On the evening of February 25, 1964, I lay in bed listening to a transistor radio which was broadcasting the epic battle for the heavyweight championship of the world, then held by the fearsome, scowling, ex-inmate Sonny Liston. No one wanted him to win. The eyes of the world bypassed Liston and his crushing left hook and approvingly settled on the 22-year old, movie-star handsome, irreverent Cassius Marcellus Clay, the pre-hip hop, poetry spouting “Louisville Lip.” “The Mouth that Roared.” “Gaseous Cassius.” You wanted him to win, but mostly, you hoped he wouldn’t be killed.
When Liston failed to answer the bell for the 7th round, Clay owned the planet; the radio station began to play Gene McDaniels’ hit, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay. “I’m king of the world,” the new champ declared, twelve years before Leonardo DiCaprio was even born, and he continued to fascinate, irritate and complicate the world right up to his dying breath on Saturday in Phoenix.
Not that he made it easy for a lot of people, including the unfortunate palookas and skilled pugilists he met in the ring over the next decade and a half. He was a champion for less than a day when he announced his religious conversion, his embrace of the controversial Nation of Islam (later, mainstream Islam), and his decision to change his name, ultimately to Muhammad Ali (after briefly using Cassius X, in the manner of the Black Muslims). Much of the initial public jubilation evaporated as the wisecracking Clay morphed into the serious, Qu’ran quoting Ali; several years later, the ill-ease evolved into widespread disdain when the undefeated champion also declared himself a conscientious objector and refused induction into the army during the Vietnam war, earning a 5 year prison sentence in the process.
Ali’s death came as little surprise considering his long deterioration due to Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological damage. And even though in the last several decades he had shaken off the mantle of controversy and become a universally beloved national figure, the coverage of his life fortunately has not obscured the division he caused and the disdain he accepted in order to follow his beliefs. White America wanted Cassius to be a non-threatening, poetry emoting, convivial boxer; what it got was a racially conscious, occasionally confrontational fighter who defied the white power structure. Ali was content to take the scorn. “I’m not going to be what you want me to be,” he said. “I’m a free man. I can be who I want to be.”
People who hated boxing (my mother comes to mind) loved Ali for his defiance, his pride and his courage in defying expectations. His emergence was, like the arrival of the Beatles, part of the palliative process that helped America heal after the shock of John Kennedy’s assassination only three months earlier. Like the counter-culture excesses his conservative views rejected, he helped mold an era that was prepared to defy authority. Unlike most middle class white kids, who had the security of parents, college and money to return to, Ali put it all on the line; yes, some anti-war activists went to Canada and to jail for their beliefs, but most figured a way out of the draft. Ali turned the tables on the Selective Service and rejected it, and lost his title, his livelihood and tens of millions of dollars. Who better epitomized the era’s defiance of the establishment?
Ali was less angry than fed up, and his celebrity gave him the resources and attention to define himself and how he wished to live and be regarded. He had returned from the 1960 Olympics with a boxing gold medal, only to be refused service in restaurants in his hometown of Louisville. Whether he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River (as he claimed) or lost it (as others believe), Ali learned the hard way that fame and affluence did not eliminate prejudice, and he refused to allow that bigotry to define him, or to allow his celebrity status to permit him to ignore the pervasiveness of racism.
I never met Ali, one of my real heroes. He was up on Capitol Hill frequently, meeting with legislators and occasionally testifying about boxing legislation or medical research. Somehow, despite my admiration for him, our paths never crossed, and I always regretted it.
Well, they crossed once (to use the term extremely loosely) in May of 1977. Ali was still champion, though clearly in decline, in his last few years as a fighter. Although I had long been a fight fan, having watched matches on TV on Friday nights while in high school, I had never actually attended a boxing match. A lobbyist, I believe, dropped off some tickets to the contest between Ali and Uruguayan boxer Alfredo Evangelista, and George Miller and I grabbed the opportunity to see Ali in person. It was, without a doubt, the most extraordinary sporting event I have ever attended and one of the top spectacles in which I have participated.
