Monday, June 13, 2016
Muhammad Ali in Reflection
When we got the news that Muhammad Ali had passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona, I was packing for a vacation that began the next day and did not have time to write something. Thinking about him during the week, I formulated some things I needed to write down about this remarkable man.
I was coming of age back in the 1960s when Ali burst on the scene as young Cassius Clay out of Louisville. Like so many of my era, I was turned off by his brashness. I rooted for then champ Sonny Listen to knock him out and shut him up once and for all. In truth, I rooted against him in every fight he fought even though in the end, it was sad to see the aging fighter get pummeled by Larry Holmes and finally by some guy named Trevor Burbick. I think it is still fair to say that Ali was not the most gracious of winners, but it was part of his schtick.
Being overseas at various times, I was able to watch some of his biggest fights on television when they were blacked out in the US. I recall watching his fight against George Foreman in Zaire when I was vacationing in Costa Rica. After the fight, a reporter was talking live from the dressing room when without his knowledge, Ali appeared behind him walking to his locker and doing what all fighters do after a fight-dropped his trunks. He had no idea he was on camera. While stationed in Bangkok, I was able to watch his fight with Joe Frazier in Manila.
Ali was so much a product of his times, and I confess that like many whites of that time, I was not ready for him, especially when he joined the Nation of Islam. As a serviceman and veteran, I did not accept his refusing to be inducted into the military.
America changed over the years, and so did my perceptions about Ali and the black struggle. Today, I look back and can better understand the anger that Ali and black people felt about their second-class status in America at that time as well as their lasting indignation that such a situation ever existed. I can also understand that Ali acted with courage and conviction in refusing induction and giving up his title and potentially his freedom.
Today, I understand that Ali was a man of principle who had every right to speak out about the injustices that existed in America. At the same time, I have come to recognize the great services he did as an international humanitarian. It is incredible that this man was able to go from being a villain in the eyes of so many to a hero in the eyes of virtually everyone.
If I can identify a turning point in my view of Ali, it was seeing him light the torch in the Olympics. It was shocking to see this once magnificent physical specimen being ravaged by Parkinson's. I vividly remember the one time I saw him in person. It was sometime in the 1970s, I believe, at LA Airport. He was standing at curbside and being interviewed by a reporter. He was dressed in a black suit and tie, and I was so impressed by his larger than life appearance.
And then there was the long decline. It was hard to believe that the Ali I had seen in the ring and on that day in Los Angeles was the same man struggling to walk and then huddled in a wheel chair.
So I recognize that Ali was a man for his times and how much he meant for so many people. He meant something to me too; I was just slow in realizing it.
Rest in peace, Champ.