Editor’s Note: This guy was a hero of my youth. And it means a lot more to me today, because he didn’t start out a hero in my mind, because I was too stupid ... I had to grow into it ... I had to grow up.


A Superlative Departed; a Light Extinguished

“Hating someone because of his color is wrong. It’s wrong both ways;
it doesn’t matter which color does the hating.”

                                                          — Muhammad Ali

 

You expect some people to live forever. I hadn’t thought much about Muhammad Ali in the past few decades. I don’t even follow boxing anymore, but still it’s hard to believe that he’s gone, taking with him a piece of my youth.

I’d never heard of Cassius Clay until the lead-up to his first championship fight, when he was suddenly all over TV, newspapers and magazines. I’m ashamed to admit that I hoped the champion, Sonny Liston, would pummel him into dust, although Clay was an Olympic gold medalist, and Liston was a Mafia thug.

Eleven-year olds have few solid opinions of their own, so they mainly think like the adults around them. In 1964, even a athlete who moved like a dancer and turned brutal combat into an art form was expected to be modest and respectful, especially if he was “colored.” So, like most white Americans, I rooted for the taciturn ex-convict and leg-breaker for the mob to shut the mouth of the glib, handsome and clean-living Clay.

My family couldn’t afford to watch Liston pulverize the brash young challenger on closed-circuit TV in a movie theater, so we listened to round-by-round summations on AM radio. I was disappointed when Clay TKOed the reputedly unbeatable Liston.

The new champion was offensive to a generation that recalled the self-effacing Joe Louis. During World War II, Louis had enlisted in an army in which white soldiers were willing to eat with captured Nazis, but not with colored GIs. And after the war, America continued believing it was okay for negroes to die for America, but not to live here as full-fledged citizens.

Cassius Clay brought home a gold medal to his country, but was refused service in a whites-only restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. So, he threw his medal in the Ohio River, which many people saw as “uppity” and disrespectful.

As champion, he earned respect for his skills, but he never learned humility, and converting to Islam and changing his name didn’t improve his image. When he refused to be drafted, moronic sportswriters called him “a coward.” As if someone who steps into a ring with heavyweights trained to separate one’s head from one’s shoulders could possibly be a coward.

During World War II, Louis had fought exhibitions to sell War Bonds. Even a racist country isn’t stupid enough to turn the heavyweight champion into cannon fodder. Louis did what he had to do to pick up the crumbs from the white man’s table. Ali lived in a different era — a time he helped create — so he set his own table. Offered a deal like Louis’, Ali rejected it. He had too much self-respect for his own good.

Ali’s banishment caused mixed reactions — sadness a great athlete was gone and frustration he’d refused to serve the country that was abusing his people. Idled for the best years of his boxing life, he forfeit his prime — his right to work unconstitutionally taken from him, even though he was never convicted of anything.

By the time he returned from exile, the Vietnam War had lost its luster. Ali, who had stated that, “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” hadn’t changed — some of the rest of us had caught up with him. He’d been right all along, and to many of us, he was now a hero.

 

I suffered when he lost to Joe Frazier and when Ken Norton broke his jaw. Before he beat George Foreman — at the time a thug with even more murderous punching power than Liston — many fans, myself included, worried this frightening monster might kill him.

In an age of antiheroes, Ali was a contradictory mix of saint and sinner. He was a bad husband, and sometimes a bad winner who tortured outclassed opponents, like Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell. But he also declined to continue punching an overweight and helpless Buster Mathis, because “I gotta look good to God.” At the same time, this man, who was too kind to hunt animals, cruelly and unfairly tormented Joe Frazier, a good man and a courageous opponent, who deserved better treatment.

Sometimes smart and sometimes stupid, he was often a role model, and often not. Always bigger than life, he was, like the rest of us, imperfect and exasperating. Like Malcolm X, he started out as a religious fanatic who railed against whites and non-Muslims, but, like Malcolm’s, his faith morphed into a kinder, gentler Islam.

In his youth, he was called a “pretty boy” who fought like he was avoiding contact. Later, the man-child became a man, who absorbed terrible punishment, as he did in the brutal Frazier fight in Manila, which he described as being “like death.” His ability to take a punch became the measure of the man, and he proved his courage too often.

When he beat Leon Spinks in 1978 to win the championship for the third time, he should have retired. His comeback attempt against Larry Holmes was a sad, pathetic spectacle, and even his conqueror cried after beating him nearly senseless.

He quit too late, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s syndrome from too many blows to the head. When he came back as a silent icon to light the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, many in the audience wept. His body was shaking, but there was a smile on his face.

Now that smile has been extinguished. In a world filled with the famous — politicians, actors, athletes, singers and those who are celebrities for no reason at all — there are few truly memorable people. Today, there’s one less.


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