Just one day after we celebrated the birthday of the greatest Civil Rights leader in American history, we have occasion to honor another hero of that movement, Muhammad Ali. Ali turns 70 today, and while his health has diminished, his impact is everlasting. My most recent memory of the great man is from almost two full years ago, when a people from a far off country found themselves visited by terrible tragedy, the horror of the earthquake in Haiti.
There were many moments worth remembering during the multi-network broadcast of the Haiti Earthquake Relief Telethon hastily put together by George Clooney on Friday, January 22nd, 2010. The soul-stirring performances by Mary J. Blige, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen and many others were very moving, and the stories of the Haitian people’s tragedy, despair, and hope delivered by a bevy of celebrities were even more so. But the moment that affected me most was the sight of Chris Rock and a drawn, disabled man who the comedian spoke for while holding his hand. That man was Muhammad Ali.
Even though I have been keenly aware of his ongoing struggles with Parkinson’s Disease, the sight of him in such a state was terribly unnerving. There are few things in life more sadly ironic than that of a broken down athlete. The betrayal of a body that was once so lithe and dexterous is truly cruel, and in Ali’s case more so than most. Back in his 60′s prime, Ali was a vision of athletic grace. A heavyweight boxer with lightning fast hands, an even faster mouth, and balletic feet, his gifts were staggering. But it’s all gone now, taken away by one of the nastiest diseases known to man. He has been robbed not only of his physical mobility, but that of his communicative ability as well.
This is, of course, not the Ali I grew up with. When I was a kid in the 70′s, everyone I went to school with loved Muhammad Ali. The same wasn’t necessarily true of our parents. I can vividly recall coming home on a weekend night in 1978 and seeing my former alcoholic step father sitting two feet away from the television taking great pleasure in Ali losing to the unheralded Leon Spinks (a loss he would avenge 7 months later). “This guy’s beating that draft dodger,” he cackled. He also uttered some racial epithets that I will not share here. He was overjoyed, I was heartbroken.
My bigoted, drunken step father (and I’m using the word father in the loosest of terms) was hardly the only one who felt this way. Many people (mostly white) hated him for changing his name from Cassius Clay and joining the Black Muslims led by Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad out of New York. Even worse, they despised him for “dodging” the draft during the Vietnam War. Which wasn’t even true, he didn’t flee to Canada or go underground. No, he stayed right here and attempted to exercise his rights as a conscientious objector. This incensed white folks to no end. They called him a traitor, a coward, and worse. The United States Government illegally stripped him of his heavyweight title and made it virtually impossible for him to earn a living as a boxer. During the controversy, he infamously stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.” However, that quote only scratched the surface of his protest.
Here was a man who was good enough to win a Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome for his country, but then came back home to Kentucky and couldn’t drink from the same fountains or eat at the same restaurants as white people. He took that Gold Medal and threw it in the Ohio River. Then, a nation that did not provide him with equal rights, had the temerity to demand that he fight for a country that would not stand up for him. So, at great personal, financial, and professional risk, he said “no.” He did this even though he would have probably never even seen any combat. He was offered the same opportunity by the U.S. Government that Joe Louis received. Yes, he would be drafted and wear a military uniform, but like Louis, he would become a morale booster not a soldier. He could have (as Louis did) simply toured military bases as a glorified good will ambassador, cheering troops and performing exhibitions. Still, he said “no.” He could not be bought.
Four years went by before the Supreme Court stepped in and restored his right to box, and his peak years went with it. The Ali that emerged from exile was neither as quick or as sharp as the younger version who dominated the heavyweight division. Oh, he was still great, but he won as much with will as he did with skill. This meant taking more punches than he did in his prime. His brutal trilogy with Joe Frazier and the terrible beating he took from Larry Holmes in his next to last fight exacted an awful toll on his body. His speech and athletic prowess were noticeably impacted by the time he stopped boxing. And it was only a couple of years after his retirement that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. A disease that would eventually rob him of so many basic functions.
However, as time went on, these trials with the Government, society, his health and in the ring performed an interesting function–they humanized him. Most people either came to realize that he was right about Vietnam, or simply let it go. And as his body broke down, his spirit and true nature lifted him up. His warm heart and acts of kindness (particularly towards children) softened all but the hardest of hearts. He became a sympathetic and even revered figure. Today, he is almost universally beloved.
