WHO IS THE G.O.A.T?

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The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - WILL SWANTON

Don Brad­man at Lord’s in 1930. The col­lar is high. The baggy green cap is in place. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled to the fore­arms as if he knows there’s work to be done. He’s clean-shaven. There’s a spring in his step.

What a sprightly young fel­low he is. As­tute. Pa­tient. In­tel­li­gent. It’s a won­der he hasn’t tucked a pen and note­book into his top pocket.

He makes 254. De­cent knock. The face of his bat has more than a few cher­ries on it. The mid­dle has be­gun to cave in. So of­ten has he found the sweet spot that the wil­low has splin­tered and cracked. The dent in the dead cen­tre of his blade re­sem­bles a crater. Bat any longer and it may have formed a hole.

As time goes on, Brad­man will re­gard this knock as the great­est of his life. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Farewell To Cricket, he writes of it: “Prac­ti­cally with­out ex­cep­tion, ev­ery ball went where it was in­tended.”

Two things here. Brad­man has not rated his most nu­mer­i­cally suc­cess­ful Test in­nings, his 334 at Leeds, as his great­est per­for­mance. That’s in­ter­est­ing when it comes to the GOAT de­bate. Win­ning streaks and dom­i­nance and whop­ping big num­bers are only part of it. Great­ness goes above and be­yond all that. It needs magic. It needs mag­netism. It needs feel­ing. It needs to be nearly too good to be true, mo­ments of ab­so­lute per­fec­tion.

If the Great­est Of All Time is con­cerned only with runs ac­cu­mu­lated or tro­phies piled up in the pool room or vic­tory se­quences, you’ll give it to Pak­istan squash player Ja­hangir Khan. Five-hun­dred-and-fifty-five wins on the trot.

The most suc­cess­ful are not nec­es­sar­ily the great­est. In sport, in art, in life, ge­niuses fail. They have days when they should have stayed in bed. Matches when they can barely put one foot in front of the other. At their best, they el­e­vate them­selves, and ev­ery­one watch­ing, to a higher place. But they can be or­di­nary, too. See Muham­mad Ali los­ing to Chuck Werner, the fail­ure that has in­spired the Rocky Bal­boa movies. (Apollo Creed is Ali. Bal­boa is Werner.) See Brad­man nick­ing one on to off stump from Eric Hol­lies for a duck that has been too ugly and un­timely to be be­lieved or con­ceived. Brad­man has grinned and said of it: “Fancy do­ing a thing like that.”

Our poll on the peo­ple’s GOAT has been wildly en­joy­able. I’ve pored through hours of footage. The ro­man­tic old black-and-white stuff and the blind­ingly colour­ful clips of the mod­ern era, be­fore set­tling on my own vote. I have read a thou­sand mes­sages. I have scrolled through emails and tweets and texts and fallen in love with Babe Didrik­son Za­harias, the Amer­i­can track-and-field Olympic gold medal­list, turned golfer, who has sounded to me like Ja­nis Jo­plin with a three-iron.

More than 6000 votes have pro­duced a clear-cut top four: Brad­man, Michael Jor­dan, Roger Fed­erer, Ali. In an ex­er­cise de­signed to cre­ate ar­gu­ment, who can ar­gue with that? The beauty of the ex­er­cise is that there’s no right or wrong. The frus­tra­tion of the GOAT de­bate, too, is that there’s no right or wrong. When will we know, for sure and cer­tain, the iden­tity of the GOAT? We will never know, for sure and cer­tain, the iden­tity of the GOAT. How in­fu­ri­at­ing! How won­der­ful.

Notes from the Brad­man footage. The bal­letic foot­work. The poise. The pow­ers of con­cen­tra­tion. The pa­tience. The metic­u­lous­ness. The at­ten­tion to de­tail. The ruth­less­ness. The com­po­sure. The tenac­ity. Those pitches have looked bloody treach­er­ous. No cov­ers back then. He’s needed a shovel and spade to ad­e­quately flat­ten the last Lord’s track he has stepped on. Grand­stands have filled when he’s bat­ting. They have emp­tied when he’s dis­missed. A true na­tional hero. The song. Our Don Brad­man!

Now we ask you, was he any good? All those head­lines. The morn­ing edi­tion of the Daily Press: Brad­man Ver­sus Eng­land. The evening edi­tion of The Star: HE’S OUT. The kid with golf ball and wa­ter tank and stump down at Bowral. From there to here. The Test av­er­age of 99.94. His gen­tle­manly de­par­ture at The Oval, tuck­ing his bat un­der his arm and tod­dling off. Brad­man has at­tracted 33 per cent of the vote for the peo­ple’s GOAT. Cer­tain ath­letes, and their ac­com­plish­ments, will never die.

My vote? Ali. I’ve whit­tled it down to the same top four. I’ve thought, if they’re all in town tonight, if there’s a sched­ul­ing bun­gle and they’re all on at the same time, which ticket will I buy? Fed­erer ver­sus Rafael Nadal in the 2008 Wim­ble­don fi­nal? (Which he lost, by the way, but has still dripped with great­ness). Or, Jor­dan and the Bulls in game seven of the 1998 NBA fi­nals? Or, the MCG for Brad­man’s 270 against Eng­land in 1937? Or, Ali ver­sus Joe Fra­zier in 1975. The Thrilla in Manila. A ri­valry and blood feud so in­tense and spite­ful that Fra­zier has lit­er­ally taken it to his grave. I’ve picked the Ali fight.

