Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016

Muhammad Ali died late last night. To say I saw this coming wouldn't tell the whole story. Several times, over the past few years, I found myself suddenly struck with the thought, "Ali will be gone soon." It was the kind of thought that hit me as I lie in bed, unable to sleep, but unable to focus my thoughts. I wasn't seeing the future, and I'm not particularly sentimental about the dead. But the fact that my subconscious would do this to me should give you an idea of what Muhammad Ali means to me.

Early Memories

As a young boy, I had a few pieces of sports equipment: a bicycle, an old baseball glove passed down from my dad, and a pair of boxing gloves, which I used to hit a heavy bag fashioned from my dad's old Air Force duffle bag. My interest in boxing was initially driven by the Rocky movies, but I remember the first Ali fight I ever saw: an ESPN replay of the first Ali-Norton fight, from March 31, 1973. I'm going to guess I was 11 or 12 years old when I saw it. I was at my grandfather's house, and my dad called me into the living room to watch with him. He said something like, "If you like the Rocky movies, you should watch the real thing. This guy is Muhammad Ali, and he said he was the greatest." My father went on to tell me about how Norton broke Ali's jaw early in the fight, yet Ali continued through the pain and lost the decision. I'm pretty sure my father would have been pulling for Norton in '73, but I sensed respect for Ali's career. Had my grandfather been in the room, he'd probably have made us change the channel to something featuring white people. I watched a lot of Hee Haw at grandpa's, but wasn't allowed to watch The Cosby Show. Maybe that added to the feeling that there was something special about what I was seeing, but this one fight, with its gritty realism replacing the Hollywood drama of the Rocky franchise, was enough to make me want to know more about Ali.

I loved reading biographies, and our middle school library had a couple about Ali. One was a very simple book, written for children, and the other was Ali's autobiography. The autobiography was published in 1975, just after the last Frazier fight, and while it was co-authored with Richard Durham, in hindsight I'm sure nothing in the book appeared without the approval of Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam. Understandably, then, the book focused more on Ali's rich political and religious narrative, from joining the NOI, to changing his name, to refusing the Vietnam draft. The book told me so much that the children's biography did not. It introduced me to Malcolm X, the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and Islam. By eighth grade, I read Malcolm X's autobiography (I had to get it through interlibrary loan), I read Roots, I learned about the race riots in Watts and Newark, and I read about Islam at the public library. It was the best self-guided history class I ever had. To study Ali was to study America.

I've collected a few books since, with the latest (Blood Brothers) arriving last Tuesday.

The boxing section of my bookshelf

Ali has said that turning his back on Malcolm X was one of his biggest regrets.

The Fights

In 1990, NBC ran a series called "The Greatest Fights Ever," and I recorded them on VHS and watched them over and over. Clay-Liston I. Ali-Frazier I. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Thrilla in Manilla. I bought an HBO/Sports Illustrated documentary and I can still hear the narration in my head. What was particularly great about the NBC series were the characters they brought in to help tell the stories, including Ferdie Pacheco, Angelo Dundee, Don Dunphy, Archie Moore, George Benton, and Eddie Futch. They became as familiar to me as Ali's rhymes.

Later I acquired more Ali footage on DVD, and when I first got access to ESPN Classic I built a digital video recorder and captured all the Ali footage I could. In one form or another, I now have over 100 hours of boxing footage in my library, most of it of Ali. By watching all these videos over and over, Ali is likely my most-watched sportsman of my lifetime, even though almost all his fights preceded my lifetime. I don't follow or watch the boxing of today, but I've watched some Ali fights dozens of times, like I did during a workout last week.
March 8 of this year was the 45th anniversary of the first Ali-Frazier fight. I recently noticed this fight wasn't in my digital library, and I didn't have a full version on DVD, either. Often called "The Fight of the Century," this meeting of two unbeaten heavyweight champions is much harder to find than other Ali fights, but I knew where I had it — in my VHS collection, on those old NBC recordings I made in the summer of 1990. Just a few nights ago I reconnected my VCR and made a digital copy of that broadcast, just so I could continue to watch it forever. Again, it's not like a had a premonition that Ali's death was imminent, although the possibility crossed my mind. It's just a reminder of how rare it's been in my life to not be watching or reading something about Ali.

