As the author profile on the back of my book states, I’ve been an avid Ali fan for as long as I can recall. From my very first memory of seeing the image of the then brash young boxer Cassius Clay in the early ’60s on my family’s black and white television I was hooked. Whether it was in pre-fight or post fight interviews, his being questioned about his new religion and name change or his draft position, be it t.v. or radio, any time I heard his unmistakable voice, or his name mentioned, I stopped and paid attention. As I got older, I read anything and everything pertaining to his life and career that I could get my hands on. In this week after his passing, I, like many around the world, have spent time watching and listening to others speak about how Ali affected them. I’ve watched the countless clips and replays of his life and career. This has led me to for the first time really take the time to reflect on the total affect he had on my life. The admiration for his athletic and entertainment skills are the low hanging fruit as are my lifelong loves of boxing and lyrical, rhyming poetry. But sitting back and seriously contemplating how high and deep the influence his example has had on me has further opened my eyes. I am beginning to clearly see and understand how much Ali affected my attitude and outlook in so many ways. My lifelong belief in myself and the confidence in my abilities to overcome and succeed no matter the odds are directly related to a lifetime of listening to him declare being the greatest and that he couldn’t be beat. The wealth, fame, and power of others has never intimidated me or diminished my self worth. His discarding the religion of his parents and seeking his own way spiritually led to me do the same. The whole issue of his draft eligibility was the first real conspiracy theory that I became aware of and openly questioned. After all, the man is given an intelligence test by the draft board,flunks miserably, and is therefore ineligible. (After which Ali famously said, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”) But then after winning the heavyweight title and declaring himself a member of the controversial Nation of Islam, he, and without being re-tested, is suddenly reclassified and declared eligible. That was clearly a case of those in power conspiring to silence and possibly permanently eliminate a perceived threat. That incident opened my eyes and led me to wholeheartedly believe that the wrong men were arrested for the JFK and RFK assassinations as well as to buy into numerous other government perpetrated conspiracies throughout history. His ensuing battle with the U.S. government directly influenced me in my belief that it is not only our right but our obligation to question authority in general and challenge it and take action to make change when we believe it to be unjust. And his speaking out for civil and equal rights for all I believe was of great influence on my choice of spending many years representing and advocating for my fellow workers as a union leader. So as I continue to look back on the life of my idol and how his example affected mine, there’s a lot more to it than just fighter and fan. As days and weeks go by, there may be even more examples I haven’t yet connected. I can only hope that when my life starts heading for the exit, I’ll follow his lead one last time and go out a class act like he did. His physical presence may be gone, but Ali will continue to live on through the lives of all of us who were affected by his example and keep it alive through our actions.
It’s long been understood that no one wins out against the grim reaper. No one lives forever. Many have been able hold him off, living to fight another day. But thus far he has eventually taken even the strongest down. Until yesterday, I had held out hope that if anyone might it was the greatest fighter of all times. After all, he had thus far managed to survive a crippling, debilitating disease far longer than most if not all others suffering from it. Sure, it had rendered him mute, immobile, and in need of constant care, but it hadn’t put him down for the count. He had managed to rope-a-dope death and remain among us. So when I heard the report he’d been hospitalized again, I didn’t worry. The G.O.A T. would get up off the canvas just like he always had. No matter how bad the onslaught, he’d survive it just like he always did. Except this time, he didn’t. I was sitting at this computer finishing up another More On Ali blog post when my phone rang. It was a friend who I had recently discovered was almost as big an Ali fan as I was. I say almost because I believe no one is as big an Ali fan as me. Although, I’m sure that he and many others would disagree with my opinion. I had recently sent him a copy of my book and I thought he might be calling to give me his critique. Anyway, he was so emotionally distraught that I could not understand most of what he was saying. But I knew. And his final words before losing it and clicking off of “he’s gone” confirmed it. I sat motionless for awhile just staring at the keyboard. I reflected back to the last time Ali had been in the hospital and in serious condition with what many reported as pneumonia. There were rumors then of his pending death. He had managed to survive that time. It had been my wake-up call to get my ass in gear and finish the book I had been “working on” for over three decades. One of my goals had been to not only finish and publish my book on Ali, but to do so while he was still with us and to send him a copy. The success of this has been discussed in previous blog posts on this site so I won’t go into detail here. Which is why I held hope again this time that his great warrior spirit would prevail and he would continue to grace us with his presence. But this time he stayed down for the count. As I sat and watched the many tributes