My favourite pas­sage in sport, ei­ther live or on re­play, is the fi­nal 33 sec­onds of round five of Ali’s Rum­ble In The Jun­gle against Ge­orge Fore­man. Ali does not win the fight in those 33 sec­onds. He does not put Fore­man on his arse in those 33 sec­onds. But there’s some­thing in those 33 sec­onds that gives me goose­bumps.

Brad­man’s foot­work has been swift, but Ali’s is swifter. Brad­man’s hands, and Jor­dan’s hands, and Fed­erer’s hands, have been light­ning fast, but Ali’s triple jabs are quicker still. A young Ali win­ning his Olympic gold at Rome in 1960 is some­thing else; but these 33 sec­onds against Fore­man … rope-a-dope ... fancy do­ing a thing like that.

Notes from the Ali footage. The frenzy against Sonny Lis­ton. The brav­ery of box­ing. Man-on-man. The dan­ger. The ex­plo­sive­ness. The tac­tics. The power. The en­durance. The pun­ish­ment. The show­man­ship. That all you got, Ge­orge? Show me some­thing, Ge­orge! The look of a stone-cold killer. The in­tent. The con­fi­dence. The swag­ger. The pain. The suf­fer­ing. The hurt. The grace. The an­i­mal­is­tic fight. The tech­nique. The artistry. The chess.

The pum­melling of Ernie Ter­rell, who has re­fused to call him Muham­mad, taunt­ing him with his “slave name” of Cas­sius. The goad­ing of Ter­rell while Ali has pounded him for 15 rounds. He’s care­ful not to knock him out, want­ing to hit him for all 15 rounds, shout­ing at him, what’s my name? Ali has been coura­geous, and more, by the na­ture of his sport, the most glad­i­a­to­rial of them all. Ali, bo­maye! Ali, bo­maye! There may never have been an at­mos­phere like it.

He’s been the supreme show­man. He’s rep­re­sented black Amer­ica when it’s needed rep­re­sent­ing. He’s gone far be­yond sport. He’s lost nearly four prime years of his ca­reer for re­fus­ing to join the US army. “I ain’t got no quar­rel with them Vi­et­cong,” may be the most pow­er­ful sport­ing quote. And this: “No Vi­et­cong ever called me nig­ger.”

His pre-bout quotes have flowed like tap wa­ter. Be­fore the Rum­ble In The Jun­gle, he’s said: “I’ve done some­thing new for this fight. I done wres­tled with an al­li­ga­tor, I done tus­sled with a whale. Hand­cuffed light­ning. Thrown thun­der in jail. Only last week, I mur­dered a rock, in­jured a stone, hos­pi­talised a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

Ali has called the Thrilla in Manila “the clos­est thing to dy­ing that I know”. It is the most spec­tac­u­lar sport­ing oc­ca­sion I have read about. You have feared for a sec­ond, in round 14, that he he’s about to kill Fra­zier right there in the ring. Ali has been out on his feet be­fore the fi­nal round … but Fra­zier’s trainer, Ed­die Dutch, has thrown in the towel.

Ali has al­ways shied away from re­plays of that fight, say­ing: “Why would I want to go back and see Hell?” The ri­valry has been so in­tense that Fra­zier has cel­e­brated Ali’s Parkinson’s dis­ease, tak­ing credit for it, call­ing it Joe Fra­zieri­tis and left hook-itis.

Their rift never mended. Ali tried to smoke the peace pipe, in their later years, but Fra­zier has re­fused to take a puff. At Fra­zier’s fu­neral, Ali stood and ap­plauded him, long and loud.

Ali, bo­maye.

He’s vowed to beat Sonny Lis­ton and do­nate him to a zoo, the big smelly bear, and he’s done it to be­come the heavy­weight cham­pion of the world. His era of box­ing has been sport at its most se­ri­ous and won­drous.

His record is im­per­fect, but I do not care. Box­ing is the most el­e­men­tal and war­rior-like of sports, car­ry­ing ev­ery emo­tion and re­quire­ment of the oth­ers … and then some. Life im­i­tates box­ing more than any other ac­tiv­ity. When we’re down for the count, when we’re get­ting up off the can­vas, when we’re on the ropes, when we have a few good men in our cor­ner, when we’re go­ing toe-to-toe … it’s all from box­ing. The ul­ti­mate fight.

If you want to set­tle a score, you don’t tell your ri­val, I’ll get you over 18 holes of stroke play, mate. I’ll beat you in straight sets on clay. I’ll show you, buster, in a 100m sprint. Round up 20 oth­ers and we’ll sort this out over some soc­cer. Other sports pre­tend to be life and death. Box­ing re­ally is.

Brad­man has the sleight of hand and deft­ness of touch. Ali has thun­der in his fists. I have swooned at Brad­man, and been elec­tri­fied by Jor­dan’s doc­u­men­tary, and swooned at Fed­erer from court­side seats. But I keep go­ing back to Ali. The Rum­ble. The Thrilla. Noth­ing beats them. Noth­ing beats his role in them. He’s lost a few but you can’t beat great­ness, even when you do. I think he’s the first among equals, sec­ond to none. The most in­dis­putable fact, how­ever, is this. I, and we all, could be wrong!

‘I mur­dered a rock, in­jured a stone ... I’m so mean I make medicine sick’ MUHAM­MAD ALI

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