Floored. Staring up groggily at the ring lights, the referee hovering nearby, midway through barking the 10 count.
As if he were Sonny Liston 2:12 into the now-legendary heavyweight title rematch over a half-century ago in Lewiston, Maine, KOed by Muhammad Ali’s famous “anchor punch.”
That’s how Mark Giordano felt.
“To be honest, I was shocked,” confesses the Flames’ captain. “Stunned.
“I grew up in a different era but to have your name associated with Muhammad Ali’s, and for a humanitarian award, is pretty special. Just a huge amount of respect for a guy like that, obviously.
“That’s not why you do charity work, to get awards, but when something like this happens, I won’t lie, it’s special.
“For my wife and I – she’s so heavily involved, too – this is probably the biggest honour you can think of.”
On July 11, a day before the annual ESPY’s, Giordano will be in in Los Angeles at the 2,300-seat The Novo as a finalist for ESPN’s Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian of the Year award.
The event celebrates leagues, teams and individuals who make a positive impact on society. Nominees pour in from across the sporting spectrum: MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, PGA Tour, USOC, USTA, WNBA and WWE, along with the NHL.
Giordano’s finalist competition is pretty prestigious in its own right: golfer Ernie Els, Arizona Cardinals’ wideout Larry Fitzgerald and NY Mets’ outfielder Curtis Granderson.
Ali’s daughter Laila will host the awards alongside ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and a one-hour highlight package from the evening will be aired on the network July 25.
Winners in each of four categories receive $100,000 to donate to charity of choice – all finalists $25,000 – but in truth, it’s the time, the commitment of these people that is the priceless currency.
“Sometimes,” admits Giordano, a Mark Messier Leadership Award nominee this year, too, “you’ve just gotta pinch yourself.
“If you’d told me 10 years ago I’d be captain of the team and be in the position I am today, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“Calgary is great community and our ownership group is committed to supporting people who do charity work. As captain of the team I want to be the guy that sets the example. Sometimes the easiest thing to do as a young guy is not do anything. ‘Oh, I’ll wait a few years, until I’m older.’
“Sometimes you need a little push.
“As captain, my actions can go a long way. A bunch of our younger guys are already really involved in charity work, which is great to see.
“As athletes, we’re in a position to give back. It’s our responsibility.”
Giordano and wife Lauren are, as everyone hereabouts is aware, heavily involved in charitable projects. One, the 5-for-5 initiative provided the funding to build five homes with Habitat for Humanity, one each in Ethiopia, India, Kenya, the Philippines, as well as here in Calgary. In 2014, they launched Team Giordano, which has aided 1,900 students in four high-needs Calgary schools.
In addition, Giordano stands behind vital community programs, supporting mental health and speaking out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 2014, the husband-wife team then launched the hugely-successful Team Giordano program, supplying vital resources, including computers, to Calgary schools. ‘Gio Journals’ track the progress of the students, promoting physical fitness alongside academics.
“When my wife and I started (Team Giordano) we didn’t know what was going to come of it,” admitted the 11-year Flame. “It’s been great over the last three years, it’s grown, and made a far bigger impact than we ever anticipated.”
The event in L.A. will be star-studded, to put it mildly, attended by the brightest of the sporting constellation.
“This is a bigger stage, right?” says Giordano. “The ESPYs are huge and this is aligned with them. It’s gonna be all new to us but it proves to myself and my wife what kind of an impact we can have.
“As I said before, nobody gets involved in charity work for recognition, but this is going to be cool.”
All athletes are, deep down, fans, too. Giordano wouldn’t mind bumping accidentally-on-purpose into, say, the Swiss Mr., tennis ace Roger Federer.
“Probably my favourite right now. The way he carries himself and the way he’s lasted at the highest of levels.
“So he’d be my No. 1.
“But there have been so may great athletes, past and present, over the years, to look up to.”
None greater, surely, than a skinny kid born Cassius Clay who grew up to become arguably the most recognizable human in the world of his time.
“I grew up in a different era, but I remember watching the highlights and seeing the movie about Ali’s life starring Will Smith,” says Giordano. “I’d like to think I know a lot about his career but I probably don’t know as much as my dad.
“But, really, who doesn’t know about Muhammad Ali?
“One of the greatest athletes ever who had a lot of moments in his life where he stood up for himself or for other people away from the boxing ring, for what he thought was right.”
The Greatest of All Time passed away just over a year ago.
But such was his commitment to humanitarian causes, to the spirit of the awards now bearing his name, that on the headstone of his final resting place at home in Louisville, Ky., there’s not a hint of the swagger or the singular athletic achievements, but simply the inscription:
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.”
Words to live by.
Giordano, 2017 Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian of the Year award nominee, surely does.
By George Johnson