I was hesitant to write anything about the passing of Muhammad Ali. Everyone seems to be jumping on that bandwagon, and rightfully so. The man was beyond legendary. But I wondered whether anything I had to say would be of value. I have never written an article here to simply generate web traffic and I was concerned that this could be construed as nothing more than click-bait.
But I decided to write, because Ali was such a central figure in my childhood. Having written a book about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I felt that I was allowed an opinion. So here goes.
Muhammad Ali was something special. He was a unicorn for my generation. He was smart, handsome, and powerful. He was a pied piper even for those who hated him. He was a ratings boom for whatever TV show or special event he was attending or appearing on. He was larger than life, and a force of nature.
He was also a lightning rod. He was polarizing for a while. I was not born yet when he burst on the scene and won the Olympic Gold in Rome in 1960. I was not even a year old when he beat Sonny Liston the first time and captured the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964. I was unaware when he converted to Islam, and I was barely four years old when he refused to be drafted, citing his status as a conscientious objector.
I was only beginning to watch fights with my grandfather when Ali was stripped of his title and relegated to giving speeches. But I do remember the country at the time. I remember hearing the adults talking about the riots, the assassination of RFK and Dr. King. I remember the cauldron that was boiling in the sixties and on into the seventies.
These last 48 hours, as people have reminisced about Ali, there have been many detractors. Folks who want to remind us that he refused to join the service when asked. People who call out his many failings in marriage. People who remind me us that he converted from Christianity to Islam, as if he was an Isis member.
Those things are true about Ali. He did refuse induction. He did convert to Islam as he rejected his Christian Faith. He was a maritally unfaithful man for much of his younger days.
But it is also true that he was a giant. It is also true that, while he was reviled for claiming his conscientious objector status, and for denouncing the Vietnam War, he did so at great personal cost and risk. Where other celebrities chose to go overseas under the guise of a teaching job or a student deferment, or simply escape to Canada, Ali stayed here, lost his entire means of support and his beloved titles, and took his lumps like a man with a cause. You don’t have to like his cause or agree with it…but you have to admit that he stood firm and paid a price for it.
He could have gotten himself a cushy assignment doing morale booster tours and promotional appearances for the Army, as other celebrities have done over the years, Ali refused the offers. He would not take the easy road if it meant abrogating his integrity. He could have gotten some “Elvis Duty” and pretended to be a soldier while basically performing an advertising campaign for the military. He could have done that and kept his belts and his fame and had the three years of his prime that he lost…but he refused.
Like him or not…you have to admit that took guts. It took courage. It brooked no compromise. Ali seemed to know how important he was to the times. And he was.
That he held no ill will toward the country, and the people who took away his livelihood is a measure of the man. Ali, in his heart, seemed to genuinely like people. Maybe even love them.
For me he was a cartoon character in real flesh. He was a super hero. He was a role changer. He was the first famous black man I was ever aware of. Maybe the first one, famous or not. It wasn’t until third grade that I remember having a black classmate. When I was eight or nine, we had a Little League coach, “Coach Ernie” who was black. But Ali was the first black man I was aware of and watched. (By the time I knew who MLK was, he had been killed.) Ali erased the racial lines for me and most kids of my generation. It took baseball years to fully integrate, even after Jackie Robinson broke the barrier. Football was not as popular in my childhood as it would become. But Boxing had seemed to always be integrated. In fact, it was dominated by black men.
But where previous champions had been quiet, relatively unknown and seldom marketed, Ali was the opposite. He was brash. He was loud and braggadocios and in your face. You either loved him or hated him but he made you decide right away. He never grew on you.
I loved him.
I was so heartbroken when he lost to Frazier in 1971. My stepfather despised Ali, so he was thrilled of course. He claimed he disliked him because he was a “draft dodger” but I suspect it had more to do with Ali breaking the mold of the stereotypical black man and my stepfather hating him for it.
Ali was smart. He was handsome. He was intelligent. He was well spoken and well versed. And he was beloved. There are people in this world who simply could not stomach those traits where certain other people-groups are concerned.
For me, he was the prism through which I viewed all black people the first time I met them. I went into every situation assuming they would be as impressive, well spoken, colorful, intelligent and well-rounded as the great Ali. That is what he meant to me. That is what he meant to most of my generation.
He had faults. Big, hairy, glaring faults. He was a womanizer. He had a roving eye and an appetite that he simply refused to control until much later in life.
But he was, by all accounts, a wonderful father to his children and he never shirked his responsibility to them. A couple of years ago I read a story about him traveling to the high school graduation of his white grandson. The young man described his grandfather as doting and loving. He didn’t reject his children or their children. He seemed to learn and grow as years rolled on.
Hindsight would tell us that his opinion of the Vietnam War was correct. Perhaps his approach was wrong –I saw it was- but his assessment of that war was accurate. It’s easy to say that now, but forty years ago it was the cesspool of division that tore our country apart.
I have wondered if Ali didn’t claim conscientious objector status and refuse the draft not as a war protest…but to call attention to the real war he was fighting. The civil rights war. Had it been strictly about Vietnam, he could have arranged some tour of duty in Guam, or Germany or stateside where he could have posed for some pictures, smiled a lot, and trained every day without giving up anything of his career. But his real fight was for the equality that we were only beginning to seek in those days.
Ali was aware of his measure. He was aware of his impact on the world and he used this fight…as he did his fights in the ring…to raise awareness, and to raise us all above where we were.
Despite his faults and failures, Muhammad Ali continued to develop as a man. He finished his life devoted to one woman. Living peacefully, and giving his life to promote peace. He grew as he learned. He was far more hero than he was draft-dodger or philanderer. He became, in the second half of his life, something more than an icon. More than a magazine cover. He became an event. Ali’s mere presence would stop the room, and everyone in it would hold their collective breath. He was beloved. He was a natural resource. He was always aware of how much he’d been given and he did his best to give it back.
He doesn’t have to be one or the other…beloved or slandered. It’s possible to love much of his life, and dislike other parts.
For me, he was something from my childhood that will always be. He was a mythical creature. He was a happening. He was a force of nature like a hurricane. I saw him in his prime. I’ll tell my future grandchildren about him one day. They likely won’t ever really grasp the impact of his life the way I did. By the time I become a granddad…if ever…their world will be almost devoid of racial differences. Not that racism won’t still exist, but it will be generations removed from the accepted norm that it was back then. That was his greatest victory. He was such a huge character, such a giant persona, that you simply couldn’t look at him and allow for racism. “You can’t treat Ali that way…” would, over time, lend itself to “You can’t treat black people that way.”
He didn’t start that movement. Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree, and others had begun that fight decades before. But Ali came along and gave it a steroid shot. And he appealed to the generation I was part of. Kids too young to have made up their mind yet, about matters of race.
God’s Speed, champ. You were the greatest fighter of all time. In and out of the ring. Were you never to have been born, it would have taken five men to accomplish all that you did.