The Time Tunnel: Muhammad Ali - Shades of Greatness

09.14.05 – By Kevin Kincade: I don’t know how many times I started to write this piece only to rip it to shreds and start over again. It seems no matter what words I put to paper, nothing comes remotely close to adequately portraying one of, if not “The Greatest of All Time” and how he fits into social history, to say nothing of where he stands in the history of fisticuffs. None the less, he is the primary reason I fell in love with the sport and, in my humble opinion, 90% of the reason all athletes, not just boxers, are able to be paid millions of dollars where only a few short decades ago they were being paid only a fraction of that price. Of course, I am speaking of Muhammad Ali.

All I can say is that it is my firm belief that what made Ali “The Greatest” had as much to do with who he was outside the ropes as within.

I can already hear the “pshaws” concerning my theory; but think about it. What makes a man great? To me, it’s about principle; where a man stands and for what he stands and what he’s willing to do to back up his stand. Was Ali a great fighter? No doubt; but he was so much more than just a fighter in the great scheme of things. To call Ali a fighter is like calling Secretariat a horse or calling a Ferrari a car or calling “The Beatles” a band; it has the power of understatement. In order to really put things into perspective, it is necessary to examine the times in which certain events took place.

For Muhammad Ali, that time was the 1960’s, perhaps the most turbulent times in United States’ history outside of the Civil War. The 1960’s, specifically the late 60’s, could be likened to the dome of a great social volcano which had been dormant on the surface as internal pressure had been building and building for years and years until finally……BOOM!!!!!

I was born in December of 1970, just 3 months before “The Fight of the Century”, and grew up seeing Ali on television telling me to obey my mother and father, eat my vegetables, brush my teeth, and stay away from “dope”…whatever that was. I had no idea of the man’s social impact until I wrote a paper on him during my junior year in high school. The wife of a Vietnam Vet gave me a “D” for my efforts. Vietnam was still one of those issues people got touchy about, kind of like Iraq now. In the early days of the “police action” against North Vietnam, if you disagreed with the U.S. government’s plight against the dreaded foe of Communist expansion, you were traitorously un-American; you just don’t disagree with the Government in times of War….sound familiar? They know what they’re doing; and who are we, the people, to argue with those we put in office?...or something to that effect. I mean, after all, the government would never do anything without having the best interest of its citizens at heart, right? I’ll let you mull on that one.

When Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964, the United States was knee deep in the Civil Rights Movement and in the early stages of the Vietnam Conflict. The day after his coronation as Heavyweight King, Cassius announced he had joined the Nation of Islam and was a Muslim; and denounced the name of his ancestors’ slave masters, “Clay”. His announcement sent shockwaves throughout White America. He was such a “clean cut” and “well spoken” young man. Now, in their eyes, he was “the bad guy”, having become a member of “the Black Muslims” as the White press referred to the Nation of Islam. Where was the essential American belief in “Freedom of Religion”? Somewhere behind “White Makes Right”, I suppose.

This all seems like a footnote in history, now; but at the time, it was a bold and daring move on Ali’s part. Before the first Liston fight, Clay was the “All American Boy”, he had the great gift of gab, had told the Soviet press at the 1960 Olympics that, while America had problems, there was still no better place to live…..or something to that effect. Now, this “All American Boy” had “betrayed” White America by consorting with Malcolm X and the “bogeymen” of the Nation of Islam. It took a lot of guts for Cassius X to come out as a Muslim, when he was well aware of the forthcoming consequences of the public backlash, yet, he had come to embrace a path to God that said the Black Man was just as important in the grand plan as the White Man. Now, of course, Christianity is not a racist religion; but remember, this is the 1960’s, not present day. Many a White Christian had lynched many a Black Christian in the South for decades; and still, Black Christians or “Colored Christians” were not allowed to eat in restaurants alongside their White Brethren. What kind of effect is that kind of environment going to make on an impressionable African American youth?

The Nation of Islam taught Cassius a variety of things; of which, that he was just as good as any White man and that Jesus was a Black Man, which startled a young man who had seen his father paint many a Blonde-Haired, Blue-Eyed Jesus on murals. Ali was despised wherever he went, which is hard to believe, when considering how widely loved he is today; but I submit to those who do not know, he was just as hated then as he is loved now. In the ring, opponents such as Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell refused to respect the young man’s choice to change his name to Muhammad Ali and insisted on calling him Clay. Here he was, speaking up for “Blackness” and a Black Man’s right to separate himself from White society by denouncing the name White slave masters had given to his family by embracing a new, original name, and fellow African Americans, who should be supporting his new found independence, were siding with the White establishment. Understandably, he was enraged; and took it out on poor Patterson and Terrell in the ring. Very few times has the world seen a cruel streak in a man who is now an international ambassador of peace; but watching Ali mercilessly pound on Terrell while shouting, “What’s My Name?!” is a prime example that Ali is human and does have…..or did have that same viciousness within him that we all have.

Having provoked White America through the proclamation of his Faith and his assertiveness as an independent Black Man, the stage was set for the ultimate showdown with the establishment over the other hot topic of the day: Vietnam.

