I was just a young kid when one evening there was some excitement in the house, the significance of which I was completely unaware of. No, it was not like that of the first moon landing, which you couldn’t miss if you had a television set on, because every station was covering it as it happened. This was something different, but the event seemingly fascinated just as many people. On the television screen the announcers couldn’t conceal their excitement for what was about to transpire. The scene was a boxing ring, and in time the two combatants appeared, one a white man with the typical pugilistic appearance with a bent nose that had seen more than a few punches, and the other a tall black man that my dad scornfully referred to as “Clay.” Then the action began, and seemed to end almost as quickly as it started; when it was over, the white fighter’s face was a bloody mess, “Clay” having had his way with him throughout. It seemed almost unfair, like a professional toying with a novice. But after the fight, “Clay” seemed more relieved and respectful than boastful.
It would be years later that I learned why this fight had garnered such attention. It was, as the fight commentators noted, an event of great import; it marked the “return” of the former champion to the ring after a three-year absence, and no one was happier than this “young man” at that moment. Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, had finally found a way around the boxing world’s attempt to “punish” him by denying him a license to fight in every state that sanctioned professional boxing events. Why? Because he refused to honor his draft notice and allow himself to be inducted into the Army, with the Vietnam War soon to reach its height in daily body count. He had no “quarrel” with the Vietnamese people, he said, and he used his recently acquired Muslim faith (from his association with the Nation of Islam movement) as the basis of “conscientious objector” status.
Ali was never arrested for his refusal to be inducted, and his case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which was decided in his favor. One may question his true motivations; at times he certainly spoke like a man being unfairly put-upon by forces outside his control, although one must also question the military’s motivations, since Ali had previously been rejected for induction on the rationalization that he was “under-educated.”
But he did pay a heavy price for his stand—the de facto loss of his title belt first won when he stunned his many detractors (even Howard Cosell referred to him as the “loud-mouthed kid”) by beating Sonny Liston in 1964. Broke, Ali had only his outsized personality to sustain him. During his three-year “exile,” he appeared on many television talk shows to discuss his political and social beliefs, appeared briefly in a stage play, and even forced himself to appear on “This is Your Life,” where a celebrity was supposed to disguise his or her voice and force a blindfolded “celebrity” panel to guess who he was (Woody Allen was one of the few who actually successfully “stumped” the panel).
But by 1970, the Nixon Administration decided that pursuing action against Ali was counterproductive (“better a fighter than a martyr”), and there was no opposition when the city of Atlanta, in a state which had no boxing commission, decided to stage Ali’s comeback fight. He only needed a willing opponent, and that would be Jerry Quarry, which is why Ali showed him so much respect despite handling him fairly easily in that fight. There was none of the famously boastful claims and rhymes that some people (mainly white) took personal offense to. To them, Ali was the worst example of the “uppity” black man who didn’t “know his place.”
What made it “worse” was the fact that the title of “Heavyweight Champion of the World” was at that time the most exalted position in the sports world, and was now being held by a man who had no qualms about using it to advance his political and social agenda. That certainly was never the case for Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, who never allowed their multi-million dollar endorsement deals to be jeopardized by taking a political stand that would offend whites.
There never would be anyone quite like Muhammad Ali. He wasn’t merely famous the world over, but he transcended sport. The force of his personality made his every pronouncement a matter of public consciousness, perhaps not always with agreement or respect, but certainly as a matter of discussion. As his active career was drawing to close, however, people did start to warm-up to him, perhaps more due to proper respect for his gifts as a fighter and repeated ability to beat the odds no matter what was thought of him. This couldn’t have been more true after his victory over George Forman, who had won his previous eight fights by two rounds or less, including easy destructions of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton—which many had predicted would happen to Ali as well.
Ali’s passing this past Friday deserves the commemoration it is receiving. There is a six-part documentary, Ali: The Whole Story available on DVD which I would recommend for anyone interested in Ali’s career, which is never less than fascinating. It includes most of the two Liston fights, the Quarry fight, Ali’s epic first and third fights with Frazier, and the Foreman fight. But most absorbing is the third segment, “Exile,” which details the period in which Ali became not just the fighter, but the ambassador to the world, whose courage went beyond the ring.