Act One: the Onliest Boxer
“When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again.” Muhammad Ali’s words in quotation offer an almost unbearable frame to Hunter S. Thompson’s long, vivid portrait of Ali later in his career. “Last Tango in Vegas” is an odyssey really. Broken into two parts, “Last Tango” originally ran in two separate weeks of Rolling Stone; its writing is a terse and honest brutality that is finely crafted over the course of some 20-some thousand words. Ali however, naturally far quicker on the punch, gets to the heart of the matter much quicker, in a little under 75.
“When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again.” There’s a hurt to these words. But it’s not the convivial, easy-to-understand hurt that plays out with so many superstars. It’s not what the great Lester Bangs might have referred to as “the Cage of Fame”—something he identified around the time of the assassination of John Lennon, a kind of rabid pack mentality in fans where they publicly tear apart an artist by forcing her or him into a kind of creativity that the artist has become recognized for. The Cage of Fame means no newer, greener pastures for artists, but it equally means a world without novelty. A world where everything in it is less than equal to the circumstances and the resiliences that initially produced it.
There’s hurt in Ali’s words. But it’s not the easily palatable kind, not the recognizable hurt that comes with the Cage of Fame. This is a different hurt, one that can be traced back to the twentieth mathematician Kurt Gödel whose eponymous theorem states that any given system will invariably produce statements that cannot be proven by its interior mechanisms. This is the hurt of, What if it’s never enough? Or more poignantly for Ali, What if I’m never enough?
The full quote does the idea a darker justice. When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down’ll be there, but no more housewives and little men in the street and foreign presidents. It’s goin’ to be back to the fighter who comes to town, smells a flower, visits a hospital, blows a horn, and says he’s in shape. Old hat. I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.
The onliest boxer. The hurt is right there, in every line right from the get-go, right from “When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again.” It’s that pause, denoted by that comma, that makes a world of difference. It’s the moment of hesitation, the drawing of a short breath in the calm right before the storm. It’s just enough time to wonder, to doubt; can I commit to this? Or will saying it be going too far? Will saying this thing, expressing this idea, somehow break the world even further?
Without me, boxing will no longer be that thing that can unite housewives and foreign presidents and the little man on the street. There’s no piety to be found here. But there is a plea. If through me, boxing can be this thing in the world, then why can it not be this thing always? Why can’t someone else be me when I’m gone? Why can boxing only be this magnificent thing, because of someone; why not be this thing by itself? Why can’t this simply go on? Because some things, deserve to last forever.
This is a cry, a primal scream. But by 1978, by the time HST writes this article, the world has grown so accustomed to Ali’s pure shamanism in front of the mic, that even a primal scream scans at first like that patented mix of egomania and invulnerability. The world is so many disparate moving parts, Ali seems to say with this quote. And it’s just waiting on the right venue to bring all those parts together. Boxing has been that venue, but without me…
Act Two: Vegas was Our Gulag of Happy Endings
At first blush, HST doesn’t to get at this truth at all. Part One, “Fear & Loathing in the Near Room” is framed with the story of Pat Patterson, Ali’s bodyguard. It is the story about The Family, those who have gathered, and those who Ali himself gathered as a kind of shield against the world. It is the story of the people whose livelihoods have come to depend on Ali, and what losing to Leon Spinks that night in Vegas meant to Ali, and to them.
It’s the story of another Camelot, of the Kennedys of the Godfather II, of having made it through, and now being participant in all the wealth there is. But at the heart of this story is Ali, and what he made himself into to usher in Camelot for The Family. And in “the Near Room”, that story is threatened with being lost, sinking anonymously beneath the waves. But HST rallies. In “Fear & Loathing in the Far Room”, he cuts directly to brutally honest portraiture, painting the Champ in a light that few are capable of.
The warm-up takes us through a late night conversation between HST and his longtime pal Hal Conrad, one of the Champ’s handlers. It’s not the late-night conversation laced with tropes we’ve come to anticipate would be present in such conversations. There is no darkened hotel room. There is no spiritual excess being squandered recklessly. No bottle of whiskey, no broken tumblers, no eyes red from having seen the future or seen the world for what it truly is. No plea for one last hail mary at redemption. In every sense, this is a business call that should play out in the middle of the day. HST’s at La Guardia, Conrad’s at the Park Lane. Where are you? Come pick me up! Why didn’t the Champ recognize me on the flight in from Chicago when I dumped the story I was working on at your urging? Fix this, I’ve got a deadline!
All the while during this call HST’s considering dumping the assignment to make his deadline. Knowing that doing so would burn the friendship with Conrad. How did that Machiavellian intent come to appear? How did we slide into this? It’s rooted in Ali’s PR shamanism. “Conrad was trying,” HST writes, “I knew that—but I also knew that this time he was grasping at straws, because we both understood the deep and deceptively narrow-looking moat that 18 years of celebrity forced Ali to dig between his ‘public’ and his ‘private’ personas.” HST gets to the nut of the problem without demonizing Ali for needing to develop that shamanism. And he then leverages it to go even deeper.
