“You guys will never start a revolution.” It was a common tease I expressed to my Seniors this past school year. A complete analysis of the reasons for that is the subject of another journal perhaps, but certainly one of the reasons would seem to be the lack of exemplars in our current time frame. At a time when sports figures are famous for thumping their chests whether they have accomplished anything or not, when politicians find support by feeding racial/cultural prejudice rather than having a vision, and when protesters seem belittled by both sides as ineffective, old hat, or immature, the figure of Muhammad Ali seems like any other figure in a history book. Millions of words will be written and spoken about his life, many of them far more heartfelt, literate, and poignant than any I can muster, but I hope that something here can be meaningful to those I know who did not experience Ali in the same way that I did. (And that would include all those of you not yet born in any part of his functional life.)
There is always a danger in reflecting back on our thoughts and opinions of past events. Time has a great tendency to modify our memory, so that we find ourselves imagining that we must have thought then what we think now. In reality, many of our actual thoughts and feelings at the time might dismay us now, had they been carefully recorded. I often think of things that I said and did in my youth that embarrass the current me as part of my personal history. A key to living well is to continue to grow, and to put behind us the limited, misbegotten opinions and actions of our youth, before we “knew better”. The people who do this effectively are the ones I admire and respect the most.
The sports heroes of my early youth were guys who assuredly never did anything controversial, much less “wrong”. That image was mostly due to a media that kept the majority of their shenanigans under wraps. At some level, we all knew that Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays couldn’t be perfect, but the lack of media attention to their less savory activities allowed us to happily buy into the fiction that those things didn’t really matter. Every once in a while, an athlete would come along to challenge our rose-colored view of things, but for the most part they stayed out of politics and social controversy.
The moment I think I became aware that this guy was vastly different seems to have been when he “upset” Sonny Liston, and responded by changing his name and introducing us to the word “Muslim”. You might look at the time frame and say, “But Dave, you were only 10 years old!” You would be right about that, but let’s keep it in context. My father was a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth and the Navy, keeping a speed bag hanging from a homemade frame in our basement at least until the time I graduated college. My Grandpa Brinker and I consistently watched the “Big Time Wrestling” matches on television, which to a kid didn’t seem all that much different than professional boxing. We watched boxing matches whenever the TV carried them, even if they were rebroadcasts long after the actual event. Not being able (or perhaps willing) to spend the money on a closed-circuit broadcast, it was sometimes a whole year later before those fights came on. I was familiar with the names (and sometimes the fights) of Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Robinson, and even that brutal beast, Sonny Liston.
Liston was a massive, hulking brute of a man likely as not to demolish the younger, taller, more slender Cassius Clay. I think many of my elders would have been perfectly happy with that, considering the brashness with which Clay approached the fight. As a youngster myself, naturally lacking in the appropriate sense of respect for what boxing at that level required, I found Clay amusing. He made up poetry! He predicted victory by the round in which it would occur! He mugged for the cameras and danced around the ring as though he weighed 90 pounds, not 200+. Who knew boxing could be so much fun? To be honest, most other boxers seemed like sullen, rather stupid men who “let their fists do the talking.” Where was the fun in that?
I also recall a book that my parents had – some sort of “Year in Review” type of book, or maybe a Readers’ Digest condensation. It contained a cartoon of Clay doing his shuffle around the fallen body of Liston, wearing a “crown” fashioned from a skunk, and captioned, “I am the Greatest!” The implication seemed obvious, and I couldn’t help but wonder (I think), “Why would they dislike him so much?”
A lot of that had to be because of the whole Muslim thing. I didn’t know any Muslims. I didn’t even know any Black people. I was aware that there was a lot of racial tension in the country, but I didn’t feel any of it in Vienna, WV. In fact, my dad had once even told me the story of the good fathers of Parkersburg who had gotten wind of the Hell’s Angels headed our way for the express purpose of beating up all the Black people in town. Supposedly, those good fathers had marched down to the Belpre Bridge with their shotguns and told those Angels to skedaddle. (As apocryphal as it sounds, it does indicate the general attitude toward race in our area.) What could there be about being a Muslim that so many people found threatening in some way?
Be all of that as it may, there was plenty of opinion floating around that the Liston fight had been “fixed”, an opinion that gained steam after the second, more suspicious fight. Boxing had always had the taint of being controlled by criminal elements, and a number of Hollywood movies had heightened that feeling. If Ali was somehow playing a part, it was the greatest role ever.
The more bouts he won, the more obvious it became that he was impossibly good. No amount of skepticism could deny it. He was far too quick, nimble, and mobile to be as big as he was. He was far too powerful and durable to be so tall and lithe. He created a new definition of “boxer”, one that included incredible intelligence and personality. How could anyone possibly possess all these characteristics? Ironically, he was to eventually add even more abilities to his repertoire.
