Amazing, isn’t it, that the entire phenomenon began with some kid from Louisville stealing a bike and the bike-less kid getting so mad he signed up for boxing lessons because he never, ever wanted to be a victim again. That’s the story. Some fight club manager promised to make little Cassius Clay into the kind of tough guy who could make people pay.
And he did. And how.
I’ve never been a boxing fan. I’ve probably seen him fight only on newsreels, but I know “rope-a-dope.” I know the style of boxing that made him as famous as he was frustrating, dancing around the ring until he knew good and well the opponent was wheezing enough to get himself decked by an uppercut or some random roundhouse.
Anyone my age can’t help but know Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali. Lots of news sources call his the most recognizable face in all the world. They may be right. He’s in a class with Mother Teresa and very, very few others. In 2012, most of the world and me watched when, something of a superhero, shaken as he was, Muhammed Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta with a torch he was physically unable to carry. That one moment was a victory for millions, even billions of people.
I remember his brashness, his in-your-face attitude, his outright arrogance, his third-rate poetry, his ceaseless bullying. I was a boy – a kid, and a white kid. I remember thinking he was out of his tree when he converted to Islam and changed his name. I remember the whole thing was an embarrassment. I remember resenting his brash uppity-ness. I remember being afraid of him, afraid in ways my dad helped me greatly to understand. After all, this Cassius Clay was an “agitator,” someone who couldn’t let well enough alone, someone looking to destroy an entire way of life, even in rural Wisconsin.
I’ve been reading Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America. Honestly, very little he says is news to me at this time in my life. For a variety of reasons, most of what Wallis maintains is old news; but that doesn’t mean that the express purpose of the book doesn’t hit like an Ali uppercut. It does. American racism is our “original sin.”
Because what I don’t remember about Cassius Clay is that when he came home to Louisville, a gold medal from the 1968 Olympics on his chest, the champ could not get served in some restaurants in his own home town. He was black. What I don’t remember about Muhammed Ali is the dog whistle lots and lots of African-Americans heard when the world champion heavyweight told all of us that he was so darn pretty. What I heard was stupid, swaggering arrogance.
African-Americans heard something else all together, things white folks like myself wouldn’t let them feel from the very start of the American experience. When Ali said he was pretty as a picture, they heard him say they were too. I had no idea that’s what they heard from Ali because when I was 16, I was cock-sure Barry Goldwater was going to save America. After all, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” and extremism was exactly what we Americans needed to protect us from our own Muhammed Alis.
Ali died last month. You couldn’t have missed it. The news is full of tributes and endless sound bites most politicians would die for. Ali could make headlines just as heedlessly as Donald Trump can. He was, years ago, forever in the news, sparring, rope-a-doping with journalists. He knew how to sting and smile at the very same time.
Very much a hero
In 1966, the greatest boxer in the world refused to fight in Vietnam, refused to fight with people with whom he had no quarrel, he said, when his real enemies were here, were those who wouldn’t let him eat in a downtown restaurant. That was something I didn’t understand back then, a truth about America my father tolerated and never told me. In 1966, I wrote an essay I can still find somewhere in my files, an essay titled “Why We are in Vietnam.”
He was, back then, much bigger than I thought he was, far bigger, a much greater fighter.
Soon enough, perhaps, Mother Teresa will become a saint, although millions across the face of the globe would call her that already. Ali, a man with a face as recognizable as hers, will never be.
But Muhammed Ali will be not soon forgotten, forever the champ and, despite his sins, very much a hero.
This morning, I’m thankful for Muhammed Ali and what he taught so many around the world.
And what he taught me.
Muhammed Ali in an interview with David Frost (1974)
David Frost: What would you like people to think about you when you’ve gone?
Muhammad Ali: I’d like for them to say:
He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met.