America wasn't exactly a paradise when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier clashed inside and outside the ring in the early 1970s.
It was the era of Watergate and the Vietnam War, of oil embargoes and a crippling recession. President Gerald Ford survived two assassination attempts in the month before 1975's Thrilla in Manila—one by former Manson family member Squeaky Fromme. If foreign armies, powerful coalitions or our own government weren't enough to worry about, the minions of hippie cult-leader sociopaths were still at large.
The early 1970s were a time of extreme pessimism, international and domestic anxieties, racial strife and overwhelming governmental distrust.
It was probably a little worse then than it is now.
Against that backdrop of fear and unrest, Ali and Frazier delivered global spectacle, a much-needed distraction, inspiration and a little bit of hope. Their bouts were epic. Their rivalry was fun for just about everyone but Frazier.
But there was more. The Ali-Frazier rivalry was an insistent, unrepentant racial and religious integration of America's living rooms. This was a big deal in the days of "Archie Bunker for President" bumper stickers. Like it or not, the draft-defying Muslim convert and his big, terrifying rival were going to dominate the headlines for a while, not by protesting—but simply by being. And you were probably going to like it. Because they were awesome.
We don’t have Ali and Frazier anymore, much as we may need them.
Instead, we’ll have to settle for Josh Norman and Odell Beckham.
Two of the NFL's most compelling players will square off on Sunday. Their Week 15 matchup last year was one part MMA bout, one part superhero aerial battle and one part Three Stooges episode. During the offseason, they traded social networking barbs like graduates of the "Katy Perry University of Advanced Subtweeting."
The capital and the Big Apple are in one of those mass-media tizzies that acquires its own storm center and begins pummeling the East Coast with torrential nonsense. Beckham vs. Norman is supposed to be silly, frothy, overhyped football fun.
Read the headlines, though. It's hard to be in the mood for frothy fun, Twitter beefs or football for football’s sake right now. It feels like the early 1970s all over again. Which makes Beckham vs. Norman more important than ever.
Other cornerback-receiver rivalries have had a little of that Ali-Frazier flavor. Chad Johnson shared Ali's ability to hone trash talk into a samurai sword. He once told reporters before a 2010 playoff game that Darrelle Revis "couldn’t cover me with a brown paper bag on a corner of a Manhattan street inside a phone booth."
After Revis shut him down, he admitted that—like Frazier before him—he wasn't in on the gag. "He kinda made it personal," the cornerback said. "We're friends off the field, but he tried to come at me as a football player. I just think he wasn't giving me my respect."
Johnson (or Ochocinco at the time) vs. Revis was never about much more than one man’s craving for attention and our willingness to provide it. For all the problems we faced, 2009-10 was a simpler time. Hourly news of violence, protests, condemnations of violence and condemnations of protests didn’t spill all the way into the NFL broadcasts back then.
More recently, Richard Sherman drew Ali comparisons after his epic postgame tirade about Michael Crabtree after the 2014 NFC Championship Game. "I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree that's the result you're going to get," Sherman screamed. "Don't you ever talk about me."
The tirade forever polarized opinions on Sherman, who shares Ali’s philosophical complexity as well as his ability to boast about his own greatness. Most of my media friends loved it and weren’t shy about saying so in their columns. The comment threads following those columns typically painted a different picture, signs of a fissure of worldviews that is now growing into a societal fracture.
It's hard to enjoy some silly, spotlight-hogging receiver-on-cornerback action when that comment-thread hatred feels like an increasingly destructive force in society. It starts with the notion that there is "no place in football" for Johnson's showboating. Then there is "no place in football" for Sherman's arrogant boasting. Then there is "no place in football" for Colin Kaepernick's peaceful sideline protests. Then you start to wonder what, in some people’s minds, there is a place in football for, or what there is a place in society for. Then you read the news and wonder if we’ve fallen into a time machine and popped out in Mississippi in 1958.
For young African-American men in 2016, kneeling or raising a fist during the national anthem are not the only political acts. Dancing in the end zone is a political act. Asserting themselves is a political act. And the folks who claim that there is nothing political about these acts—the ones preparing to condemn me for making everything about race—are the ones doing the most to politicize them.
Cam Newton, magnet for carefully coded conversation since long before the day he was drafted, tried to remain apolitical when asked about the police shootings and protests on Wednesday. Newton drew criticism for trying to avoid criticism. Sherman took the opposite approach, refusing to answer press conference questions so he could address the reasons behind anthem protests. He drew passive-aggressive criticism for not strictly following the format of a press conference.
Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.
And now two flashy, outspoken young black dudes are about to tussle on national television and tell us all about it afterward. They may say and do things we should have stopped having hang-ups about in 1975. But we are currently more hung up than we have been in decades. It is going to be thrilling, captivating television (and Twitter), if we can handle it.
Luckily, the republic survived Ali-Frazier. Their talent was transcendent. Ali's motor-mouthed mythmaking commanded both attention and an often infuriated, grudging respect. Frazier played the snarling, disrespected, working-class Everyman, as if he had a choice. Their fights were exhausting and cathartic. They could not solve the world’s problems, but they could bring us all together for a few hours and make us choose sides in a civil, productive way.
They could also open minds just by being themselves. Ali's greatest act of defiance wasn’t draft dodging or converting to Islam. It was just being Ali. To watch him was to come a little closer to accepting him. Ali protested, but Ali's most powerful social statement was simply the way he carried himself inside and outside of the ring.
Now we have Norman: quick-witted, acid-tongued, unwilling to fit into the shut-up-and-play-football "cookie cutter" Sherman railed against. We also have Beckham, the taciturn Frazier of the pair, his dazzling capabilities usually speaking louder than his words.
They haven't spoken much this week; coaches are trying to keep the media circus from pitching an extra-large big top. When they have spoken in the past, an undercurrent of respect has usually been laced through all of the showmanship.
When asked if Beckham gets "too much love" in March during an ESPN talk show trying to stir up some controversy, Norman said: "I don't think nobody gets too much love if they put in the time and the effort and ... put in the numbers each and every week. I don’t think nobody does that by mistake."
Beckham then subtweeted Norman during the show. Norman responded, and it was SHOTS FIRED time. Norman’s assertion that nobody gets too much love—wisdom we can all live by—got lost in the clicks.
Norman will cover Beckham on Sunday. (Washington's "stay on one side of the field" imperative for Norman two weeks ago is already a receding bad memory). Cameras will isolate on them. Experts and non-experts will interpret their every stride. Newspapers will lead with them whether Beckham catches 15 passes, Norman intercepts two, the pair goes at it like Deion Sanders and Andre Rison in 1994, or anything happens in between.
There will be nothing sociopolitical about their matchup at all except the baggage that we bring to it. But we may take a little more away from it than what we expect to: a reminder that people of all kinds have the right to express themselves in their way, to be bold and exceptional, to defy our expectations, preconceptions and (yes) prejudices. And that when those things happen, we are all usually better off because of it: not just more entertained, but more enlightened and inspired.
That's an Ali-Frazier-sized lesson. It's a heck of a lot to put on Norman and Beckham's shoulders.
Luckily, all they have to do is go out and play great football. And be themselves.
With any luck, history will take care of the rest.
Mike Tanier | bleacherreport.com | September 22, 2016
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