Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali

When I was a kid, my parents and I were not real big sports fans. We certainly were not fans of boxing. But nevertheless, we had a favorite boxer. And that boxer was Muhammad Ali. 

Ali had an outsized personality that served him well outside the ring as his prowess as a fighter served him well inside the ring. He was noted for his over the top proclamations of his skill as a boxer which extended to similar comments about the importance of his presence on the planet and the prettiness of his face.  Yes, Muhammad Ali had an enormous ego but he got away with it and was still beloved by millions because of his wit and his charm. Not to mention actually delivering victories in his boxing matches. 

That's not to say that Ali did not have his detractors. His bravado alone put many people off and the unvarnished truth that he espoused left a lot of people uncomfortable.  No moreso than in his objection to the Vietnam War and his refusal to serve in the military.  

Ali was born in 1942 as Cassius Clay. In 1964, after defeating Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight boxing championship, Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. 

In 1966, Ali was drafted into the Army but he reused to serve as a conscientious objector, saying he had "no quarrel with them Vietcong". Here is how Ali put it: 

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father.... How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."

This was a position that had immediate repercussions for Ali. His refusal to be drafted cost him his boxing licenses and his passport. For three years plus, Muhammad Ali was not able to fight during his most prime years as a professional fighter which costs Ali millions of dollars and a diminished reputation as a boxer. 

But as the Vietnam War dragged on and became increasingly unpopular, Ali's objection to that war gained sympathy. In 1970, Ali was able to fight again when New Jersey and New York restored Ali's boxing licences in those states. Then the Supreme Court in 1971 overturned Ali's conviction for avoiding the draft and Muhammad Ali was back in earnest. 

In the immediate years that followed, Ali fought in two boxing matches that are still heralded years later as two of the greatest sports events of all time: 

  • a title fight against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974—a bout nicknamed "The Rumble in the Jungle".
  • a bout with Joe Frazier in Manila, famously known as the "Thrilla in Manila" held on October 1, 1975.  

In both cases, Ali was against fighters of considerable skill and power who in many ways outclassed Ali. In both cases, Ali stood his ground, taking punches to tire out his opponents, a strategy that came to be called "rope a dope". It was a strategy that resulted in victories for Muhammad Ali in both fights. 

Muhammad Ali's greatest fight, however, was the time he had to defend Earth from alien invaders. 


OK, not really really but it was a thing that happened in the pages of 1978's Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali.  

Sadly Muhammad Ali was on the downturn as this historic comic book came out. Age and time had caught up to Ali whose body was suffering from the constant barrage of blows he had endured in his career.  In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's Syndrome which eroded his body's strength and control and eventually stole his voice.  

And what a voice he had. Ali was known for trash talking his opponents and aggrandizing his own status in colorful statements.   

"I am the greatest!" 

"I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!"

"I'm young; I'm handsome; I'm fast. I can't possibly be beat."

"He’s (Sonny Liston) too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me!"

"Braggin' is when a person says something and can’t do it. I do what I say.”

“If you even dream of beating me you'd better wake up and apologize.”

 "I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick."

"I told you all: I AM the greatest of ALL TIME!"  

While Muhammad Ali could not speak, he still made his voice heard. When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Ali issued the following statement: 

"I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.

“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.

“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is."

For a man who excelled in a sport that inflicted and endured violence, Muhammad Ali was at heart a man of peace, a message he stood by at deep personal cost when he objected to the the Vietnam war, a message he promoted in the last months of his life. 

Muhammad Ali was a most unique individual of the likes we may never see again. 

Rest in peace, Ali. 


Click here for a post on Muhammad Ali by one of my favorite bloggers, Ken Levine.  

Click here for another post about Ali by another one of my favorite bloggers, Mark Evanier. 

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