he had a stroke, which made it frustrating and necessary for him to speak very slowly. Like Ali, my dad with his stroke still had a great smile that welcomed kids, grandkids and others. And like Ali, my dad was good with words, a poet, and a humorist.

When I was in college, my dad had told me, “Sometimes you can judge a man by what he laughs at.” My dad laughed at O’Henry’s short stories (such as “The Ransom of Red Chief”), and the daily comics.

Dad could often be found crunching numbers on his adding machine at his desk in his office in our chilly cement basement. While working, he often listened to the radio. He loved Jean Shepherd’s funny memoirs. You may know Jean Shepherd as the writer and narrator of an amusing holiday film, A Christmas Story, about the kid who wanted the BB gun for Christmas.

On Thanksgiving, 1976--the night before I drove west from New York in search of my own destiny--Dad and I sat quietly in the living room of my boyhood home. We watched "The Quiet Man" on TV, the 1952 film starring John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald and Victor McLaglen. The brawl across-the-Irish-countryside between Wayne & brother-in-law McLaglen was probably the closest my dad and I came to watching a fight together. At one point my dad turned to me and smiled. "This is my favorite movie," he said.

In 1980, during Jack's first visit to Humboldt County, he told friends and myself at a salmon barbecue, "People have have more fun than anybody."

My father, Jack Tarpey, died 24 years ago—on Ali’s birthday.

I still miss him.