wasn’t his boxing ability that mesmerized me back then. No, It was
quite simply his mouth. He spoke in rhymes which amused me. Boxing
wasn’t a pick part of my life just yet. The interest went up after I (I
mean my mom) purchased my first Ring Magazine when I was six years old.
then Cassius Clay had officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali. His
nickname,“The Louisville Lip” fit like a proverbial boxing glove. He had
won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in an improbable
upset. A year later, he defeated former champion Floyd Patterson. He
fought Liston again and stopped him in the first round with something
called an anchor punch. He bragged and made predictions, but I always
saw a twinkle in his eye. I had no idea how controversial he was. By
1967, we were living in Oklahoma. I was slowly becoming aware of the
hatred Ali inspired. By the end of the summer of 67, my learning curve
had improved dramatically, due to an incident that occurred during a
late summer day I can remember playing with the neighborhood kids and
hearing my name called. I ran over to where four or five of the fathers
stood eating catfish and drinking beer while the mothers talked on the
other side of the street. I could see my mom but had no idea where my
dad was. I stood and waited. One of the fathers put his plate down and
asked me if I knew who Cassius Clay was.
nodded. I saw them glance at each other. Did I admire Clay? I nodded
again. They mumbled. One of them told me what a terrible person Clay
was. I shook my head. Another said he should be lynched, or shot, or
both. They used a word that starts with an N. I felt two hands rest on
my shoulders. Then, I heard a voice I knew very well say, “My son can
like whoever he likes. I’d appreciate it if you kept that kind of
language to yourselves.” The mens' heads nodded ever so slightly.
My dad had saved the day.
few months later Muhammad Ali lost his boxing license. I had enjoyed
reading about how he flattened Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley.
Nobody was questioning his boxing brilliance.
It would be three long years before he was back in the ring.
Ali returned from exile in 1970, we moved back to California. He
stopped Jerry Quarry in three rounds and outlasted Oscar Bonevena. On
March 8, 1971, the unthinkable happened. “The Greatest” lost to Smokin
Joe Frazier. I was in shock and felt bad for days. When my new Ring
Magazine showed up in the mail, I barely glanced at it. He lost to Ken
Norton in 1973. A year later he beat both Norton and Frazier in
rematches. He was obviously not the same elusive “butterfly’ of the
1960’s. He was lucky or cursed to have such a strong chin. That chin
sustained many shots, including George Foreman’s in September of 74. I
had watched Foreman train a few months before. His powerful punches put a
dent in the heavy bag. The boxing experts said he would do the same
thing to the 32-year-old Ali. Instead, Ali regained the heavyweight
championship with a stunning 8th round knockout of the invincible
Foreman. My fifteen-old year lungs were in full force that night.
Leon Spinks took Ali’s crown in 1977, I felt sick. When Ali decisively
won the rematch, I wanted to sing. Ali was an old 36. His war’s with
Frazier and others had taken their toll. He could still dance, but his
reflexes had dulled. Still, nobody talked about it. He was now the
people’s champion. I'd watch his appearances and feel pain in my
was different. His speech pattern had slowed. In 1980, he came back to
take on defending champion Larry Holmes. Ali could still talk the talk,
(to a degree) but he couldn’t walk the walk.
It was over.
As the years progressed his condition worsened. He couldn’t talk and would shake uncontrollably.
irony was impossible to ignore. The greatest showman that boxing ever
knew was now as silent as a stone. There would be no more rhymes or
rhythms, only memories. A disease tied to boxing had finally silenced
him, not an opponents fists.
Frazier’s death shocked the boxing world. Ali’s frail condition at the
funeral brought tears to my eyes. I guess I never thought the most
extraordinary athlete I’ve ever seen would end up so vulnerable.
This week (Jan. 17) Muhammad Ali is celebrating his 70th year on this earth.
I'd like to wish the champion of all champions a very happy birthday.