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June 16, 2017

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PAGE 16 BOSTON POST-GAZETTE, JUNE 16, 2017 t t HOOPS and HOCKEY in the HUB by Richard Preiss Walcott and Ali A Contrast All vs. Shavers. Muhammad AIi used to enjoy making fun of his predecessors. He would mock them for being punchy. I remember seeing him do this in front of Joe Louis. Ali would put his finger on his nose pressing it flat and then speak, slurring his speech while pre- tending to stumble around on unsteady feet. He would talk about how guys like Louis and the other champs took too many punches, couldn't box as well as "The Greatest," and ended up with their brains scrambled. He bragged how that would never happen to him because he was so much smarter and better than they were. It is a tragic irony that All ended up worse than any of those who came before him. By the time he was training for the Larry Holmes fight, All was al- ready showing serious signs of brain damage. Watching inter- views and training footage as he was preparing for that bout, you can hear him slurring his speech. His coordination was deteriorating as seen in his dif- ficulty hitting the speed bag. Ali was 38 years old at the time and would lose by stoppage to Holmes. It was a sad sight. Why did this happen to such a great boxer?" Let's compare him to another former champ who was still fighting when he was in his late 30s; Jersey Joe Walcott. Jersey Joe was 37 years old when he won the Heavyweight Championship by knocking out Ezzard Charles. He would de- fend it against Charles before losing it to Rocky Marciano in a fight in which Walcott was lead- ing on the scorecards when he was kayoed in the 13~ round. Walcott also had given Joe LoUIs more than he could han- dle a few years earlier when he lost a highly disputed deci- sion to the Brown Bomber. He dropped Louis twice in that bout. Louis would win a re- match by knockout, but not before hitting the canvas one more time. Ali got a lot of laughs mak- ing fun of the greats of the past. He not only went after them for supposedly being punchy, but he also demeaned their skills. Well, if Walcott was lacking in skills and Ati was so brilliant, why is it Jersey Joe retired with his faculties still intact while Ali ended up a mental and physi- cal wreck? You just have to watch foot- age of the two men in action and you will see what made the difference. Walcott was a bril- liant technical boxer. He could move, he could punch, he was always in good physical shape (except for the times earlier in his career the he was so poor he couldn't eat properly), and he also knew how to avoid tak- ing punishment. Jersey Joe was a master of the art of box- ing. Watching him move on the canvas is something to behold. He couid feint. He would turn and start to walk away from his opponent and then suddenly turn back with a lethal combi- nation. Witness his knock out of Ezzard Charles where Wal- Walcott vs. cott very nonchalantly steps in with a half hook, half uppercut to win the rifle. Just amazing! Walcott and Ali both had their last fight at the age of 39. All had a total of 61fights while Walcott had 71. Walcott fought professionally for 23 years, Ali for 21 years. Ali was off for three and a half years when he was banned from boxing, so he actually had around 18 years of activity. Walcott was stopped six times. With the exception of the Marciano and LOuis fights, these stoppages were earlier in his career when he was strug- gling to survive. All was stopped just once, by Holmes. However, All took a lot more punches than Walcott did. The difference between the two was in their skills. Walcott actually got better with age. All deteriorated as he got older. But why? Well, All depended on his speed when he was younger. He was amazingly fast and had great reflexes. As he got older, he began to lose that speed, and without it he started tak- ing punches. He did not have the skills to avoid being hit. He was no Jersey Joe Walcott. In fact, Ali depended on his ability to take punishment in order to win fights. During training ses- sions he would allow his spar- ring partners to unload on him. In a bizarre way, he seemed to think by taking more punish- ment he was toughening him- self for his upcoming fights. This took a terrible toll on him. Sure it made for exciting fights, but as can be seen in his fights with the likes of George Fore- man, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier and, very notably, Earnie Shavers, he took some fearful shots. It is no wonder he ended up the way he did. Walcott, on the other hand, always worked on his defense. He would spend hours honing his defensive skills in training- -shadow boxing, working in front of the mirror, watching other fighters. Most important- ly, he would work at not get- ring hit while sparring. When it came to true boxing skills, Walcott was miles ahead of AIL Walcott had a full palette to draw from, while All was sorely lacking in the finer points of the Manly Art of Self Defense. While Walcott was a true master at his trade, All always depended Charles. on his physical abilities--fist his speed and then his tough- ness--to carry him through. Walcott was a technician, All was a tough guy. Compare these two champs in their retirement years and you can see the difference. Wal- cott remained sharp and clear- headed. He became the Sheriff of Camden County, New Jersey, and also served on the Box- ing Commission until he was 70 years old. From then until his death at the age of 80, he worked helping handicapped and disabled children. His de- fensive boxing skills served him well as he showed no signs of brain damage. Ali's deterioration had al- ready started before he retired from the