My Muhammad Ali Moment

Craig Jones
MDI Columnist 

Two images come immediately to mind whenever I think about “comebacks.”

Sometimes when I want to get myself going and get all caffeinated and motivated I look on YouTube and find the footage of Billy Mills winning the 10,000 meter race in Tokyo at the ’64 Summer Olympics. He wasn’t ever all the way at the back of the pack, but he wasn’t supposed to medal either. You can still hear the commentator saying, “Billy Mills is in there, a man no one expects to win this particular event.”

He turns it on in the bell lap, kicks by Clark (the world record holder) and Gammoudi and breaks the tape, still the onlyAmerican to have won that race in all the years of the Olympics. I was 11 when I watched. “Look at Mills, look at Mills…” the announcer screamed.

It’s still the most exciting finish I’ve ever seen in an athletic competition. More so than the US hockey team winning the gold medal in 1980. The miracle on ice.

More exciting than the Red Sox coming back in ’04 after being down three zip to the Yankees and more exciting than the Patriots coming from behind 28-3 to beat Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, even though I’m a long-time fan and a New Englander.

The second comeback inspiration is a cinematic one, in the movie biopic Ali with Will Smith playing the iconic boxer. There’s that one scene depicted in the first bout with Sonny Liston when he has some kind of substance in his eyes, maybe from Liston’s gloves, and suddenly he can’t see clearly. It looks like he’s going to get pounded and brutally knocked to the canvas, but in the soundtrack you can hear this slight key change upward, a low vocal added, the drums and an increased tempo. It’s subtle, not that noticeable at first, but you can just feel what’s going to happen. He eventually shakes it off and wins the fight, when Liston doesn’t answer the bell for the seventh round.

There’s no soundtrack in life, and there are no sportscasters screaming for most of us, but I had my own key change moment, inaudible to anyone else and one I could barely hear at the time. I like to imagine myself getting up off the canvas after my crappy ass divorce and being separated from my kids, my daily life with them and the home we had created over 17 years of marriage.

Failing in my financial life and failing in my first marriage were part of the same braid. I was in the toilet financially. There was small claims court for debts to a publisher from my failed bookstore. There was the threat of possible incarceration for not paying child support if I didn’t return home from the West Coast and deal with it. This was back when those who owed a substantial amount had their photos on the wall at Logan Airport, like a rogues gallery of fuck-ups, if memory serves.

I even felt something righteous about it. Fuck her, she’s got money, I figured. “Why should I have to pay? This is bullshit. I’ve already lost everything.” I was dead wrong about the fact that we had communal property, at least in our state. I was entitled to none of the family money she brought into the marriage.

I was a like a little leaguer, standing in there wide-eyed against Pedro or Nolan Ryan or Bob Gibson, with no clue as to how I managed to fuck things up like this. I even failed at getting divorced. She was Liston, pounding at me while I tried to rub the shit out of my eyes. I was hopelessly outmatched.

My bank account was raided by the IRS for non-payment, my Ford escort was re-po’d, leaving me with only my motorcycle. I missed rent on my apartment.  I bounced checks at the local grocery store and got threatened with legal action about it.

If I’d had any glory years, they were not these.

Growing up, I was always responsible about money. Though my family didn’t have much extra, I never felt poor. I had jobs in high school and developed some kind of work ethic about putting in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. I didn’t know much about investing or disciplined saving, but I learned how to work hard.

I scraped by in college and got some VA money, because my dad had been in the Air Force, and a little bit of a scholarship. I felt really out of place in a college situation where, as one friend put it, a lot of other students “have all the comforts.”

I even briefly made some money in my dorm, repairing and cleaning typewriters, a first attempt at being an entrepreneur. I worked for a repair shop in the community where the college was, and I had worked one summer for a guy at our church who had an office equipment business.

When I first hooked up with my college girlfriend, who later became my first wife, I had no idea how out of her league I was, financially. Though completely unprepared to be part of a family with wealth like theirs, I thought love conquered all, it doesn’t really matter, I’ll figure all this out. The contrast between our cultures couldn’t have been more stark.

I got my future father-in-law’s assurance that there was no sense at all in refusing help from family. Consider that everything is the Lord’s and we’ve been blessed, he said. So bit by bit, I was absorbed into the family. My historically more financially straitened circumstances were pushed away, as if from a campfire to the outer reaches of its light where there were shadows and hungry eyes waiting and watching.

I remember my mom being puzzled about why I was reading the Wall Street Journal because she said it was only for people with money, at least that was her opinion. Not that I understood what I was reading much, but I was making an effort at it. Maybe it was an affectation, if I’m honest. I was playing at having wealth.

I didn’t know how to explain to her that, at least temporarily, I had money, though it wasn’t anything I had earned or to which I had any real right. I have often felt like a piece of shit because I was so unable to see what was coming, so callow, so unprepared, so unable to read the signs.

If there was a turning point financially, at least inside of me, if there was a nearly inaudible key change like there was for Ali, it may have been several years after my wife and I moved back east.

We were living in a bubblegum pink house not unlike the Big Pink in NY where Dylan recorded with The Band. I was wrestling with my anxiety about applying for a car loan. Almost fetal-like, I was curled up, afraid to even give it a shot, afraid to hear “no,” afraid of more financial humiliation.

My wife encouraged me to keep going and by God, because I’d been working, keeping my head down, at Trader Joe’s, and getting paid fairly well, I was able to do it.

Maybe the second inflection point in my comeback was when we bought our first condo and worked on it and flipped it and made money. Then we did it again with another house before the one we live in now. I can’t separate Karen from any of this. It’s like the second marriage and finances were also braided together.

Here the tempo speeds up, just like for Ali. I’m shaking it off, reaching out again with those exploratory left jabs.

All I can take any credit for is keeping my head down, showing up for work, day after day, and learning to shut the fuck up and listen to my wife’s fears about money and her good advice and following her discipline. Once in a while, I looked up and things were slowly getting better. I started to get some bumps in pay and responsibility, and I was building some retirement money. That was sometime around 2000, so I was late in my forties. I had been reeling for quite a few years.

I don’t know that I ever floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee, but I had my Muhammad Ali moment. I had my Billy Mills sprint to the finish.

I got my ass up off the canvas. I came back.

Read more of Craig Jones and his “GratiDude” HERE


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