Commentary

Tiger's comeback tougher than Ali's

Originally Published: March 3, 2010
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

Tiger Woods, Muhammad AliGetty Images

Ever see those crazy guys in the park playing speed chess? They're flying along at warp speed, trusting their instincts and trying to avoid one mistake that might get them checkmated. That's what doing an online chat is like. Writing a column is like chess; you have time to mull strategies and move pieces into the right places. But an online chat? Speed chess.

My Friday chat on ESPN.com drew 42,000 questions. The total transcript was 9,600 words, and because I probably typed two-thirds of them, that means I banged out about 6,400 words in three hours. When I wasn't typing, I was sifting through questions looking for a good one to post. Didn't pee. Didn't get a drink. Didn't even stand up. Just emptied my brain on a keyboard.

Now here's why I rarely do chats anymore: Under speed chess conditions, it becomes exceedingly possible that either (A) I might say something inappropriate, (B) I might infuriate my bosses in some way or (C) I might argue a point incorrectly without realizing it until later. On Friday, I made a mistake comparing the 2010 Tiger Woods to the 1970 Muhammad Ali, saying Tiger's comeback would be much tougher because "everyone under 35 was rooting for Ali." Total hyperbole that never would have happened had I spent more time thinking about it. More importantly, I botched a quality point that could have made for an interesting column.

Let's return to my admittedly rushed thesis …

When Tiger Woods returns to golf, he will face a level of pressure that well surpasses anything any other transcendent athlete has faced in my lifetime.

Yeah. Absolutely. Let's hop on the course and play nine holes (in the form of points) to bang home the point that, yes, Tiger's presumed return to golf in 2010 will be significantly more difficult than Ali's return to boxing in 1970.

Hole No. 1 (par 4)
Tiger hasn't played golf competitively in four months. As far as we know, until this week he hasn't played a single hole since mid-November. Just Tuesday, there was a news article saying Tiger has returned home and is "trying to get back into a routine that includes golf and fitness." Trying to get back into a routine? That sounds ominous.

Hole No. 2 (par 4)
The man is coming off two significant derailments: Reconstructive knee surgery (summer 2008) and a self-imposed exile (winter of 2009-10). In a 41-month stretch from 2005 through the 2008 U.S. Open, Tiger reeled off 25 PGA Tour titles (six of them majors). Is that guy gone? How many times have we seen an imposing golfer lose his way and never regain his mojo? Remember when Tom Watson stopped making big putts? Remember when Greg Norman lost his confidence after too many collapses? Golf is a mental sport. You need a ton of self-confidence, you need an unwavering belief in your own talents and you need to be able to tune out any and all distractions. Hell, Tiger could barely handle someone's camera clicking during his backswing. He's going to be able to handle … this?

[+] EnlargeTiger and Elin Woods
AP Photo/Rob CarrTiger would undoubtedly love to turn the clock back to 2006, when he won the PGA Championship.

(Note: When Ali returned from his exile with rusty skills, he stopped dancing as much, absorbed more punishment and learned to pick his spots. As his skills slipped even further later in his career, he absorbed insane amounts of punishment and banked on his innate will to prevail in the end. That's the main reason he can barely say a sentence right now. If Tiger comes back with similar rust, I can't imagine him being able to change his style on the fly as Ali did. Either it comes back or it doesn't.)

Hole No. 3 (par 3)
Don't discount Tiger's advancing age (34) at this point. Watson never won another major after he turned 34; neither did Arnold Palmer, Fred Couples, Seve Ballesteros or Curtis Strange. Nick Faldo won only one major after 34 -- the 1996 Masters that Norman choked away. Only Jack Nicklaus thrived from 34 to 40 (16 PGA Tour titles, three majors), although Norman (eight Tour titles, one major) and Lee Trevino (six titles, one major) also fared pretty well. Tom Kite peaked after he turned 34. Nick Price won two majors at 37; Mark O'Meara won his only two at 41. And sure, Tiger was better than all of those guys. But none of those guys had to keep winning while rebuilding his life after a DEFCON 1 public humiliation.

Hole No. 4 (par 4)
Winning his wife back will require significant effort -- certainly more than Tiger spent on his family pre-Thanksgiving. Ali, Jordan, Tiger pre-2010 … part of what made them great was that they weren't family men. Families were just another thing they owned, no different from cars, houses or whatever. Everything was compartmentalized, and nothing was allowed to affect the overall brand. The brand came first. Always. Because Tiger appears to be serious about keeping his family intact, how could that not affect his golf routine to some degree? And what about dealing with the day-to-day stuff any philandering husband faces while trying to win back a wife battling trust issues?

