Saturday, June 04, 2016
More Sports Urgency: Muhammad Ali
"The Greatest of All Times"
This boastful claim, which has now become a commonplace and is abbreviated GOAT (no periods necessary), was originated by our man Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. I was truly a fan from the beginning--or at least from my beginning, I listened to the first Sonny Liston fight on the radio, read the articles in the Louisville Courier-Journal. Yes, it's true--he was my hometown hero, though he was from far on the other side of town, and older, and he'd already moved on to bigger and better things by the time I was aware of him (I was too young to have noticed his Olympics exploits).
Being a fan of Muhammad Ali was not an easy thing to do--there was much to take in, much to overlook, and it required great patience. The second worst was when he was barred from fighting during much of his peak age for the draft evasion rap that he eventually beat. But he made up for it later, with what was the absolute worst, staying in the ring too long, after his skills had faded, taking too many punches. He really didn't win any of the fights with Leon Spinks or with Earnie Shavers, and Larry Holmes--his former sparring partner--beat him up very badly. And repeatedly. Then there was the second Liston fight, in the tiny town of Lewiston, Maine: Much as I wanted Ali to win that one, I will never believe anything other than that its result--in which Liston went down quick, to a phantom punch, and stayed down as Ali hammed it up--was a fix.
On the other hand, he was able to come up with unexpected, beautiful (or at least, as beautiful as boxing ever can get) sports triumphs--his first fight with Liston, others during his first reign as champion, the Thrilla in Manila (third Joe Frazier fight), and above all, his victory over George Foreman, who had literally lifted Frazier off the ground with punches in his fight with him and had seemed practically invincible before the fight. The Foreman fight showed Ali at his very best, as he combined tactical excellence with incredible skill (in taking all the punches in his rope-a-dope pose without getting hurt), and even finishing with the powerful knockout--something that often eluded him in his many victories on points through his career.
It was not necessary for me, a kid, to stand up for him when he changed his name and joined the Black Muslims. I didn't like that religion at all, but I felt no need to condemn someone for their beliefs. Nor did I have any problem with his seeking conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War; when he threw off his "slave name" (though it has a nice ring to it), he went down the path which led to rejecting the "involuntary servitude" of the draft, too. I didn't share his views about the war at the time, though I did recognize at the time that his stance was sincere.
There was his personality: a womanizer much of the time (not exactly standard Black Muslim stuff, I believe), narcissistic, but also very humorous, with a youthful, mischievous streak. Much of the bragging, "uppity" stuff that put white people off to him was said in fun and was taken wrong; some of it was intentionally getting under the skin of the bigots, using the power he had to upset them. I liked him, but he surrounded himself with too many sycophants, and he may have listened to them too much.
There was a side to him that was way beyond all that, though: in his day, he was one of the most popular people in the world. He reached out to the rest of the world from his humble beginnings in a small Mideastern city, and the world honored him.
Then there were his health problems later in life, the gradual erosion of his nervous system and motor functions. There is little doubt that his boxing career contributed to them or caused them, and little doubt that it led to his eventual demise this week. Still, his last years were dignified, honorable, and added tragic depth to his story, which is clearly one for the ages. In sport, and beyond.