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Sunday, June 05, 2016

Muhammad Ali

Though certainly not a surprise, given his poor health, the death of Muhammad Ali on Friday night still comes as a jolt, perhaps like one of his jabs. He was one of the most charismatic figures in sports, a man whose story was quintessentially American, but a world figure--for a time, maybe even still, the most famous man in the world.

There have been many remembrances and encomiums written. The best I've read so far is David Remnick's in the New Yorker. I can't come up with anything like that, so I can simply relate what he meant to me. Startlingly, perhaps, I must admit that I always used to root against him.

Ali, described in the headline in the New York Times as a "titan of boxing and the twentieth century," was most identified with the 1960s. That's when he won the gold medal, won the heavyweight championship in a shock over Sonny Liston, and then won the rematch with the "phantom punch," and when he was stripped of his title for refusing to submit to the military draft. But I knew him from his second incarnation, in the 1970s. The first fight I remember paying attention to was the one in which he again shocked the world by defeating George Foreman and regaining the title. That fight was not on network television, but I remember waking up the next day and learning, improbably, that he had won the fight.

For the next four years Ali ruled the heavyweight division with an almost invincible air. He had his scares--such as the "Thrilla in Manila," the third and final fight with Joe Frazier. But mostly he fought tomato cans: Jean-Pierre Coopman, Chuck Weber, Richard Dunn, Joe Bugner, etc. Many of these fights were on television, and my brother and I watched, rooting for the underdog ,but they were no contests. I remember his fight against Coopman, a Belgian who hardly threw a punch. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story about the fight with the headline, "Ali's Road Show Rolls On." He was like a three-ring circus all in one man. We knew little of Ali's place in history, other than that he was loud and frequently interviewed by the obnoxious Howard Cosell. When Ali took was staggered by hard-hitting Earnie Shavers, my brother and I got excited. When he lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, we were exultant.

I look back on those days with some embarrassment. Ali was more than a boxer, and if I were an adult during those days I think I would have changed my tune and been a fan. What we didn't know was that Ali was an icon, a man who transcended boxing, and paid a heavy price for it. When he was champ, his swagger was off-putting, especially to old-school reporters. White America liked their black athletes quiet, like Joe Louis. They were not accustomed to a black man speaking his mind, and proclaiming himself "The greatest of all time." It's sort of like today when white sports announcers disdain black athletes for showboating.

Ali was the most significant athlete of the twentieth century, except for Jackie Robinson. He changed the way black athletes are perceived. And his refusal to be inducted into the military cost him three years of his career. His point--that he had nothing against the yellow man, and why should he fight for people who lynch, was well taken. He was a man of principle, whether it was religious or not. As George Carlin put it, he beat people up for a living, but he drew the line at killing them.

What is also fascinating about Ali is how he stayed the same, but the entire nation turned in its attitude toward him. He was polarizing as a champion, but as an ex-champion he became almost universally beloved. I do remember some minor controversy when he was chosen to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996. Old timers still harbored a grudge about him not serving. Even after his death, we heard that same old refrain. A congressman named Martin Daniel embarrassed himself over it, even going so far as to calling him Cassius Clay. Imagine! Calling him Cassius Clay all these years later. When Ali changed his name, some of his opponents, such as Ernie Terrell, persisted in calling him Clay. How appropriate was it for him, while pummelling Terrell, to say, with each punch, "What's my name?"

Also, Ali's conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court, so his record is clean. There is such a thing as conscientious objection, believe it or not. He was a man of peace. If only we had more like him.

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