OPINION – R.I.P. Champ, you were, indeed, The Greatest.
For most of your adult life you were the most recognizable person on the planet. That’s not opinion, that’s fact, as those who assembled the old “Q” ratings can attest.
Muhammad Ali, you were unique, truly one of a kind.
My earliest memories of Ali are from the 1960 Rome Olympics when he won the light-heavyweight gold medal.
He was Cassius Marcellus Clay then, The Louisville Lip, a young man with a mission even he didn’t quite recognize yet.
He got into boxing at the tender age of 12 when a thief stole his bicycle. He told the police officer who came to take the report that he was going to “whup” the guy who stole it. The officer, Joe E. Martin, who was also a boxing coach, told the young man that he had better learn to box first and taught him the sweet science.
He tore through the Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union levels and breezed through the Olympics before turning pro and moving up to the heavyweight class where, at the age of 22, he became the youngest to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion. He would go on to win that title twice more.
But, it was outside of the ring where Ali had his greatest impact.
He wondered, after returning from the Rome Olympics with a gold medal, why he could not be served at a white’s only diner.
He became a polarizing figure at a time when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a polarizing figure. It’s how it was back then if you questioned the status quo and asked why some were more equal than others.
He was vilified by many in the sporting press which was used to writing odes to guys who better fit the All-American image of clean-cut, folksy heroes even if those heroes wore halos tarnished by booze, broads and bad behavior that ranged from racism to criminality.
He changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name” – indeed, he had slavery in his heritage – and converted to Islam, which was as popular in the United States in those days as it is today.
However, he eschewed the militant aspects of Islam. Although he practiced a violent art, he was a man of peace and deep conviction.
He never forgot his community, he never forgot his roots, he never forgot who he was.
Ali faced some big, tough guys in the ring.
There was Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Cleveland Williams and Ernie Terrell, to name but a few.
But his biggest opponents were racism, bigotry and hatred, and he summoned all of his courage to fight those battles.
He was at the top of his game, the biggest, baddest heavyweight in the world when he gave it all up on principle by refusing to be drafted into the military.
He was stripped of his title.
He was quickly tried and sentenced to five years in prison.
He was not allowed to fight in the United States.
This was a young man in his prime, who could have earned millions in the ring. Had he played the game, he would have surely been placed in one of those cushiony army jobs of entertaining the troops, boxing a few exhibition rounds here and there, and that would have been it.
But principle would not allow that, so he went to the inner city, the college campus, television, wherever he could, to speak out against racism and injustice. His opposition to the Vietnam War inspired Dr. King to also speak out against the war.
And, although he was stripped of his boxing title, he was still The People’s Champion, a title of greater value and depth.
He inspired the children of the inner city.
He inspired the keepers of the flame of equality and freedom.
He inspired me and countless other young men to be courageous enough, should we be called to fight an unjust, immoral war, to say no.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali said at the time. “No Viet Cong ever called me n—-r.”
Finally, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
Although he had a showman’s heart, his return to the ring was also accompanied by a knowledge of his role in a much greater world. That role would grow over the years.
He would travel to Lebanon in 1985 during one of the world’s times of strife and return with four Americans who were being held hostage.
He would later travel to Iraq and negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of U.S. hostages being held just before the start of the Gulf War. He came home with all 15 Americans.
He visited Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. It was an exercise in respect, admiration and love.
He would be called upon to deliver more than $2 million in medical aid to Cuba.
The United Nations used him as a special ambassador for peace and humanitarianism.
He helped feed and provide medicine for children in remote corners of Cote D’Ivoire, Indonesia, Mexico and Morocco, as well as inner city America.
He gave to and served charities from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Special Olympics, Michael J. Fox Foundation, Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and many, many more.
He walked with presidents and kings, but was loved by the common man and woman.
Ali had one of the most wicked jabs in the business, which he could deliver with lightning speed, sending giants tumbling to the canvas.
But, he was also tender of heart, reaching out to the poor, the afflicted. I don’t know how many times I read about him reaching into his pocket to help some down-on-his-luck boxer.
You’ll hear his signature quote, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” a lot over the next few days.
I much prefer his lesser known quote: “Treat people nice, they love you better.”
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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