Muhammad Ali has died.
This seems impossible. More than that. 2016 has been something like a serial killer. Bowie, Prince, Ali. I mention these three in particular because they are heroes of mine. The very personal kind that you may never have truly known, but somehow made your life much better anyway. I am running out of heroes today.
I once spent most of a day with Muhammad Ali. But before I recount that tale, I’d like to indulge in a bit of nostalgia now. I need to remember. I need to tell.
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. It robbed him not only of his physical mobility, his communicative ability, but now his life 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 alcoholic former stepfather 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 stepfather (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 find he 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 would likely have been 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 take everything from him.
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. 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 1996 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 brutal 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 had all the money anyone would ever need, a loving and faithful wife, and friends and caretakers to look after him. Yet, still he was very public up until the last year. In some ways, he is far more heroic now than he ever was as a fighter.
Now, about my day.
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. My 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 him. Before the signing, it was my duty 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, a biblical level pf patience.
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 my heart might leap from my chest. 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 can’t even begin to tell you how that made me feel.
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.”
I met Muhammad Ali once. I spent the better part of a day with him. In some small way, I know how that little boy felt.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” ~ Muhammad Ali
That’s the greatest thing anyone ever said in the history of, well, ever.
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