It’s not that there was one moat, the Good Doctor writes. There were most likely nine. “Some people will settle happily for a smile and a joke in a hotel lobby,” HST writes, “and others will insist on crossing two or even three of his before they feel comfortably ‘private’ with The Champ… But very few people understand how many rings there really are… My own quick guess would be nine; but Ali’s quick mind and his instinct for public relations can easily make the third moat seem like the ninth; and this world if full of sporting journalists who never realized where they were until the same ‘private thoughts’ and ‘spontaneous bits of eloquence’ they had worked so desperately to glean from The Champ ins some rare flash that none other would ever share, appeared word for word in the cold black type, under somebody else’s byline.”
This really is the Godfather II. Or maybe American Gangster if it had been done in the ‘70s, and the popular imagination had been sufficiently robust to handle Frank Lucas’ story as a gangster biopic. It’s the rise to power of a man of layers, a man who can control his environment rather than be controlled by circumstance. Only to discover, circumstance trumps everything. And for this character arc, Vegas is the perfectest metaphor. Whatever happens in Vegas, the old saying goes… But what happens when Vegas is everywhere? Imagine a permanent condition of living the high life. Imagine living the high life as the only defense against mediocrity. “I once was, cool as the Fonz was,” Jay-Z raps on Drake’s “Light Up”, “but these bright lights turned me into a monster. Sorry Mama, I promised it wouldn’t change me, but I would have went insane had I remained the same me.”
Ali faces down that exact struggle. And in getting to Ali to try and tell his story, so does HST.
Act Three: Claiming Confidence
The onliest magician who ever got asked questions like a con artist. Or is that the other way around?
The problem with Hellblazer was that it painted master-mage John Constantine as something convincingly, convivially alien. Naturalized sure, he did enjoy a place in the DC Universe of old, but alien nonetheless. And there were some advantages. Constantine seemed untethered by the restrictions PR imposed on their audiences in an attempt to hit every demographic equally. But was Hellblazer Constantine’s own Cage of Fame?
There’s no doubt that writers Ray Fawkes and Jeff Lemire perform not only a convincing reboot but a convincing recalibration of the character in Constantine #1. They trace out almost exactly the same passage of the first two-part story of Hellblazer. A tangential friend, now that he’s in trouble, finds his way to Constantine. The trouble bodes bad things for the world at large. Constantine helps said friend by also helping himself. This task brings Constantine to contend with a powerful magician. Said friend is burnt on the altar of a safer, more loving world.
What is unique however, is Fawkes’ and Lemire’s framing of Constantine as a definite powerbroker of the sorcerous world, and their framing of this world within the world of recently-emergent superheroes. This is pulp comics, superhero comics of old, but with a modern twist. It’s the same project Gwen Stefani undertook when she made Love Angel Music Baby. Case in point: there’s “DC Comics Presents” caption introducing Constantine on the splash page. It reads: “Nearly destroyed by its temptations in his youth, John Constantine knows the price of magic’s corrupting influence all too well. Now he fights the battle to prevent anyone from becoming too powerful…” And, perhaps even more importantly, Constantine’s soliloquy as it appears in captions over the opening few pages:
Ordinary people, they operate within a certain set of parameters, right? Rules. Limits.
Then there’s blokes like me, yeah? We cheat.
We trick the universe into handing us effects without the cause. Things we didn’t earn.
We twist time and space and warp minds. Create life. For people like me, there are no rules. That’s magic. And that makes people like me, very dangerous.
Dangerous to everyone, ourselves included. You cheat the system and it tries to compensate. Nobody really understands how or why but it does.
Magic is costly, you don’t take what you didn’t earn, but you pay for it.
You want to trust me on that.
Course everything’s changing these days. Seems like you can’t throw a rock now without hitting someone who’s found a bloody alien ring or a bulletproof cape.
You think that’s a good thing? Well, you’re free to believe what you like.
The costumes have their uses. But somebody who knows what’s really going on needs to make sure nobody goes too far with the cheat.
Maybe that’s me.
Maybe that’s me. And of course, the grand prestidigitation lies in the very first line of the comicbook—“This is how the world is supposed to work…” Fawkes and Lemire, perhaps without intending to, slide Constantine perfectly into the gap between Ali’s primal cry for a better world where our institutions can be worthy of our aspirations, and the cold, cutting, calculated shamanism that both Ali and HST must enact to produce in the world the things they long to see produced.
And in that move, Fawkes and Lemire escape the Cage of Fame. Fawkes and Lemire are beyond canny, they’re inspired. Beyond shamanism, they’re mystical in the comprehension and execution of this longtime character of Constantine. There needs to be some epitaph here, something poignant. But all I can think to say is what’s already been said. These bright lights turned me into a monster. Sorry Mama, I promised it wouldn’t change me, but I would have went insane had I remained the same me.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More