I didn't even have to stage this photo, as these have been sitting on my desk now for several days.

I could say so much about Ali's fights, but I'll limit myself to some bullet points:
  • For the record, I believe Ali really did land that knockdown punch in the second Liston fight. But I also believe Liston did get paid and was fine turning the knockdown into a knockout. (Also, that was an embarrassing job of refereeing by Jersey Joe Walcott in that fight. Yes, I have a better-than-average ability to remember who the referees were in big Ali fights.)
  • The Cleveland Williams fight might exhibit Ali at his peak form, but it didn't help that Williams was recovering from gunshot wounds. Maybe I should watch the Zora Folley fight a few more times, as Ali was really good there, too.
  • There's something that fascinates me about the category of fighter that gave Ali trouble. Mildenberger, Chavalo, Bonavena, Frazier, and Norton all could come in quick and low, and do it awkwardly enough to throw off Ali's rhythm.
  • I understand why the rope-a-dope became famous in the "Rumble in the Jungle," but I wish more people remembered and talked about Ali's brilliant use of a right-hand lead against Foreman that night in Zaire. Just brilliant.
  • The Thrilla in Manilla is probably the best fight I've ever seen, but I hate that two men had to come so close to death for it.


My relationship with Muhammad Ali has changed in the past five to ten years. I've long seen Ali as both an athlete and a civil rights figure, but following the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013 it struck me that Ali was likely the most prominent living civil rights figure in the world. Long lives for our civil rights figures are not something we can take for granted. While we were saddened to see Ali's health comprised by Parkinson's, I'm thankful Ali wasn't shot down like Malcolm, Martin, and so many others.

It's not just that Ali survived threats and health problems for so long. He outlived so many of his competitors, too. Take the book and documentary Facing Ali. The film came out in 2009 and featured Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, George Chuvalo, Ken Norton, Sir Henry Cooper, Ron Lyle, Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers, Ernie Terrell, and George Foreman. Of those, Norton, Cooper, Lyle, Frazier, and Terrell all died between 2011 and 2014. I'm so glad that I heard their stories before they were gone. The same goes for Angelo Dundee and Bert Sugar, who both died in 2012. Boxing itself is a brutal sport, but its people comprise an amazing cast of characters that make the sport what it is. Many of these veterans of the sport told and retold the Ali stories, even as Ali lost the ability to tell them for himself.

An undergraduate student I taught a few years ago made a negative comment to me about Islam. It made me realize that for the majority of current college students, their first awareness of Islam came in the context of 9/11. How fortunate am I to have had such a different experience, and to have Muhammad Ali as my introduction to the Muslim world?

My relationship with Ali hasn't all been about lifting him onto higher pedestals. More recently, I've learned more and thought more about Ali's treatment of Joe Frazier. This was really highlighted by the book Ghosts of Manila and brought up more and more in documentaries and conversations since. I recorded a "Beyond the Glory" FOX Sports documentary about Frazier and watched it over and over, and my admiration and understanding of Frazier has grown immensely. So much so, when I was in Philadelphia for a conference a couple years ago, I felt no need to visit the Rocky statue until I first had an opportunity to visit a proper Joe Frazier statue in that city. As of late 2015, Philly now has a Frazier statue. I was just reading about it and the death of Joe Frazier earlier today, another reminder that Ali and his peers are often not far from my mind.

For the past few days, I've had the HBO documentary "Ali-Frazier I: One Nation Divisible" queued up in YouTube, waiting for me to watch it. I want to know more about how the personal tensions between Ali and Frazier reflected and were reflected by tensions within the American public, particularly within the Black community. So yet again, I'm getting another history lesson because of Muhammad Ali. It will surely lead to another, and another, and all that will be written in the coming days will give me plenty of new material to study. Just as I got so much from what Ali accomplished before my birth, I'll continue to learn from Ali after his death. You said you were the greatest before you knew you were, and you'll continue to be the greatest forever more.

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