And then, it all came apart at the seams. By 1967, I was 13, feisty, pubescent, and developing a growing social consciousness. Totally oblivious to my existence, Ali made the most critical decision of his life, and in doing so planted a seed within my too-slowly-developing sense of the key lessons of life. This one was: Principle is more important than pride, accolades, or the criticism one might have to endure. How could a man surrender everything he had worked all his life for just to make a point? And what was that point? Other athletes had gone into the military, spending their time entertaining the troops with exhibitions, why couldn’t Ali? I was barely aware that Vietnam wasn’t like any other war we had ever fought. In my family, all previous wars were considered honorable completions of patriotic duty, but Vietnam wasn’t really discussed or debated. At all.
Then, those of us who had supported him had to “deal” with the implications of his refusal to go to Vietnam. No matter how I search my memory banks, the source of the voices eludes me, but the comments remain quite clear: “How can a guy who beats people up for a living refuse to go fight for his country? He could kill somebody in the ring!” Then, as now, some people found it easy to ignore the principle behind the action. As certain as I am about what I think now, I can only hope that I thought the same way then. In my family, I don’t remember anyone ever discussing whether what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam was right. The war just was – and when there was a war, you did your duty, went and served. All of a sudden, here was a guy challenging the entire reason for that war, and attaching meaning to it that I had never given any serious consideration.
(The foregoing is not completely accurate, because I remember distinctly a Sunday morning church service in which our Minister honored our servicemen, which included his son, who was only about 4 years older than me. The son was in uniform and several others were as well. The focus of the congregation, however, seemed to be on the son of another minister. This boy had chosen to register as a Conscientious Objector, and I had no reason to doubt that he was much too tender-hearted to be an adequate killing machine. The twist was that the murmur in the congregation was such that the prevailing opinion held that this boy was just an unpatriotic ninny who didn’t love his country enough to fight for it. I didn’t know much about killing people, but I felt strongly that if a guy’s motivation couldn’t be properly understood in his own church congregation, where could it be understood? At some level, I am certain that that incident contributed to both my strong feeling that this war was a very bad thing, and that “church” was flawed in a substantial way. To add further irony, the minister’s son struggled for years after his return with depression and addiction, presumably brought on by his experiences in the war.)
Ali spelled out his opposition to the war quite clearly and eloquently. In doing so, he challenged every thinking person to evaluate their position on the subject. He had no quarrel with the North Vietnamese, and no good reason to protect the South. Most of us could identify with that logic. I knew even fewer Vietnamese than I did Black people. He felt mistreated and disrespected by a large portion of Americans, and especially by the government. I couldn’t say that I had ever been mistreated or subjected to racist comments, but as a teenager, I certainly knew about being disrespected and the object of prejudice. It seemed patently obvious that the government was simply attempting to punish Ali for refusing to follow the proscribed course. In another irony, despite seeing the logic in all this, had I been drafted my family’s values would have compelled me to serve anyway.
The older I got, the closer I came to being drafted. My feeling that I would necessarily “do my duty” did not change, but my opposition to the reasons for the war grew on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Ali got his license back, and battered a fellow named Jerry Quarry, who had no business sharing the ring with him. No one saw it as a big deal that Ali had lost the 3 best years of his fighting and wage-earning life, but the effects were fully in view when he lost to Joe Frazier. Once again, the naysayers voiced their satisfaction. The implication was, “This is what happens to people who get all loud-mouthed and stir up trouble.” In the long run, it turned out that his fans were to be ultimately rewarded by his two later victories over Frazier, sandwiched around that amazing “Rumble in the Jungle”, when he invented the “Rope-A-Dope” technique to defeat the powerful George Foreman. (Yes, kiddies, the same loveable teddy bear who sells counter-top grills.) Foreman was another guy who would “put Ali in his place”, and possibly kill him – but the critics were to be disappointed once again.
After that last Frazier fight, most of us who loved him wished he would retire. The punishment that both he and Frazier had endured seemed too much for ordinary mortals to ever recover from. It is impossible to know how the future would have been different, but Ali continued to fight and to deteriorate. When it was announced in 1984 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the final great irony began to play out. Robbed of his speech, his movement, and his career, it seemed that he would fade quietly into oblivion.
It is difficult to explain how a person turns into a symbol, but that is precisely what Muhammad Ali did. Yes, he did sporadically display that twinkle in his eye or his clever wit. More importantly, his mere presence continued to motivate us to be better than we were. It didn’t seem that he needed to speak, he only needed to appear, and we would be reminded why it was so desperately necessary for us to try to change the world. When he became fully public by lighting the torch at the Atlanta Olympics, we wept at his infirmity, but marveled at his determination to triumph once again. A symbol lighting a symbol – the significance was obvious to anyone who had known his legend well.
Today, Muhammad Ali is dead. The very embodiment of life, joy, love, and enthusiasm is gone from us. More significantly, I worry that the exemplar of why we should consider unfairness as something to be challenged is gone. The exemplar of why we should be willing to sacrifice all our possessions in order to maintain the proper principle is gone. I can imagine no greater loss for a generation of people who do not seem to see the need for revolution