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger!”--- Muhammad Ali circa 1966. That quote was an incredibly simple statement that spoke volumes of where Ali’s heart lay concerning conflict at home and abroad. Ali’s quote dealt with the paradox of the second class citizenship of Blacks in the United States and what was being asked of them. American Blacks who were drafted into the Armed Services were told to fight and kill a people who had never enslaved them, never terrorized them, never oppressed them; and were asked to give their lives for a country who refused to stand up for and defend their God-given rights. What’s more significant of an issue: a Government’s responsibility to the people it serves as is outlined in our (U.S.) constitution or fighting some supposed menace that threatens said government’s global political or economic power? It’s kind of hypocritical to presume the responsibility of policing the world when a government is inept at its primary purpose of serving the providers of its payroll. It is clear where Muhammad Ali felt the government’s responsibility lay…..with attending to internal issues; and he did not hide his feelings on it, even at the cost of his title, livelihood, and possibly his freedom. When called upon for induction into the United States Army, Muhammad took no step. Well, he didn’t take the step they wanted him to; he took a much more significant one.

“Coward!” was the outcry from those who supported the War; but Muhammad’s stand against the Government garnered the attention and admiration of not only America’s growing anti-war youth movements; but also of citizens all over the world that could not believe one man was taking such a stand against one of the world’s two super powers. With one bold assertion, Ali had given the anti-war, pro-black movements a hero; a man willing to give up everything he had on a moral position. So many had burned their draft cards, so many had fled to Canada; but Muhammad Ali took on the United States government head on, toe to toe, over the issue of a man’s right to refuse to fight for a cause in which he did not believe.

Ali could have had it easy fighting exhibitions to build up the morale of the soldiers and never saw combat, kept his title, and fought during his prime years. It made perfect sense. He could have done what Joe Louis did in Word War II. Even the Nation of Islam wanted him to accept induction into the Armed Forces. However, Vietnam was not World War II and Muhammad Ali was his own man and followed his own conscious; and it nearly cost him everything…..all on principle. That principle, that stand, that willingness to give it all up for the sake of right and wrong made Ali an icon among the bulk of America’s idealistic youth. During his exile from boxing between 1967 and 1970, Muhammad traveled all over the country speaking before college audiences, expressing his views on Black-White relations and on the War. When he took his stand, he was in the minority; but as time and the war drug on, more and more found themselves in Ali’s corner as was evidenced during his first fight with Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden in 1971. One month after he lost to Frazier, Muhammad Ali’s position as conscientious objector was finally recognized by the Supreme Court and his conviction was overturned by an 8-0 vote, a unanimous decision, if you will. In the end, right was might.

Of course, the rest, as they say, is history. Ali went on to avenge his loss to “Smokin’ Joe”, regain his throne from George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle”, meet Frazier one more time in “The Thrilla in Manila”, and become the only man in heavyweight history to win the linear World Championship three times. Stories and articles can be written until all of the ink runs dry about how great a fighter Muhammad Ali was; but I wanted to try to illustrate some of the reasons why the man behind the fighter is great. The word “great” is so often overused: I had a great night’s sleep; we went on a great vacation; that sure was a great hot dog! A word can lose its significance and power if used improperly or extensively.

Another word that is overused is the word, “Champion”. What is a Champion? A holder of a belt? The winner of a trophy or medal? All of the above, I suppose. But the two words, People’s Champion mean something entirely different. To be a champion of the people, to represent one’s peers to the point that you actually “champion” them is an honor above honors. Some would say those in the public eye, such as athletes, artists, or performers should hold their tongue when it comes to politics or opinions on world affairs. I say, Why? Who should speak on such public issues? Politicians? People who have constituents to satisfy and promises to fulfill? Personally, I prefer any person’s honest opinion and thoughts on an issue because, whether I agree or disagree with them, I know they are speaking from the heart; and there is no truer catalyst. Where would we be if Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, the Dali Llama, Mother Theresa and others had sat idly by and not spoken up against injustices? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing Muhammad Ali with these great civic leaders and their impact on society; but I’m saying he had the same gumption and the same heart. In the late 1960’s so many opposed America’s involvement in Vietnam as did Ali; but only Muhammad had a voice so powerful and a name so recognizable that all the world paid attention, as did those whom he championed.

Muhammad Ali, when he spoke of real-world issues, he spoke from the heart. He made the most of the publicity and notoriety that comes with the title, World Heavyweight Champion; more so than any other man who has ever held the belt before or since, with the sole exception of the Great Joe Louis. American author, Stan Lee, once wrote, “With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility.” True, it was from his comic book, “The Amazing Spiderman”; but it’s a poignant sentiment, nonetheless. Muhammad Ali was born to be a fighter, a champion, and had the courage to become a “People’s Champion” by taking on the public responsibility of such a post. That, my friends, is what courage is all about…..speaking out when it is easier to remain silent, doing something when it is easier to do nothing, giving up everything for principle rather than selling one’s soul for shelter. That is what it takes to be “Great”.

The bottom line is Muhammad Ali was and is bigger than the sport of boxing. People who have never watched a fight in their lives have heard of Muhammad Ali. If he started walking down any street in the world today, 24 years after his last fight, he’d still bring traffic to a standstill. Does anyone really believe this massive outpouring of love is solely due to his ring accomplishments? How many other former heavyweight champions are going to get the kind of ovation he got when he lit the torch at the 1996 summer Olympic Games?

It is easy to fight for ones’ self and one’s family and for “Da Money”; but it takes something extra special to fight for people one’s never met and use a position of note as a way to address injustices and improprieties. It’s one thing to hold a belt which bestows upon the owner the title of “World Champion”, it’s something entirely different to actually BE a World Champion……a Champion of The World…..a People’s Champion….a Champion for the People of the World.…a Real Life, Flesh and Blood Hero; and now, a Legend. Muhammad Ali was such a man; and still is in his 60’s. He was, is, and always will be “The Greatest of All Time.” The rest are destined to eternally grasp for mere Shades of Greatness.

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Article posted on 14.09.2005

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