“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Muhammad Ali, the greatest and most beloved athlete in human history now rests with the ages. As a Black man in the turbulent 1960’s, he was so much more. It’s never easy to write about your heroes in the past tense. I’ll give it my all, even as I navigate through red, watery eyes.
I owe my Undisputed Life Champion that much.
The first time I laid eyes on Muhammad Ali or any sporting event was during his epic third bout with Joe Frazier forever known as “The Thrilla In Manila”. I was sitting on my couch with my Pop and my only distinct memory I have of the fight at that time was Ali knocking Frazier’s mouthpiece out of his mouth and my father’s reaction. “WHOA!!!”, my father yelled to the point where I nearly jumped out of my seat.
A couple of years later, Pop brought me a book full of sports stories. I was pre-school aged at the time so all I could do is glance through the pages. One that stood out was a young Cassius Clay tagging the right eye of Sonny Liston with one of those vintage left jabs, Liston’s left eye was well on its way to being shut.
Those two small tremors were the just the beginning of Muhammad Ali shaking up my world.
As a boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, a young Cassius Clay was both fueled and haunted by the death of Emmett Till and the unforgettable image of him laying in a casket, his face grotesquely mutilated. It was then that Clay — who was raised in a devout Christian home would begin to undertake a radical transformation that would ultimately give us Muhammad Ali.
The United States was a cauldron overflowing with racial unrest as the days of segregation were long and dark for Black men, women and children. The Jim Crow lynchings were replaced by cross burnings and firebombs. Peaceful protests for equality were met in force with fire hoses and ravenous German Shepherds.
In the years between winning the gold medal as a light heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics and defeating Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship in 1964, Ali began to author of his own narrative. Joining the Nation of Islam was something no one expected from a young 22-year old champion. Ali was a close acquaintance of Malcolm X and a faithful follower of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. For all of his brash talk and charisma, the man known as Muhammad Ali was now going to show us how to walk the walk.
Imagine putting everything you’ve worked for on the line for something you believe in. Your name, your livelihood and even your life hang in the balance for a cause so deep and significant it can’t be compromised. Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable man on the planet during his first reign as heavyweight champion. If you didn’t see the champ, you certainly heard him, but he wasn’t the same. The same press Ali used to leave doubled over in stitches were now shaken souls from his eloquent words of conviction. Their hands struggled to dictate as they listened to indictments levied against their fathers and grandfathers. Their faces flushed red from anger, embarrassment and fear of hearing a Black man speak in this way.
Ali’s refusal to enlist in the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector to the Viet Nam War in 1967 placed him in the rarest of air. Where Joe Louis chose to serve as an ambassador by entertaining G.I.’s during World War II, Ali chose to take on the plight of Blacks in the United States first and foremost and secondly, that of poor and oppressed people around the world. A country supposedly founded on the basis of God was prepared to punish a man for merely showing obedience to his Creator.
On April 28th 1967, Muhammad Ali was accepted as a man rooted in his beliefs on a worldwide scale literally decades before people in the country he won a gold medal for could even begin to grasp his reasoning. Malcolm X and Medgar Evers were dead and Martin Luther King Jr would be assassinated less than a year after Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title. As the 1960’s drew to a close Muhammad Ali was undoubtedly the most popular man in the world.
The point could be argued that Muhammad Ali’s stance against the Viet Nam War encouraged Dr. King to do the same. The Civil Rights leader took on one final challenge in the last months of his life. Ali became a pariah, even in the Black community among those who felt it was our duty to serve a country despite not having the right to eat in certain establishments or even vote. In these hours of chaos, Ali was our Black Steel, our weapon, our Superhero. He was our indisputable Blackness, our voice and regardless of who you put in front of him it didn’t matter because he was our ass-kicker.
America’s disgust with Ali grew to the point where his opponents of the same hue were admired as true symbols of patriotism where Ali was cast as the infidel. Propped up flag-wavers like Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell went as far as to call Ali by his former slave name of Clay despite being warned of the consequences. In later years, Joe Frazier and George Foreman did not repeat the same offense as Patterson or Terrell, but were placed in the same sentimental seat only to be ultimately felled by Ali.
The last three fights of note in Ali’s career (Leon Spinks II, Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick) saw the one-time hatred subside. Ali spoke less about social issues and seemed more intent on securing his legacy as a boxer. The man once known for calling the rounds in which he would down an opponent was in an unwinnable battle against Father Time — which became a heartbreaking experience.
America never respected, let alone loved Muhammad Ali. As Parkinson’s Disease took its toll on his physical, mental and verbal faculties the outpouring of “compassion” for Ali was at an epic level. If it came off as unbelievable, even staged or fake, it’s because it was. America had forgiven Muhammad Ali to the point where he was allowed to light the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Games in 1996? Not at all, the Muhammad Ali of half a century ago would’ve laughed at the notion, but since he was no longer in control of his legacy that’s what we were exposed to. As his condition deteriorated, we began to see Ali more and more and it became harder to watch than any beat down Larry Holmes would’ve given him. Our hero was fading before our eyes and all we could do was watch. As elders like Jim Brown continue to uphold the banner of yesteryear, no athlete has reached for a baton that’s been extended for four decades.
The whitewashing of Muhammad Ali’s legacy will be complete when former President Bill Clinton eulogizes the former three-time Heavyweight Champion in Louisville, Kentucky. It was under Clinton where more Black men were jailed than under any other administration in U.S. history — a statistic that I’m sure would not have sat well with the Muhammad Ali of my youth. Ali wasn’t befriended by Clinton until he was well into his Parkinson’s fight. It’s become public knowledge that Ali’s name and likeness were sold to CKX, an entertainment and rights firm led by Chief Executive Robert F.X. Sillerman. Sillerman recieves 80% of any sales containing Ali’s name or likeness while Ali’s family receives the other 20%.
The sad irony is the legacy of a man who once dominated a sport owned by Italians and Jews with the most powerful Black organization at his back is now in the hands of a Jewish executive who just happens to be close friends with the Clintons.
I remember when the running joke among many of my people was Bill Clinton was the “First Black President”? With wife Hillary now running for the Nation’s top office, it looks like eulogizing Muhammad Ali might put Hillary over the top with many Blacks who are still in the dark. This will pale in comparison to playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall Show or Hillary toting hot sauce in her purse.
Muhammad Ali is no longer in the physical. I’m thankful that in my lifetime I was able to see a Black man with the courage to stand up when everything around him was crumbling. He loved us enough to let us know that we were beautiful kings and queens and should forever carry ourselves as such. He was a king born to reign, but he lived to serve.
My champion, then, now and forever.