ring. While he made appearances in his retirement years, he had become, to peo- ple who were willing to face the truth, a symbol of the dark side of boxing. He had become that which he had mocked. It was almost Shakespearean in that Muhammad Ali would become a caricature of the punch drunk boxer he said would never be. It was somewhat symbolic where it ended because all along there had been a prophecy, a foretelling, a view of the future that one could surmise had a good chance of unfolding the way it was presented to those seeking wisdom about the fu- ture. It wasn't a guarantee, of course, but a wise opinion from those who had been granted such powers from those on high. We speak, of course, of the or- acles in ancient Greece sought out by many for their prognosti- cation of future events, be they good or bad in their unfolding. In our own time, there was such a prophecy -- by those that follow, cover, and even work for the NBA. The oracles of the media, those who cover the league on a year-round basis, proclaimed, as summer became fall in 2016, that Golden State and Cleveland would once again meet in the NBA Finals come the spring of 2017. The only tricky part was say- ing who would win. After all, Golden State, though coming off a 73-9 record-setting regular season in 2016, did not claim the big prize -- the NBA title -- last year. That was captured by Cleveland, a team led by LeBron James that came back from a 3-1 deficit in games to gobble up the glory that earlier had seemed all but won by the Warriors. Golden State had won everything -- except the prize that really mattered. So, perhaps there was some- thing symbolic when Golden State refused to yield this year and won the NBA champion- ship by taking over a decisive fifth game in the fourth quarter and relegating the Cavs to the runner-up position. Symbolic because the venue that serves as the home base for Golden State is named Oracle Arena. It's true that, in this particular case, Oracle refers to a computer software company that special- izes in database management systems and was the second largest producer (by revenue earned) after Microsoft in 2015. But maybe, in a way, that is how the future is predicted by those in the present day -- by mining data and coming to conclusions about what might happen in the future. Through all the data available on the NBA, the vast major- ity felt that Golden State and Cleveland would meet in a rematch. And they were right. After all, the Cavs did lose 31 games in the regular season while Golden State was only beaten 15 times. The Cavs lost 16 more games than Golden State -- a differential that told you going into the Finals that Golden State was superior, re- gardless of the relatively easy time Cleveland had in the ear- lier rounds of the playoffs. It's one of the major differ- ences between the NBA and the NHL. The NBA is much more predictable. To predict that de- fending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh would return to the Stanley Cup Final this year made a lot of sense-- but not as much as predicting the teams in the NBA Finals. For example, Nashville was on absolutely no one's radar as the season began or even as it ended. That the Predators not only earned a berth in the Stanley Cup Play- offs, but then advanced to the championship round, indicates how predictions are much less certain in hockey. There is also more parity in the hockey playoffs. When the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, it really is a whole new season with everyone starting fresh and everything up for grabs. You really can't make that claim about the NBA Playoffs. Another factor that should be considered is the starting date of the NBA Finals. Once set by television, that date can't be moved. Both Golden State and Cleveland went through their respective conference oppo- nents in relatively short order. All that gained for them was an excessive waiting period for the finals to start -- 10 days in the case of the Warriors, 7 in the case of the Cavs. Compare that to hockey where the two teams in the Stanley Cup Final can start within a few days of their re- spective Conference victories. There's no date set in stone by TV that determines when the Stanley Cup Final can start. That's the way it should be in the NBA as well. Oh, and by the way, did you notice that our two "winter" sports concluded their respec- tive playoffs on consecutive days? Pittsburgh finished off the Predators on June 11~ while the Warriors put the Cavs away on June 12% We wonder when the last time that happened. Maybe that was the first time. Both leagues will have con- secutive nights again later this month but in reverse order. The Celtics have the first over- all pick in the NBA Draft, set for June 22"d at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, while the Bruins have the 18th overall pick in the NHL draft, to be held at the United Center in Chicago June 23~d-24% Bruins GM Don Sweeney has indicated he's willing to consider trading the Bruins' pick for the right deal while Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge, while not ruling out such a scenario, appears much less willing to do so. And did you notice that former Bruin Phil Kesseljust picked up his second Stanley Cup Cham- pionship? Last year Kessel took out a full-page newspaper ad in Toronto, thanking the Maple Leafs for trading him to Pitts- burgh. In Boston, Kessel was known as the gift that kept on giving since his being traded to To- ronto resulted in a number of players coming to the Bs. So if that never happened, then he wouldn't have wound up in Pittsburgh. And let's not forget Pens coach Mike Sullivan, who will get th opportunity to the Stanley Cut chusetts this summer. it in the South Shore grew up in