“I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail.” – Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was beautiful. He had a beautiful face. A beautiful body. And a beautiful soul. But what is beauty without acknowledgement? Like a song once asked: What good is a diamond nobody can see?
Ali made sure we all could see him. In so many ways.
“I’m pretty as a girl”
“I am the greatest”
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
Hell No He Won’t Go
The last thing you could do was talk about race. If forced to do so it had to be done in a certain tone. Patient. Conciliatory. Non – confrontational.
Ali was not the first black athlete with an outrageous personality. America wasn’t really surprised to see a black man present himself with a certain sense of style or flair. Black males defined coolness even back then.
Sugar Ray Robinson was as stylish a personality as there ever was. The boyish grin….. The slicked back hair…… The shiny cars.
Jack Johnson was a supremely confident athlete who talked big and backed it up. He dated white women. He drove big, fancy cars. Johnson never thought twice about how much his behavior made whites hate him. He figured they just hated him for winning, and it didn’t matter how he acted. Mr. Johnson was as free as black man as could exist in the 1920’s.
Ali Was BoxingBy the Early 1970’s Ali was once again pursuing his dream. The big legal fight was over and he had won. The Supreme Court sided with him in his battle against the U.S. government. He was free to begin his quest to recover what was rightfully his, the heavyweight title.
The 1970’s might be boxing’s greatest decade when it comes to talented heavyweights. There was Joe Frazier. George Foreman. Ken Norton. Earnie Shavers. And of the vastly underrated champion Larry Holmes. So boxing would have been big even without Ali.
But it’s hard to imagine this era of boxing without Muhmmad Ali. He simply gave the sport some of its greatest moments. His trilogy of battles with the great Joe Frazier, culminating with the “Thrilla In Manila“. He fought George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle” when he became the first man ever to win the title twice. His charming, loudmouthed interviews with sportscaster Howard Cosell are legendary to this day.
He was always confident. Always cocky. Always free.
In 1974 when Ali went up against Foreman in Zaire people thought he was going to get crushed. Some actually feared for his life. The same way they thought Sonny Liston would kill the far younger Cassius Clay in 1964.
But once again the Ali magic was just too strong. And with an entire black African nation behind him, he found the perfect strategy to defeat the powerful Foreman. At this point he had lost a step. Some of the legendary hand speed had been sapped by father time. This was a crafty old veteran vs. the force of nature called Foreman. But he still had his biggest weapon. His heart.
When he lost his belt to Olympic hero Leon Spinks the boxing world was shook. Many expected him to retire. Instead he won a rematch with Spinks. This made Ali the only man to ever hold the heavyweight crown three times.
Like most great athletes, Ali didn’t know when to quit. It’s very hard to walk away from something you’ve been doing all of your life. Plus the money was good. The fame was good. And his champion’s heart told him he could box forever.
In 1981 Ali lost his last fight to Trevor Berbick. He was out of shape and nearly 40 years old. To this day, he’s the only man ever to win the heavyweight crown three times.
In 1996 Muhammad Ali reappeared after years away from the spotlight. As millions watched he lit the cauldron at Atlanta’s Olympic Games. These were the first Summer Olympics on American soil since 1984. And only the second summer games held in this country since the 1932. It was a moment for the ages.
A whole new generation praised the man’s courage and humility. The light-heavyweight boxing champ of the 1960 games was back. This time around he wasn’t a brash teenager old from Louisville. He was something far greater. Finally after all of these years, the whole world could see Ali for who he really was. A great man who cared about people. All people.
Once again he showed us just how free he could be. The Parkinson’s disease that stole his speech, and made his movements shaky couldn’t defeat him. The proud champion who never backed down from a fight stood there shaking in the Georgia night. He showed us grace and greatness.
Muhammad Ali was one of my earliest heroes. At a young age I could tell this was a very special kind of black man. He never once bowed, scraped or apologized. His pride was self-evident.
Of course, not all blacks loved him. He scared the bejeezus out of some people. My own grandfather refused to call him Muhammad Ali and always referred to him as “Clay.” I never asked why, but I thought I understood.
This new kind of black man was just too much for him and lots of other black folks. Ali particularly irked black folks who grew up admiring the humility of Joe Louis. Or who understood the stoic grace of Jackie Robinson, a man who dealt with vile racism every day of his career.
My generation understood why Ali changed his name. He was definitely not a Clay. None of us were Clays, or Morgans, or Turners or any other white man’s name. He made most of us see that. In order to be a free black man you had to see that too. Even if you never changed your own name or became a Muslim. Those things were beside the point.
Muhammad Ali was important to a generation of African American men. But really he belonged to all people. In the end he didn’t allow society to put him into a convenient little box. For this man was truly a world citizen. And he was always himself, no matter where he was or who he was with. This is unusual for anybody, but especially for a black man born in 1942.
Ali was known and admired all over the world. You would be hard pressed to find even a tiny village where nobody ever heard of him. To many he’s the face of Islam in America. And he’s played that role ever since he left Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam back in the day.
Whenever he visited inner cities thousands would turn out just to catch a glimpse of the great man. They hoped to shake his hand, or touch his arm or even feel a piece of his clothing. He walked among the poor in forgotten corners of the world as U.N. Peace Ambassador, charming every one he met.
People showed love and affection for Ali even on his final ride. Thousands turned out along the route of his casket just to be in his presence one last time. His fans threw flowers at the hearse and rose petals were scattered along the route.
In one neighborhood, several young men ran alongside the vehicle carrying a sign that read: “Ali is the greatest, thanks 4 all the memories.”
At his funeral in Louisville, speakers of nearly all faiths praised the life and work of this great man. People of all races turned out to thank to the champ for being a courageous fighter in an out of the ring. Make no mistake about it, there will never be another Muhammad Ali.