It’s at times like these I wish I could write at a level the subject matter deserves. However, in all honesty, I’m not sure there’s any columnist alive who could really do justice to the man … but I owe it to him to try. So I must.
If I fall short in my effort, I apologize in advance. One thing I do know that gives me great comfort is that he wouldn’t have judged my words harshly. Instead, he would have truly appreciated my sincere attempt to do him justice. That was his nature, his true self, and I loved him for it – we all loved him for it.
While visiting my grandkids in Marion over the weekend, I went to bed Friday night with the knowledge that Muhammad Ali – The Greatest – was on life support in an Arizona hospital and his condition was listed as “grave.” After finally falling asleep, I expected to wake up the next morning to the news that he had passed. I was right.
I couldn’t catch my breath and the tears could not be stopped. Although I’m fully aware that no one here gets out alive, I actually thought if there was anyone who could beat the odds and remain immortal, it was Muhammad Ali. But alas, it wasn’t to be. I’ve never felt so old or mortal as I did that Saturday. It still pains me to the core to think about it. Somebody please say it ain’t so.
My relationship with Muhammad began shortly after the 1960 Olympic Games. Known then as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. from Louisville, Ky., the 18-year-old phenom had won the gold medal in Rome and appeared to be destined for great things. Talk about an understatement.
During the next four years, Cassius worked his way through the professional ranks with a style, grace and athleticism no one had ever seen before. Possessing a god-like combination of power, speed and talent, the young man knocked out everyone who dared stand in front of him.
A huge fan of boxing and the Olympics, I began to follow his career closely. As time went by and more and more pretenders hit the canvas, Clay’s confidence grew exponentially with each victory and he wasn’t afraid to tell anyone who would listen that he was, in fact, The Greatest and couldn’t possibly be beat.
With his over-the-top, braggadocio style and a mouth that never quit talking, the “Louisville Lip” drew attention to himself from far and wide. Although he wasn’t the No. 1 contender for the heavyweight championship, the good-looking kid made it clear that the current champ, Sonny Liston, was next on his radar and boldly proclaimed that he would beat the “Big Ugly Bear.”
People thought the 22-year-old was a bit off kilter. Liston was known for his immense power and strength, and his reputation as a thug – a leg breaker and enforcer for organized crime lords – was justified. By the time Clay had talked his way into the fight in 1964, there were many, even his own fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, who thought Liston wouldn’t just beat the rather obnoxious loudmouth, he might kill him.
As the fight drew closer, Clay’s boasting and ego grew stronger with each passing day. He used poetry to express himself and predict what would happen in each of his fights, and more often than not, he was spot on. “This ain’t no jive, so-and-so is gonna go down in five,” he’d proclaim to the world -- and then he’d make it happen.
But not everyone liked his act … not by a long shot. America was still in racial turmoil at that time, and a lot of white folks thought the big mouth &%$#@ (the word is obvious) needed to be put in his place with a solid whupping from Liston. Put another way, they hated the black kid from Louisville and they wanted Liston to shut him up for good.
As a devoted fan of the man, I loved everything about Cassius and saw right through his “act.” He was well aware that his antics and braggartly ways would make the powers-that-be so mad they’d give him a shot at the title. He was right again.
My father, a smart man, was among those who wanted to see Clay get his head knocked off. I told him Liston was going down, and he just laughed.
The night of the fight, I took my transistor radio to bed, pulled the covers up over my head, and listened to the round-by-round description of the action. When Liston refused to come out for the seventh round because Clay was beating the snot out of him, I erupted and ran through the house screaming, “He really is The Greatest.”
Film clips that followed showed Cassius rejoicing and saying, “I shook up the world. I’m only 22 years old, I don’t have a mark on my face and I just beat Sonny Liston. I must be The Greatest.”
Shortly thereafter, Cassius Clay converted to Islam, changed his “slave name” to Muhammad Ali and offered a message of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.
In 1966, he refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military as a conscientious objector and was found guilty of draft evasion. With the possibility of a 4-5-year prison sentence facing him, Ali calmly stated, “I’ve been in prison for 400 years (meaning African Americans), so another four or five years doesn’t matter.”
Although the conviction was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, Ali was unable to fight in America for nearly four years during the peak of his career. Many thought his time in the spotlight was over, but The Greatest came back to win the title two more times and clearly established himself as the best boxer of all time (with apologies to former heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano who was a perfect 49-0 when he was killed in a plane crash).
Despite his remarkable talent as a pugilist and an entertainer, the thing that really stood out for me is the way Ali won the hearts and love of those who had previously despised him. Through his generous nature and firm belief that all of God’s children are great in some way, he taught us all to believe in ourselves and the goodness of … well … being good.
The ravages of Parkinson’s disease took their toll on the man and reduced him to a mere shell of what he once was, but it never diminished that sparkle he had in his eyes. I saw that spark immediately, and it drew me in. He was my champion. The world’s champion. I doubt we’ll ever see another like him and I’m grateful I was alive during the time of Muhammad Ali.
If I had to pick three words to describe Ali they would be confidence, charisma and courage. The confidence to take on the biggest and the baddest -- both in the ring and out of it -- and yet stick to his ideals. The charisma to win over the admiration of his enemies and charm the world. And the courage to stand up for his convictions – even if it meant giving up his title and possibly going to prison.
He genuinely loved people … all people, regardless of the color of their skin … and he demonstrated that love for the remainder of his days.
Did he shake up the world? Oh my yes. So long champ. You’ll always be The Greatest.