throughout the night and into today I was taken back to my youth. Most of it I had seen dozens, and in some cases literally hundreds of times. I am one of the ones fortunate enough to have lived through it. As was discussed by the commentators, Ali had become a beloved and sympathetic figure in the majority’s eyes with the advancement of his age and affliction. But that wasn’t always the case. I was glad to see that those who weren’t around back then got a sample of the earlier Ali. The Ali who shook up the world. The Ali that I knew and loved. The brash, confident, trash talking athlete with the unequaled hand speed and magnificent footwork. The man who marched to the beat of his own drum even when it meant walking alone. The man who took on all comers from the U.S. government to many of the best heavyweights in history. The one who during those turbulent times was despised more than loved. For nearly two decades he was the “baddest” man on the planet and the greatest of all time in and out of the ring. And as a white boy growing up in the South in the 60’s and 70’s my being an avid Ali fan wasn’t well received. I caught hell from all directions but proudly defended my choice continuously. I argued with my parents, other family members, friends, teachers, classmates, and anyone and everyone who put down Ali. Many have mellowed, some have become converts, a few have even bought my book. But as stated earlier, the reason for a lot of this is out of sympathy for what the latter day Ali had become, not for what he was before. But not me. I loved the whole Ali. From the first Frazier fight on, I never missed a televised Ali fight. Most of the time that meant being at home for ABC Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons. Most times, Howard Cosell would commentate. They say big boys don’t cry but growing up I can remember twice that I shed a tear. The first was when Ali suffered the broken jar and lost to Norton, and the second was when he lost to Spinks. I accepted the deterioration because it was the consequence of all that he evolved from on his road to greatness. But if there is a paradise beyond this life, the spirit of Muhammad Ali is there bouncing on his toes, flicking out his jab, and chattering non-stop to a standing room only crowd.
The relationship of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X played out like a Shakespearean play. It contained drama, intrigue, love, betrayal, a struggle for power, tragedy, and even death, more specifically murder. The then Cassius Clay eventually became the contested for prize in a power struggle between Nation of Islam founder and supreme leader Elijah Muhammad and his prized pupil Malcolm X. In the end, each would lose his friend, one also his life. They were both rising stars in their chosen professions when they first met. Each admired the other for the unique qualities that they individually possessed. Ali admired the bold talk, independence, and fearlessness displayed by Malcolm X. The vast knowledge he had, and the confident authority with which he spoke. Malcolm marveled at the young fighter’s magnetism, the way people were naturally drawn to him. He loved the energy and the hunger to learn that the youthful Clay displayed. They were kindred spirits, big brother and little brother. The Nation of Islam filled a spiritual need that Clay had never gotten from Christianity. Malcolm X saw that hunger and desire in Clay and took him under his wing. During this same time frame, Malcolm X had become critical of some of Elijah Muhammad’s personal actions along with his radical isolation ideology. Malcolm believed the more mainstream agenda of the civil rights movement a better approach. He envisioned his young protege as an asset moving forward. The press and the public, both white and black, expressed distrust and even fear of the Nation of Islam and its members. Because of the potential detrimental impact to his boxing career, Clay initially kept his association with the group on the down low as much as possible. But once he and Malcolm became friends, and started being seen together frequently, it became harder to keep quiet. This lead to a very real threat to cancel his title fight with Liston and derail his career due to his affiliation with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X removed himself from Clay’s camp prior to the fight date to help downplay the controversy in order to save his friend’s title shot. The founder and supreme leader of the Nation of Islam, the honorable Elijah Muhammad had kept his distance from the situation, and had not acknowledged Clay’s involvement with the organization up until then. This due to his low opinion of black professional athletes for allowing themselves to be exploited, and the fact he believed Liston would destroy Clay, reflecting poorly his organization. However, once Clay had won the title, the Nation of Islam leader quickly seized the opportunity to fully recognize and embrace the new champion. He honored him with the name Muhammad Ali. He convinced Ali that Malcolm X had lost his way and was out to destroy their “family.” Malcolm had held out hope that his friend might join him when he broke away from the Nation of Islam. But Elijah Muhammad’s influence won out. Ali expressed criticism of his friend’s attitude and actions. Ali cut all ties with Malcolm X at that time. The two came physically face to face one last time when both were visiting Africa. Malcolm rejoiced upon seeing his friend but was dejected when his friend’s attitude was cold and distant. Malcolm X was assassinated early in the following year, 1965. Elijah Muhammad denied any involvement from his group in Malcolm’s death. Muhammad Ali has said one of his greatest regrets in life was turning away from his friend.
*It is with a heavy heart that I make this posting as I have just learned of Muhammad Ali’s passing. RIP G.O.A.T.