Arriving during one of the exhibition matches, I quickly learned that being ringside was very different from watching a fight in my basement in Paterson, NJ on a black and white television. The smack of a glove smashing into someone’s midsection just over my shoulder made the “fight” aspect of a boxing match much more graphic.
Finally, the main event was set to begin. The announcer introduced Evangelista, and the Uruguayan dutifully shuffled down the long aisles and clambered between the ropes and into the ring with no crowd reaction whatsoever. Then he, and the crowd, waited. And waited. After perhaps 10 minutes, the lights of the old Landover stadium dimmed and a tremendous amplified drumming commenced. Almost immediately, the crowd took up the chant, “Ali, Ali,” and over the next few minutes, both the bone-rattling drumming and the chanting of thousands of adoring fans continued. Poor Evangelista continued to shuffle around in the dark in the ring.
Suddenly, a single spotlight shot across the cavernous venue, settling, at the furthest point, on a tiny figure in a brilliant white robe. The crowd exploded: “Ali, Ali”; the drums pounded even louder; the jubilation was overwhelming; the old building could barely contain it. For the next five minutes – maybe more – Ali moved down the long aisle to the ring, enveloped in a frenetic mass of humanity more excited to be in the same room with him than by the forthcoming boxing match. When he finally clambered up the curtain and between the ropes to the canvas, the crowd was at full rock concert strength; and suddenly, there he was, dancing, throwing punches, the Greatest there ever was.
The fight itself was almost an afterthought, although it is worth noting that Evangelista, who wouldn’t have survived three rounds in Ali’s prime, lasted the entire 15 rounds. It was true, as sportscaster Chris Schenkel said while awaiting the inevitable outcome, that Ali was “a shell of what he was,” but it made no difference to the crowd at Landover. We had seen Muhammad Ali in the flesh, in the ring.
Ali would fight five more times, losing three of them, winning and losing the heavyweight belt, before retiring in 1981, the three-time heavyweight champion. With his departure, boxing itself was diminished. There were other fighters, powerhouses like Larry Holmes, flashy ones like Sugar Ray Leonard, even Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight champ with a Ph.D. Stripped of Ali’s elegance, wit and innovative technique, it was just raw brutality. The sport shrunk in popularity and style, the “sweet science” of Marciano, Louis, Duran and Ali overwhelmed by the banal brutality of extreme fighting.
The unrestrained (and uniformly positive) outpouring as news of his death spread begs the question: what about the man and his life warranted such a response? Certainly part was due to nostalgia, the glory days of his career, his wit, his elegance. Part was empathy for bruises he endured inside the ring and outside at the hands of racists and the legal system and the boxing establishment. Partly, it was admiration for a guy who actually, and symbolically, never ducked a fight and was able to get up and keep battling when an opponent – pugilistic or legal or whatever – knocked him down. Partly, it was his sheer defiance, the embodiment of the in-your-face, the-hell-with-the-establishment attitude of the rebellious ‘60s. “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me,” Ali said. “Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”
And another part, I think, was that Ali’s life reminds us that the world is more complicated than the simple ideal we would love it to be. Race is more difficult, sports is more complicated, religion is more convoluted. Ali’s strength was that he confronted and transcended the contradictions and somehow emerged without an enemy to be found. Ali had real skin in the game; what were momentary passions or short-terms causes to many of his early years were decisions that impacted his career, his legacy, his financial security, and even his personal freedom. The little black kid from Louisville who got into boxing because his bicycle was stolen, who defied the civil rights norms of his times, who flouted the U.S. government and rejected an unjust war, who aged ungracefully, ravaged with debilitating neurological damage came out on top: receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in the White House. Talk about long, strange trips.
It’s a little hard to imagine the world without Ali’s jab, his rhyming couplet, his sly smile when he knew he had come close to offending with a piercing tweak. Was the irrepressible extrovert just an act, a hype to sell the Ali brand? In part, sure. Ali acknowledged he was subdued in private. “At home I am a nice guy,” he admitted, “but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” He went further than he could possibly have dreamed. He was, they say, the best-known person in the world, and it’s a world he surely changed, only for the better.
Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee.
If you’re bettin’ your money, Better bet on me.
That was a safe bet.