By Dick Luedke
It was right about when I became a teenager that my addiction was identified. My father was the one who confronted me. He said I had become a “sportoholic”. He was genuinely concerned about the extent to which spectator sports had taken over his son’s young life. He was a man who knew all about addiction. But my attention to his warning was perfunctory. My primary concern was how much longer it would be before that day’s Twins game started.
I was attracted most to baseball. But football, basketball and hockey were not far behind. I didn’t follow professional boxing as closely, but then I began to hear about a brash 22-year-old from Louisville who had rapidly moved up the heavyweight ranks to earn himself a shot at the championship of the world. It was 1964, and Cassius Clay was about to square off against the intimidating ex-con, Sonny Liston.
Much more fascinating than Clay’s boxing skills to the pimply-faced kid from Minneapolis were the boxer’s oratory skills. The Louisville Lip declared himself “the greatest” and told us he was going to “shake up the world”.
Depending on your age, you may or may not be aware that before Cassius Clay stepped onto the world stage, there was no such thing as a trash-talking athlete. It may seem hard to believe in the context of today’s sporting environment, but no one, while under the spotlight of a sports journalist, had ever dared be anything but modestly polite.
And so I found myself overwhelmingly intrigued by this renegade and unique approach. The experts of professional boxing, after listening to the young pugilist’s brash predictions, emphatically told us that he would be lucky to last more than a couple rounds against the fearsome and powerful Liston.
The Clay-Liston Fight
On the night of the fight, I glued myself to the large, white, plastic-cased radio on top of our kitchen refrigerator. As the fight progressed, it became apparent that the experts of professional boxing had severely undersold the kid from Louisville. I was entranced, hanging on every word uttered by blow-by-blow announcer Les Keiter. I’ll never forget the thought that came to me next.
“What would it be like,” I said to myself, “if someday someone was listening as intently to me as I am right now to this announcer?”
That announcer went on to artfully describe the stunning result of that bout (a 7th round technical knockout of the supposedly unbeatable Liston) to the millions of us listening. The Louisville Lip had indeed shaken up the world of professional boxing.
An Impact Far Beyond the Ring
The man who recently left us became, according to many of those same experts who gave him no chance against Sonny Liston, the top heavyweight champion of all time. But as great as the man who later became Muhammed Ali was inside the ring, the impact he had outside the ropes was far greater. And ironically, what he accomplished outside the ring only grew when Parkinson’s disease robbed him of those magical and engaging oratory skills.
It turns out Ali’s ability to communicate was not totally dependent on the voice that so skillfully challenged so much of what we believed. It was the eyes that truly conveyed the man’s delightfully playful spirit, gracious demeanor and powerful convictions. Without the voice to support them, Ali’s eyes became even more expressive, inspiring many who despised him when he refused to fight for his country in Vietnam to embrace him in his later years.
But allow me to go back to the voice that was coming out of my parents’ radio on that February evening in 1964, the voice that painted a detailed picture of the first Clay-Liston fight in my youthful mind, the voice that inspired me to go into the business of painting verbal pictures of sporting events.
I turned my “sportoholism” into a career. I have the proprietor of this publication, TheBreez.com to thank for that. After graduating the University of Minnesota, I searched for a job as a radio sportscaster for a year before John Meyer hired me to broadcast high school games over his radio station in Crown Point, Indiana.
That was 42-years ago. I’m currently entering my 31st year of broadcasting Illinois State University football and basketball games.
I reconnected with John a year ago and he has graciously allowed me to fulfill my writing ambitions by authoring a monthly column on his web site. This is the first of those.