Why didn't you answer when I called? Why does your BlackBerry have a password again? Who's going on this trip with you?

When Ali's second marriage finally fell apart while he was training for the George Foreman fight in Zaire, he simply fell for someone else (the beautiful Veronica Porsche, who later dumped him right around when the Parkinson's started kicking in) and dumped his dutiful wife, Belinda. (Brutally, actually. She heard about him squiring around with someone else, then flew across the world to confront him. Didn't work.) Ali ended up winning the two biggest fights of his career in succession: Foreman and the third Joe Frazier fight. He didn't care about hurting his brand; if anything, the media in Zaire covered up the love triangle. Had he been more worried about his brand, losing everything he had, keeping his family together and rehabbing his public image, wouldn't that have affected his performances in the Foreman and Frazier fights at least a little?

Hole No. 5 (par 4)
Once upon a time, everyone left Tiger alone, partly because the media didn't want to piss him off, partly because he crafted such a good buffer between himself and the outside world, and partly because there wasn't anything sexy or interesting about him. That's how he lived from 1997 to 2009. Even named his boat "Privacy." And really, he had it.

Not anymore. Tiger will spend the rest of his playing days as Jordan did in the latter half of his Chicago career -- trapped in hotel suites and charter planes, occasionally emerging to play sports, and if he needs to blow off steam, his options are "the nearest high-stakes gambling area," and that's about it. I'm not saying Tiger's life was normal before Thanksgiving, but he didn't have paparazzi stalking him, tabloids making up things about him, bloggers chronicling his every move and people taping him with camera phones everywhere he goes. Fish, meet bowl. And he's a big-ass fish. How will he handle it? We don't know.

[+] EnlargeAli
AP Photo/Ed KolenovskyAli's court case received plenty of media attention, but it was nothing like today's 24/7 news cycle.

Hole No. 6 (par 5)
Forget about Ali; not even Jordan faced anything like the current sports/celebrity climate. It can't even be called a 24/7 news cycle anymore. It's like 72/7. TMZ, Us Weekly, People, Star, gossip blogs, sports blogs, 24-hour sports radio, ESPN talking heads, six mainstream sports Web sites, camera phones, message boards, YouTube, flip cameras, Twitter … are you kidding me? Would you want to be a famously shamed athlete striving to regain past success in 2010?

Plus, Jordan had the buffer of a basketball court. Ali had the buffer of a boxing ring and just a few fights per year. Golf? Doesn't work that way. You're walking among fans for hole after hole. They're right there. Always. Studying every move you make from as close as five feet away. And you can't come and go; you need to be out there swinging your sticks week after week after week in city after city after city. Which means this will be a traveling sideshow, at least for the first few months.

Hole No. 7 (par 4)
How will the fans react? Do we know? Do we have any inkling? I could see the turmoil eventually turning him into a sentimental underdog; after all, we watched him go through the Celebrity F--- up Car Wash, dissected it, made our jokes, broke it down at cocktail parties, and now, selfishly, we're ready to see him reclaim "best golfer ever" status. That's the most idealistic view of how it plays out. But we don't know. And I guarantee you, neither does Tiger Woods.

Remember, everybody has been rooting for him since he was wowing Mike Douglas as a 2-year-old. Although we've seen tournaments when another golfer swayed the gallery from him, Tiger always knew where he stood with fans. But what about now? (On Wednesday, an ABC News/ESPN poll revealed that only 39 percent of the 1,000 respondents surveyed had a favorable impression of Tiger, compared with 85 percent in 2005.) Golf and tennis are the two worst possible sports for any elephant-in-the-room situation, thanks to dead silence nearly all the time. Every heckle will feel like an uber-heckle. Every cheer for a competing golfer will feel even more biting than usual. Again, think of how he reacted on the golf course pre-Thanksgiving. How will he handle it?

(Note: The 2008 U.S. Open catapulted Tiger to a different level. Winning it on one leg did for him what the Foreman fight did for Ali and the 72-win season did for MJ: It made everyone say, "We're now at the point that I'm going to be telling my great-grandkids that I watched this guy. So let the winning continue!" As long as we don't have a hometown favorite involved, we're always going to root for greatness over anything else. That's the best place to be as an athlete -- people pulling for you, always, week after week, with the athlete feeding off their strength. Can he win that back?)

