Muhammad Ali – A True Champion, R.I.P.

By Steve Lee | June 4, 2016 | So few people in American and even world history have drawn so much feeling, both positive and negative...

By Steve Lee | June 4, 2016 |

So few people in American and even world history have drawn so much feeling, both positive and negative, hostile and endearing, as Muhammad Ali.

I’d like to think that in retrospect, long after the Vietnam war, we can at least understand Ali’s decision to refuse induction, even if many don’t agree, still today, with his decision.
Remember, it was the height of the civil rights movement. It was 1967, he was 25 and the reigning World Heavyweight Champion, a title that at the time was the highest accolade in sport. That title would have insured that he would have spent his entire military commitment protected from warfare, simply promoting the war effort and giving exhibitions. He was the most recognizable person in the United States due to his abilities and his brashness. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still being challenged regularly by the southern states. This same year, Ali converted to Islam, became a Muslim. He said Islam was a religion of peace and that he had no desire to engage in combat with those who'd done him or his family no harm.
Ali had grown up in the south, exposed to segregated schools and other public businesses, separate bathrooms and water fountains. He had seen lynchings, been called “nigger.” He knew of our own inhumanities here in the states. He had no quarrel with Southeast Asians.

"Shoot them for what?" Ali stated after he refused induction. "They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They never put dogs on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. What do I want to shoot them for, for what? Why do I want to go shoot them, poor little people and babies and children and women? How can I shoot them? Just take me to jail."

He gave up his ability to earn a living at the height of his ability to do so, a living that would have made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. He risked prison to stand behind his beliefs. He certainly wasn’t a coward, his convictions ran deep. He became almost destitute, not being able to box. He scratched out a modest living on a limited speaker’s circuit during his mid-20’s. Despite his financial difficulties, Ali stood steadfast in his convictions and was central in changing public perceptions of US involvement in the war. Like so many, I have learned to hate the war, but embrace the warriors. All who served have my adulation and my thanks.
I recall as a young boy at the time, being torn between the incredibly gifted boxer I had seen on TV who proclaimed he was “The Greatest” as well as being “…a bad man!” Certainly some of the more powerful memories of my childhood, weighed against the ridicule and hate I witnessed as he refused military induction.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,
Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see!
I recall like it was yesterday, the first Ali-Frazier fight, “The Fight of The Century.” I found myself rooting for Ali. He was so graceful, so quick, so brash. The fight was brutal. Frazier won after a knockdown turned the tide Frazier’s way. Boxing was at its height, at least it’s height during my lifetime. Both Ali and Frazier were the Michael Jordan’s and Kobe’s of their time.
Those follow up fights with Frazier were almost as memorable as the first. They truly hated each other at the time. It was always war and both refused to go down or quit. I recall feeling concern for Ali when he agreed to fight George Foreman, then the champ at the “Rumble in The Jungle” in Africa. Foreman was a devastating hitter with a 40-0 record with 39 knockouts. Ali’s speed and power and largely diminished by this point in his career. Due to those Frazier fights, the toll was becoming evident that Ali’s prime was well behind him.
Ali went into his “Rope-a-Dope” wearing Foreman out and then in with Foreman’s energy zapped, went in for the kill, taking Foreman out and regaining the title. Ali really cemented in my mind that night; he was “The Greatest.”
In retrospect, those devastating fights with Frazier, Foreman and later against Larry Holmes, had to hasten the onset of Parkinson’s that devastated Ali later in life.
I recall so fondly the Howard Cosell / Ali interviews on Wide World of Sports those Saturday afternoons. How entertaining those were. They were made for each other and they knew it and played off each other so well. I’d cringe when Ali would reach for Cosell’s toupee. So entertaining.
After his boxing career ended, Ali began a philanthropic career that largely went unnoticed due to his lack of drawing attention to his acts, a 180 degree turn from his earlier years when he demanded notoriety. For the rest of his life Ali worked to promote the cause of peace and charity.
The most popular athlete in the world for years, he commanded attention everywhere he went, he would always be willing to do charitable acts, but said he didn't want cameras or reporters around because he didn't want anyone to think he was doing it for the publicity.
Ali stated, "I'm blessed by God to be recognized as the most famous face on the Earth today. And I cannot think of nothing better than helping God's creatures or helping poverty or good causes where I can use my name to do so."
"Wars on nations are fought to change maps, but wars on poverty are fought to map change. The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life,” Ali opined.

Many may not remember, but in 1990, shortly before the first Gulf War between the U.S. and Iraq, he flew to Baghdad to speak with Saddam Hussein to secure the release of 15 U.S. hostages. Hussein agreed to release the hostages after meeting with Ali.
I had the privilege of meeting Ali in 1987, he had been previously been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and his motor skills and speech were diminished, but he still was a demanding presence. It was like meeting loyalty or a president. We spoke briefly, shook hands, he signed an autograph for me and he smiled ear-to-ear when I said, “Thanks, Champ!

Larger than life, and a life truly lived to its fullest.

R.I.P. Muhammad

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1 comment

Josie said...

What a great article and I too enjoyed those Howard Cosell / Ali interviews on Wide World of Sports.

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