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LOUISVILLE, KY… It is a cold winter night in St. Paul on February 25, 1964. It is also a good 3 hours after dinner, but my father and I are still at the kitchen table. On top of it sit’s a small radio and it is tuned into a World Championship prize fight between the challenger, a brash young man from Louisville named Cassius Clay versus the Heavyweight Champion of the World, a sullen ex-convict named Sonny Liston. I was 9 years old and in the 4th grade at the time, living right off of West 7th across the mighty Mississippi River from Fort Snelling. You wouldn’t think of it now, but the big prize fights of the day back then were often broadcast on the radio airwaves.
I couldn’t say I was a huge boxing fan, but was aware both of Clay being an Olympic Gold Medalist from 1960, and of his wild pre-fight antics. You could say that he may have been the first extraordinary sports marketer of the modern era. A definite pioneer. Boxers of the day just gave standard interview answers back then and didn’t ruffle any feathers. This guy just exploded that within a few short weeks. I couldn’t say I knew much about Clay, but I had heard and read enough about Liston to know that he wasn’t a “good guy” that you could get behind. Rather he possessed a questionable character and an unfriendly demeanor. Clay? He was in short, “Mr. Excitement”.
It turns out that he was a huge TV “rasslin” fan and his favorite guy was none other then one Gorgeous George. What did GG say in his TV promo spots? He was the prettiest, the best looking, everyone he wrestled was going to get the snuff beat out of them and so on. Sound familiar? Cassius studied George quite well and basically turned his stuff into his boxing interviews. The poetry would come later, but was equally as entertaining. Clay started popping Liston with his world class jab from the start of the bout, and held Liston off from hitting him with his superior reach advantage. In the 5th and 6th rounds, Clay could not see because Liston’s trainers had applied a substance to his glove that made it into Clays eyes, blinding him for a short time.
But in the mid 6th Clay recovered and started to hammer on Liston, who I think, by that time, knew this wasn’t going to end well and would not come off of his stool for the 7th, giving his title over to Clay. This was unbelievable! My dad and I looked across the table at each other and when the first microphone got into the ring Clay became frantic! I told you! I shocked the World! And on and on. This was a definite attention grabber for me. As the days unfurled after the fight, we now knew that Clay had converted to Islam and from that point forth would be known as Muhammad Ali. The racist pockets of White America recoiled at this. He would go on to become globally famous and was then known simply as “Ali“.
The Champ passed away last Friday eve and the world has bowed it’s head for it’s loss. To be certain he had his detractors and downright haters. They aren’t in mourning. So be it. Certainly Ali was not a perfect man. But he never said he was, he never lied about who he was or what he did. He owned up to his mortality and didn’t hide from it. Beyond his faults were his faith and his principles. And he was steadfast in his worship of his higher power.
But 1960’s white America wasn’t ready for an uppity young black guy to stand up for himself and his people, and then later on, to stand for justice for all people of the world regardless of skin color. He was hated for that and he was certainly hated for his stance on the Vietnam war, the conflict that he said his religion would not allow him to participate in. The Military did call for him to be inducted into the armed services and he refused to step forward. The Government rejected his Conscientious objector status and moved to try him and imprison him for his resistance. He was tried, convicted and then after almost 4 years of appeals finally won his case. He lost the prime years of his career as a result.
He resumed his career and more people turned toward him then away. A radio caller on a Saturday show said that he was one of a few people you could take a picture of him anywhere in the world and people would know who he was. That is amazing to me. I got to see him one time in my life, it was at the Met Center for the Larry Holmes-Scott LeDoux Championship fight. I got within 10 feet and the crowd around him was too much to get any closer for the chance of a handshake. But he was working the crowd that night, and the crowd loved every second of it. Perhaps this summer I can write more about him, there is so much more to analyze in my view, particularly the late sixties when he was in exile in his own country. A political prisoner of sorts, I mean, that’s how I see it.
I heard that he was ill and hospitalized late last week and I thought to myself, one of these times he won’t be walking out. This was the time. His lengthy battle with Parkinson’s finally took him home. And I just happened to be in the Louisville area Saturday and Sunday. Sunday morn at 7:00 I went down to the Muhammad Ali Center and there was already a crowd there and a small shrine was growing in size. It was a solemn group, young and old alike, gathered to pay respect.
As a kid you made me smile,
To understand you it took awhile,
But when I did it wasn’t too late,
To know the truth, that you really WERE great,
Courage and strength, in and out of the ring,
Made the people stand, these words they would sing,
ALI, ALI, ALI, ALI, ALI, ALI, ALI, ALI, ALI!