Hole No. 8 (par 3)
When Ali returned from his Vietnam-related exile, he had two massive groups of people pulling for him: Black America and the anti-war movement. He was part of something bigger than he was; that gave him additional motivation to persevere, and if anything, he fed off those two worlds. Tiger isn't part of anything. Where will he draw that extra strength from if the fans don't come through for him?

(Note: I thought about delving into the whole "women hate Tiger" angle here, but I'm not sure it has anything to do with anything. Just know that if he plays the 2010 Masters, my wife will be rooting for him to accidentally club himself in the head on every swing. And I don't think she's alone.)

Hole No. 9 (par 5)
The biggest wrinkle nobody is mentioning: What if this starts out badly? What if Tiger plays a couple of tournaments and just stinks? What if he can't get anything going? What if the dominant story becomes, "Will Tiger Woods ever get it back?" What if he's dealing with that question constantly, day after day, week after week, city after city, over and over and over again, and that doubt seeps into his head? Ali fought only every few months and had the luxury of picking cream-puff opponents if need be. Tiger will be competing against himself week after week -- not just his potential, but the ghost of what he could once do. There's no greater pressure in sports.

Now, there's a chance golf will become something of a sanctuary for Tiger Woods -- a little like what basketball meant to Jordan in those final Chicago seasons. Including playoffs, Jordan played 310 of a possible 310 games in three seasons from 1996 through 1998. Why? Because he was a hypercompetitive maniac, but also because a basketball court was one of the few places that made him happy. I could see this happening with Tiger. Potentially. There's also a chance Tiger could come roaring out of the gate in Eff You Mode and give us an exhilarating stretch of golf like we've never seen in our lives. Everything's in play.

At gunpoint, if I could wager on any conceivable scenario, I would wager on Tiger coming back in severe Eff You Mode, like a seething MJ in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals. The greatest ones have a way of channeling negativity and fueling it toward whatever makes them great. Jordan made a habit of it. So did Ali. But they were also larger-than-life personalities, whereas Tiger was always just someone who was freakishly good at golf and that's it.

So it remains to be seen whether Tiger has Severe Eff You DNA. But if you were him, would you have rather had this saga happen in 1970 or 2010? It's no contest. He's being picked apart like a biology frog right now, and we won't know whether three months (and counting) of ridicule and shame permanently derailed his confidence in any way. Only when he emerges from hiding and starts playing again will we have our answer.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali
AP Photo/Joe Holloway Jr.By the time Ali returned to fight Jerry Quarry in 1970, he had legions of supporters.

That brings us to Ali. His exile lasted almost 43 months, with the former champ finally returning for an exhibition in Atlanta (September 1970), then his first official fight against Jerry Quarry a few weeks later. Unlike Tiger, Ali loved the limelight and remains the greatest natural resource the sports media ever encountered. He traveled to dozens of college campuses and spoke out about racial injustice and his stance against the war. He had two enormous allies in Howard Cosell (the most powerful sports broadcaster at the time) and Sports Illustrated (the most powerful sports magazine), as well as a phalanx of big-name writers (George Plimpton, Dick Schaap, etc.) who attached themselves to him and sang his praises. He never had to deal with a 24/7 news cycle; if anything, it was a once-a-week cycle. Either way, it wouldn't have mattered. Ali always loved being the center of attention.

You can't overstate how much Ali's life changed from 1967 (when he was considered a draft-dodging, uppity, outspoken negro who had the gall to adopt a Muslim name, and if that's not enough, it seemed as though he was headed for jail) to the fall of 1970 (when he had been reinvented as something of a visionary in a country now obsessed with the Vietnam quagmire and equal rights). Heading into the Quarry fight, he still had Old-School White America against him (then again, so did Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor), as well as pro-war zealots (then again, so did countless celebrities and musicians who also spoke out against the war) and even some prominent writers (most notably Red Smith and Jim Murray) still excoriating him. His biggest issue was a suspension by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad -- a rift that healed only because Ali became a cash cow postexile, so of course the Nation of Islam quickly made amends -- that briefly worried his camp about his safety.