Many people have a favorite Olympic moment. For some it’s the U.S. Hockey Team’s “Miracle On Ice” in 1980. For others, it might be “The Dream Team” led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in 1992, or maybe it’s Michael Phelps and his otherworldly aquatic exploits at the most recent summer games. All of these are fine choices, but my favorite Olympic memory has nothing to do with the winning of a medal by any athlete. For me, it was watching U.S. Gold Medal swimmer Janet Evans ascending the staircase at the 1992 Olympics in Atlanta, and handing the torch to a trembling, disease stricken Muhammad Ali who then turned and lit the Olympic flame. I don’t mind telling you I cried my eyes out that night. A man who had rightly rejected his country and tossed his own Gold Medal into the water had come a long way–and so had we.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Ali is no saint. Due to an incorrigible inability to remain faithful, Ali went through wives almost as fast as he went through opponents. And he was capable of terribly cruel remarks when promoting an upcoming fight. His treatment of the late Joe Frazier was particularly odious. He called Frazier–as proud a black man who ever lived–a “gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom.” He once gave Ernie Terrell a ruthless beating in the ring for refusing to call him by his Muslim name. Ali carried Terrell a full 15 punishing rounds, repeatedly screaming “What’s my name motherf*****!” while delivering lethal combinations to Terrell’s head.
Still, these sins are forgivable for so many reasons. The willingness to stand for what you believe in no matter the consequences, and countless visits to sick children in hospitals are only two. However, I think the greatest lesson he has taught us is that even if you are sick, crippled, and speechless, you don’t have to hide. You can live openly despite your handicap. His recent years have been lived as a profile in courage. No one would blame him if he hid. He has all the money he needs, a loving and faithful wife, and friends and caretakers to look after him. Yet, there he was on that Friday night two years ago sitting while Chris Rock spoke for him. Because somewhere there were people in need and he thought he could help, so to hell with his disease, he had to be there. In some ways, he is far more heroic now than he ever was as a fighter.
For many years after his retirement, Ali lived year ’round in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Only a half hour away from my home in South Bend. He became a real part of the community. He paid for a local baseball park and could be seen around town on a regular basis.
In 1996, I was working for Barnes and Noble when I found out that Ali would be coming to our store to do a book signing. I was scheduled to close the night of the event and the signing was set for the morning. So, I volunteered to work the signing as well as come back and perform my closing shift in the evening. On the Friday night before the event, I didn’t get a second of sleep. I couldn’t lie still or even hold a thought in my head. The anticipation was simply overwhelming. The next morning, I was the first person in the parking lot. We had a meeting prior to the opening of the store to go over the running of the event. I was told that I would be in charge of keeping the line moving, a task that would have me five feet from the champ. IMy nerves were on edge.
Due to his Parkinson’s, Ali pre-signed what were called ”book plates,” which were essentially crack and peel stickers that customers could paste in their books after they met with Ali. Before the signing, it was my job to get all the book plates pasted inside of the books set aside for my fellow booksellers. I was diligently and nervously slapping the plates on the inside cover of book after book when my co-worker, Brad turned to me and said “Dave, look behind you.” I wheeled my head around and saw the man himself staring down at me with a mischievous grin. “Hi” I muttered as if I were a castrato. Profound, I know.
What followed was a Job-like exercise in patience. The whole event was supposed to last two hours, but it went on for four. Ali didn’t want to turn anyone away. He did magic tricks for kids, he signed memorabilia (even though it was very difficult for him), and posed for photo after photo. Most of the customers were gracious, although some were far less so. We had made it clear that Ali would not be signing any items at the event due to his condition, but that didn’t stop any number of jerks from asking him to do it anyway. Yet, as angry as it made me, it didn’t seem to bother him at all. Like I said, the patience of Job.
After the event was completed, Ali took the time to meet with the employees and take pictures with them. When it was my turn, I feared I might wet myself. I sat down next to him and took his outstretched hand. He took one look at my shaven head and said “You look like Ernie Shavers,” who was a similarly coiffed opponent of his in the late 70′s. Those were the only words I heard him speak all day, and he said them to me. I could have died happily right then.
Like many people, I have a favorite Muhammad Ali story. Before Ali was to take on the heavily favored George Foreman in 1974, he visited the children’s ward of a hospital. There he met a young boy stricken with terminal cancer. He told the child “I’m gonna beat George Foreman and you’re gonna beat cancer!” After knocking out Foreman in the 8th round in Zaire, Ali returned to the young boy’s bedside. The child’s condition had worsened considerably. Ever positive, Ali burst into the boy’s room and said “See, I told you! I beat George Foreman and you’re gonna beat cancer!” The boy replied, “No champ, I’m going to meet God, and when I do I’m going to tell him I know you.”
Someday, if I’m fortunate enough to crash the gates, I’ll be able to say the same. How good is that?