Born: January 17, 1942, Died: June 3, 2016 at the age of 74.
I want to say just a few words about “The Greatest” also known as Muhammad Ali. It was last week that thousands of people paid their final respects to the boxing legend at his memorial service in Louisville, Kentucky.
I don’t watch boxing at all, but as a kid I loved it. Some years back I realized why I went from loving the sport back then to not being able to watch even ten seconds of it now—mainly, the absence of Muhammad Ali. My goodness, watch the documentary of the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the historic 1974 boxing event between the Ali and George Foreman –Foreman went from being the vicious brute George Foreman to the kindly, smiling George Foreman we know and love today after that fight. The entire world was watching “The Rumble”, including world leaders.
Some have brought up the politics around Ali at the time, but I dismiss all of that. Ali was a twenty year old “kid” who got sucked into the torrents of the time—the Vietnam War, the Black Power Movement, the Nation of Islam. It’s easy for us to say now, six decades later, that we’d be wiser about our associations and decisions if we him back then. But that’s just talk and in our hearts we know that’s silly for us to say. I was smart when I was twenty, but I was still a kid.
As a veteran, I have no issue with those who opposed the Vietnam War—none whatsoever. Some did it for principled reasons; others, not so much, but Ali took his lumps. He was banned from boxing, but fought it in the courts and prevailed.
(I do, however, have an issue with how our Vietnam Vets were shamefully treated by some segments of the public and especially, how those against the war were nowhere to be found and conveniently silent when the Communists took over Vietnam, after America pulled out, and killed millions of innocent people.)
Even today, some glamorize the Black Power Movement back then. The birth of the movement was understandable—there was a “little” something called legal racial segregation. However, the Black Panthers were pips and criminals and the Nation of Islam were, to use the late US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s words, “a bunch of thugs.” The Nation of Islam controlled the life of a young Muhammad Ali and stole his fortune, which is sadly why he was fighting longer than he should have in the career. I loved watching him box as a kid, but not at the expense of the sport and the constant battering possibly contributing him getting the neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s. That Black Power Movement hated people, but Ali was not a hater. He loved life, people and it showed. He left the Nation of Islam, became a Sunni Muslim and went about his life.
Watch any of those documentaries of Ali in his prime and his “performances” in the many interviews and you can’t help but to smile. He was one of those people that you liked to be around and could entertain you for hours, and he didn’t even need to get in the boxing ring to do so.
As I look at my the picture of his famous photo of his victory over Sonny Lister in 1963, I say, yes, I’ll miss “The Greatest” for the joy he brought to the world and skill he brought to that long ago Golden Age of Boxing. Forget all the politics that a young Cassius Clay got caught up in. He came through it all as a genuinely good and decent person. There are not too many public people that we can think of fondly after more than 50 years on the public stage.