But the pressures of Ali's exile (especially in the first two years) shouldn't be confused with the pressure of his actual comeback (which wasn't nearly as daunting as you would think). By the fall of 1970, Ali wasn't getting hounded by paparazzi or picked apart by an obsessive media. If anything, he lost a little fame as the exile dragged along, and he fell out of public consciousness to some degree. Sports Illustrated put him on its cover in May 1969, then deemed him unworthy of another until the month of the first Frazier fight nearly two years later. In the weeks leading up to the Quarry fight, most of the anti-Ali stuff had died down or disappeared entirely. He had evolved into a "political and social force," as biographer Thomas Hauser described him. In Hauser's book, longtime boxing promoter Jim Jacobs described in detail how things had changed for Ali after getting stripped of his title:

"A substantial portion of the American public disliked him, and worse, they were getting tired of hearing what he was about. But the exile turned that around. It showed people that Ali was sincere. It made him an underdog. … And traveling around the country, speaking on college campuses, Ali was able to bring his message to tens of thousands of young men and women. In a way, it was like a Presidential candidate sowing the seeds for future caucuses and primaries. And of course, people began to feel that whether or not they liked Ali, he shouldn't have been forced out for his beliefs … (when he came back against Quarry), Ali was paid more money for that fight than he'd ever been paid before."

Here's how Sports Illustrated's Martin Kane described Ali's first exhibition fight in Atlanta:

"The roof did not fall in. No one threw a bomb. Fire and brimstone did not rain down from heaven and no one was turned into a pillar of salt. There wasn't even a picket outside the Morehouse College gym in Atlanta -- just a pretty girl distributing election campaign pamphlets. Not a peep of protest had been uttered -- in Atlanta or elsewhere -- during the few days of promotion that preceded the event." By that time, Ali had softened much of his pro-Islam rhetoric, picked his words more thoughtfully and started caring about the potentially unflattering actions of the people around him. Sports Illustrated's Mark Kram visited him before the Quarry fight and described him like so:

"The suspension by Elijah seems to have jolted him into extreme caution; a need and desire for money so that he can ensure the future of his family seems to have made him conscious of the practical aspects of the world. Where he was once one of the indefatigable consumers anywhere, a one-man war against recession, he now behaves like a careful prince of commerce. Even his camp, once so virulent with contempt for others, is of a different character. Cap'n Sam, Ali's bodyguard and inspired white hater, is gone, and Ali's craftily obedient brother is obviously absent. Only Bundini, his phrasemaker and 'witch doctor,' remains. 'All I think about now,' says Ali, 'is providing for my family so they won't have it as difficult as I did. So my three little darling girls can get a good education and learn from the beginning how to read and spell. Not like me.'"

When Ali finally returned to the ring for real, a considerable number of Americans were rooting for him -- not "everyone," as I stupidly overstated in the chat, but a sizable chunk -- and the event itself captured the revolutionary spirit of that era. Activist Julian Bond described the Quarry fight "like nothing I've ever seen, the black elite of America was there" and decided it was "more than a fight … because that night, Atlanta came into its own as the black political capital of America." Ali's comeback tapped into something larger than just boxing. And he knew it.

Within three years, Muhammad Ali would become America's most popular athlete since Babe Ruth. He changed some; the world around him changed even more. But I skimmed through my collection of Ali books, read the old Sports Illustrateds and even sifted through the New York Times articles from that year, and at no point in the fall of 1970 did anyone wonder whether Ali might fold from the pressure of that comeback. He had come to peace with everything that had happened to him. He just wanted to reclaim his career. Sure, there were concerns for his safety in such a violent era -- in fact, policemen and security guards blanketed Atlanta for the exhibition and for the real fight -- but those concerns proved to be unfounded. Nothing happened.

Forty years later, many people (including me) wonder whether Tiger Woods might fold under the pressure of his comeback. It's a fair concern. The pressures aren't nearly as meaningful as the ones surrounding Ali -- one of the most important, courageous and influential athletes ever -- but they remain pressures nonetheless. Add them together, and it's no contest. When Ali actually returned in September 1970, it was a cakewalk compared with what Tiger will face this month or next month or whenever he actually returns.

Regardless, I probably shouldn't do chats anymore -- not because I screwed up but because it's dumb to waste points better served in a larger format such as this column. The greatest golfer of his generation, and possibly ever, has to rebuild three things -- his family, career and brand -- while trying to win tournaments and recapture old glories. The most private superstar athlete of his generation will live under unbearable public scrutiny for the next few months at the very least. They are the same person. And if you claim that you can predict exactly how that person will emerge from this twisted mess … you are lying.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller, "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.