Muhammad Ali. That name’s always stood for something.
I was a kid when Ali fought. He was just another big sports star to a kid like me, but I soon realized he was nothing like the stars I admired, the Bobby Orrs, Johnny Unitases, the Mick, the Say Hey Kid. Sports stars were gentlemen, they were modest. Even the best were aw-shucks appreciative of their chance to get paid to do what they loved to do.
And then there was Ali, the mouth that roared. He was the greatest, and he always was eager to remind you. I was shocked. Athletes just didn’t do that. The greatest players in the history of their sports never bragged, always smiled. Never, ever would Bobby Orr claim to be the greatest hockey player ever, or Mays the greatest ballplayer ever. I say they were, but they wouldn’t.
Ali shocked me even more. What’s wrong with Cassius, I wondered. Your parents gave you that name. And what’s a muslim?
And then he refused to be drafted. That was easy to understand but hard to appreciate when you had two cousins in ‘Nam and a brother who joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the army. "Must be nice to just say no," I thought. Then they took his title. Then they threw him in jail. And he stood up and said he didn’t care. His religious beliefs were more important than his career, or the money, or the chance to be "The Greatest." I had to think about what he was doing in a different way. I had to learn something.
I think about that process, that education, that maturation, as I ponder over the death of this man. What athlete today, already sitting on millions of dollars and with reputations as the darlings of the American public, would walk away from that on principle? I can think only of that baseball player who retired because he couldn't take his son to work every day. He took a stand, but it was for selfish reasons.I mean, compare that to a man who stepped away from success to make a point that every American should have been making to the leaders who were squandering the lives of American children (but, of course, never their own) to fight a stupid, prideful war.
And then, when the courts said Muhammad Ali could return to making his living, he won his titles back, not in a courthouse, but in the ring, toe to toe, man to man. Where he proved he still was the greatest. Or confirmed it, because for anyone paying attention he’d already proved it many times over.
Saturday night I stopped at a bar where evidently it was UFC Night or something. Two morons in a cage went at each other like a couple of drunken barflies. I watched one guy elbow his opponent in the side of the head. The opponent undoubtedly was unconscious before his head hit the mat. Yet the first guy jumped on him and delivered two more elbows to his head before the ref finally made an effort to stop the madness.
The crowd at the bar loved it. This being the day of Ali's death, I thought back to Ali's matches against the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Leon Spinks. Any of them had more class tied up inside each boxing glove than the entire crowd at that bar, never mind the fighters, who likely wouldn't have lasted a round with Ali..
Rest in peace, Mr. Ali. You earned it.