Regardless of whether Muhammad Ali is a shell of his former self in Friday’s opening ceremony, he always will be, in my mind, as he was that day in Manila with Joe Frazier: vicious and ruthless and somehow greater than he had ever been.
He and Frazier became immortal in that ring, their names forever intertwined as a result and their individual greatness increased by their rivalry. And so it is with Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps at this Olympics. As amazing as Phelps was four years ago in Beijing, winning eight gold medals, more than any athlete at a single Olympics before him, he and Lochte together are greater than Phelps was on his own.
In boxing, they like to say styles make fights. This is also true in swimming. There have never been two swimmers who complement each other more than Lochte and Phelps and bring out the best in each other.
For a myriad of reasons, Lochte has become Phelps’ motivation.
Lochte is a determined little cuss who, after watching Phelps dominate the pool, the world and him in Beijing, brought an insane work ethic to the next four years. He lived and breathed and dreamt of beating Phelps, which he did at the World Championships. And Phelps, like legendary athletes do when beaten, took this as a challenge, not an ending. Finally, he had somebody to push him and he responded by pushing back.
This is going to be a fight, a fight that begins Saturday with the 400-meter individual medley.
Why else would Phelps swim the 400 IM, the most grueling of all the Olympic events and an event he vowed never again to do after winning gold in world-record time in Beijing? Because this, too, is Lochte’s signature event and the first of the Olympics, and Phelps needed the challenge. What do you do after winning eight gold medals and being declared the greatest swimmer? How do you motivate yourself?
You do not. He did not for almost three years.
Maybe he could not, not until Lochte tugged on his cape and then kicked his ass at the World Championships in Shanghai. That woke Phelps up, got him back in the pool. That is why he is in position to win another seven gold medals in London.
Phelps needed Lochte, needed the challenge. That’s what motivates elite athletes, when seemingly nothing else can, the sight of somebody else being greater. And once Phelps was sucked back into the fight, he knew how to do it only one way: be dominant. That meant religious training and going all in and beating everybody else.
This is why Amy Van Dyken was so dominant in Olympics. She deliberately sought out rivals like Jenny Thompson and won — and won convincingly. They were not her friends. They were conquests. Sides had to be picked.
Much like Ali and Frazier seemingly demanded loyalty, for one and against the other, Phelps and Lochte also force this kind of choice. People love Phelps because he is the greatest swimmer and he’s back. Or people love Lochte because he undertook the arduous task of beating Phelps and has.
There is no public rancor or flinging of taunts. Lochte and Phelps are mostly friendly when together, and their dueling press conferences Thursday were downright boring. This is more a sign of the times than the rivalry. Athletes are mostly vanilla. This is also swimming.
There is no ring, no death blows, no blood, only the torture of following the lines for miles at paces most of us could hold only for a couple of meters. They do so until their lungs burn and their muscles betray them, then they do it again in the afternoon. The difference between boxing and swimming is you beat your own body up to beat your opponent, and this 400 IM will beat them up.
I doubt we will look back on London like Manila, based on what I have read and seen in hazy footage from that fight. The parallel is how two great athletes can become greater when they step into their arena — boxing ring, pool, court — together. It is not simply about competition. It is about what happens when two are driven to beat one another, the lengths to which sheer will and one-upmanship and pride can carry an athlete.
In Manila, it left Frazier in a room unable to see out of either eye. In his amazing book, Ghosts of Manila, Mark Kram has a quote about the impact: “Ali influenced Joe so much he’s the determined man he is today. A couple of ghosts, if you ask me. One is still in the ring in Manila, the other doesn’t even know there was a Manila. It was a bad reckoning for both that day.”
A great swimmer will lose at this Olympics, on Day 1, in a race that both desperately want. And because of this, whatever happens to them, they will forever be intertwined in our minds.