It's hard to understand now, in the SportsCenter and Yahoo Sports world, but for the sports fan of the Jimmy Carter era, it was Sports Illustrated, the back of your local evening tabloid newspaper if you lived in a town lucky enough to have one, and the Howard Cosell hovel that was ABC's Wide World of Sports. And there could be no Cosell without a peculiarly great heavyweight boxer by the name of Muhammad Ali.
The interviews were often better than the fights. Most of the great ones I saw had been tapes of old shows, and those were even better than the ones I was watching live on those suburban Saturday mornings.
By this time, Ali -- the one shown on our Sylvania cabinet television -- was not "the Greatest," at least not in the way my father used to speak of him. I watched him lose three out of four fights. I saw a lumbering, slurring man that people cheered on relentlessly even though he was clearly losing, and laughed at all of his jokes even though they weren't funny. Maybe only a child could see the truth -- that there was something wrong -- but I don't think so. My mother called what they were doing to him as "barbaric."
Ali was warned after his third fight with Ken Norton to hang up the gloves. The Mayo Clinic said his muscles weren't in sync with his brains, resulting in slurred speech.
His own doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, sent him medical exam results and warned Ali that if he continued fighting, he "would have no shot at a normal life" after his career.
But Ali promised easy fights. Pacheco stayed on for one last bout -- a brutal mess of a war with Ernie Shavers, a fighter with 54 wins and 52 knockouts, and somehow won the decision. Pacheco jumped ship. "He was about the strongest guy in boxing," Pacheco said at the time. "That was easy?"
I watched Ali get pummeled by Larry Holmes and just hang on long enough to lose a decision to Trevor Berbick. Before the Berbick fight, which took place 28 years ago this week, it was all too clear that we were sending the guy to the gallows for our own amusement. Unable to talk at press conferences, he used to perform magic tricks.
My dad would just shake his head. Ali, he explained to me, used to perform magic in the ring. "He's only hurting himself," he would say. But I could see, sitting on that rug next to his chair, that Ali was hurting everyone else, too.
Mark Vasto is a veteran sportswriter and publisher of The Kansas City Luminary.
(c) 2009 King Features Synd., Inc.