“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…” — Muhammad Ali
1. the willingness to take bold risks.
synonyms: boldness, daring, fearlessness, intrepidity, bravery, courage, heroism, pluck, grit;
2. rude or disrespectful behavior; impudence.
synonyms: impudence, impertinence, insolence, presumption, cheek, bad manners, effrontery, nerve, gall, defiance, temerity;
This past year I completed a biography of Muhammad Ali by Jonathan Eig, a rich, in-depth look at the life of one of the 20th century’s major sports figures. (Ali: A Life) The book is filled with details, anecdotes and life lessons for everyone from the street to the C-suite.
At one point in the story the young Cassius Clay, a Louisville slugger, had been fighting his way up the ladder in order to achieve his dream, a title fight with the World Boxing Champion Sonny Liston, and the right to be called “The Greatest.” The author does a superb job of guiding readers through Cassius Clay’s formative years, showing how this youth became the man we all came to know as Ali. Eig conducted more than 500 interviews with all of the key people in Ali’s life, and its apparent he’s produced a monumental story about a complex man who came through a complex period of history.
The trigger for this blog post was an incident that occurred early in Clay’s pro career as a boxer. He pulled off a victory (Gold Medal) in the 1960 Olympics and became determined to climb through the pro ranks as quickly as possible in order to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever. It’s a tough job to get consideration for a title fight, but a fateful encounter with the pro wrestler Gorgeous George made an impact on the young boxer, adding a dimension to his character that propelled him more quickly through the ranks.
Who was Gorgeous George? He was a pro wrestler of the 1940s and 50s who was rich, famous and charismatic. My dad saw him once in Cincinnati back in the late 40s or early 50s. He had wavy platinum blonde curls, entered the ring wearing a hairnet and gold hairpins, and preened while drawing excessive quantities of boos from audiences that paid money to see him beaten. My dad said the night he saw Gorgeous George someone threw an empty liquor bottle into the ring that hit his forehead and cut him so that he was bleeding.
He sometimes painted his nails and always wore outrageous attire. According to Wikipedia, “In addition to his grandiose theatrics, Gorgeous George was an accomplished wrestler. While many may have considered him a mere gimmick wrestler, he was actually a very competent freestyle wrestler, having started learning the sport in amateur wrestling as a teenager, and he could handle himself quite well if it came to a legitimate contest.”
In addition to his audacity, serendipity played a role in his success as well. Though he’d been “performing” throughout the 40s, by the time television began piping into American homes in 1947, his antics had been fine-tuned and “pro wrestling” became one of the big drawing cards of the new medium, on a scale comparable to Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.
It proved fortuitous for Cassius Clay when he unexpectedly met Gorgeous George while promoting one of his fights in Las Vegas, June 1961. George was in Vegas for a match as was Clay. While making the rounds, each hyping their separate events to the media, they crossed paths. In George, the young boxer found the missing ingredient in his career: audacity. Clay’s goal was to fill arenas with spectators who would pay to see him fight. In Gorgeous George he found something of a role model, a compelling mix of arrogance, mouthiness and wit... a persona that fit the young boxer like a glove.
Dylan Meets George
As I was reading about Ali’s meeting with Gorgeous George I recalled how Dylan, too, cited his own encounter with the man during the wrestler’s visit to Hibbing in 1957. The intersection of their two lives occurred while young Robert Zimmerman was playing in the lobby of the National Guard Armory of the Veteran’s Memorial Building. George entered the room with his entourage. Dylan says Gorgeous George flicked him a wink and said, or seemed to say, “You’re making it come alive.”
Maybe George wasn’t a necessary component of Dylan’s audacity. It’s possible, though, that the famous wrestler cast a catalytic spark his way. His performance in the Hibbing Auditorium on another occasion was audacious enough to have the principal pull the plug. While still living at home Dylan made an attempt to join Bobby Vee’s band in Fargo, audaciously claiming that he was a pro piano player named Elston Gunnn.
Dylan’s gamesmanship with journalists was legendary. But most outrageous was his return to that nerve-jangling electric sound, after several years of being a folk singer/songwriter of major importance (while still so very young, like Cassius Clay.) That first world tour with The Band was so disrupted by boos and catcalls that Levon Helm couldn’t take it and left the group before it left the country. Helm wrote in his autobiographical This Wheel’s On Fire that the more they booed the more Dylan seemed to enjoy it, a very different emotional response from his own.
When Dylan was announced as winner of the Nobel Prize two years ago his initial silence was considered by many an audacious, outrageous affront to decency. Alas. His detractors may have rolled their eyes but not his fans, who shrugged it off as Dylan just being Dylan.
Here’s an aside for more along this line: Novelist Jonathan Lethem on Bob Dylan’s ‘Mad-Scientist Audacity’
All this to say that I’ve found it interesting that this somewhat forgotten golden-locks wrestler made an impact on two of the most significant men of the last half-century. Yes, George was one of a kind…
Here’s a CBS Sports account of how Gorgeous George influenced the legendary boxer Ali.
This Huffington Post piece sheds light on Dylan’s encounter with the flamboyant wrestler… as a simple twist of fate.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com
Ted Russell photo courtesy Bill Pagel Archives.
Gorgeous George and book cover image each from public domain.