During the recent NBA finals won by the Dallas Mavericks, there was some “controversy” over whether the Miami Heat’s Lebron James was “greater” than Michael Jordan. I think such talk was put to rest in Jordan’s favor; just because you are a superb athlete doesn’t necessarily make you “greater.” All sports have their “greatest” athletes, but another debate is who is the greatest athlete of all-time? Back in the day, many commentators said it was Native American Jim Thorpe, who was a star in a wide range of sports, especially football, in the early part of the 1900s. But does greatness also have something to do with your stature not just in sports, but society in general? If that is the criteria, there can only be one answer: Muhammad Ali.
Another thing that was great about the 1970s was that there was no cable television that you had to pay if you wanted to watch a great boxing match. Not that it matters much now, since the fight game—in particular the heavyweight division—has sunk to such levels that no one cares much; those Russians have zero personality, and so do their occasional opponents. Instead there is this MMA which is about as believable as “professional” wrestling. But in the 1970s, the heavyweight division was prime time entertainment on network television. I was just a kid when I watched a fighter my dad kept referring to as Clay (even though the announcer called him by another name) bloodied the face of some white guy with a cool name (Jerry Quarry); I didn’t realize the significance of that fight until years later—it was Muhammad Ali’s first fight after a three-year “exile” for draft evasion.
As strange as it may seem today, Ali was once one of the most reviled men in white America. In the beginning, to say that Ali was "brash" was like calling Charlie Sheen a monk, and it was hard for many people to wrap their minds around the fact that this black man--who had the boldness to call himself "the greatest" and had a non-stop “lip” that seemed intent on offending middle-American sensibilities--had actually become champion after beating a man with iron fists (Sonny Liston) so badly that he simply quit after six rounds rather than be shamed by the inevitable knockout defeat. Ali's lack of proper "decorum" after beating Liston for the heavyweight title caused the ringside announcer to express disbelief in Angelo Dundee's assertion that his fighter's media-ready antics were "good" for the sport.
Ali had become a marked man, but his conversion to the Nation of Islam and his stance on the Vietnam War went beyond the merely presumptuous, and into open defiance of the political and social order. This wasn't some obscure person operating on the fringes, who could be ignored as some clown in trunks; this was the heavyweight champion of the world, back when that title had an aura of importance unlike any other in sports. One thing that could not be denied, however, was that in his prime, Ali was one of the most exciting boxers to watch, moving like a lightweight in a heavyweight's body, befuddling all comers. If he couldn't be "silenced" in the ring, then something else had to be "done."
Ali was originally disqualified from the draft because of his lack of formal educational aptitude; but several years later during his prime boxing years, the government saw fit to find him qualified for the draft. It remains a question for debate if this was politically-motivated to remove a man who was becoming a symbol of black power. Ali refused to be inducted, citing his “conscientious objector” status and his religious beliefs; we could look at this as self-serving cynicism, but Ali paid a heavy price for his stance: One boxing commission after another stripped him of his license to fight, and eventually his title. His trainer, Dundee, said that those three years Ali was out of boxing denied the fight game what would have been his best years.
But Ali didn’t “disappear” during those three years. Today, the views of athletes on political topics of the day are rarely considered “worthy” even for cable news’ low standards, and athletes that do make the news outside of sports usually do so for some criminal offense. Ali, on the other hand, was sought out by the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. and David Frost—not to discuss boxing, but politics, the war, and social issues. When he chose to be, Ali was serious and thoughtful, and he quit clowning when the need to explain himself to a hostile public arose. And rise-up to the challenge he did. Whatever his formal educational deficiencies, Ali surprised many by his eloquent discourse that showed that behind the "clown" was a man who cared deeply about the problems of the country from the black community's perspective. He also went on speaking tours of college campuses, at first before unfriendly crowds, but later to more supportive ones as the Vietnam War became more unpopular. Although he continued to be a polarizing figure in the U.S., Ali’s profile in the international scene increased, as he became a symbol for those who were critical of U.S. foreign policy. When he was finally allowed to return to the ring, it was because black leaders in Atlanta decided that they had sufficient political power to oppose the wishes of society at large. The Nixon Justice Department eventually withdrew its support of the long-standing draft evasion charge against Ali, because—as one official said—“Better a boxer than a martyr.”
Yeah, I know Sylvester Stallone grumbled about a fight game dominated by black boxers like Ali, who was a bit too uppity for some white folks to take, and he wanted to show people that “real”—that is 100 percent white American—boxers represented the "true" spirit of the sport (I wonder how many people know that the "Cinderella Man" of the Ron Howard film would only give Joe Louis a title shot unless he was given a take of Louis' future earnings). But the reality was that the quality of the fights upon Ali’s return matched the personalities involved. In later years, boxers would be stripped of one or more of those alphabet soup title belts because they declined to face someone’s “number one contender” for their next fight, perhaps an absurd rule. During the 1970s, Ali fought all the top heavyweight fighters—many of which were broadcast on network TV—and beat every one at least once. There was also none of this once-a-year “superfight”—Ali stepped into the ring 30 times in eight years, only five of which went less than 10 rounds. His October, 1980 fight with Larry Holmes would be the first—and only—fight in which he failed to go the distance. The duels with Joe Frazier were epic, and after the shock of George Foreman seemingly coming out of nowhere to destroy both Frazier and Ken Norton (who had broken Ali’s jaw), Ali stunned the world in finally regaining the title he was forced to relinquish in 1967 by knocking out the seemingly invincible Foreman in Zaire. With few exceptions (the Leonard-Haggler fight comes to mind), there would never again be this kind of worldwide drama involving a single athlete. So I make my case, and I’m sure others who look back in time can make a similar one.