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Ray Duckler: For a grade-school kid, understanding Ali was impossible to grasp

  • Muhammad Ali at a Black Muslim gathering in 1968. AP file

  • Muhammad Ali speaks at an anti-war rally at the University of Chicago in May 1967. Ap file

Published: 6/8/2016 12:57:37 AM

‘I am the greatest!” the handsome boxer yelled on TV, circa 1970.

“The hell you are!” white America hollered back. “You are the worst!”

That was my introduction to Muhammad Ali, who died last weekend at age 74. Back in the 1960s, white America, especially the segment living comfortably, wanted Ali to zip his mouth. Let him float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, they said.

Just float and sting quietly. Don’t make waves.

My parents were in that group, part of a generation that feared a strong black figure who rattled their sense of comfort. And so, for a while, I was in that group as well. I didn’t know any better, that Ali was fighting something bigger and tougher than merely another fighter with a jab and a left hook.

He was fighting for black people and their rights here in the United States.

I wanted Ali to tone it down. I wanted him to lose to Joe Frazier the first time they boxed, both unbeaten, for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, on March 8, 1971.

I was 11.

The joke that spread through my school’s hallways leading up to the Frazier fight was this: Whom do you want to win the big fight, Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay (Ali’s birth name)?

The punch line, of course, was that both names represented the same fighter. But, in Ali’s view, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Clay was the young man who, during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, said this to a Russian writer when asked about racial prejudice in America: “. . . tell your readers we got qualified people working on that, and I’m not worried about the outcome.”

“To me, the U.S.A. is still the best country in the world, counting yours,” a young Clay added. “It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.”

That’s the Ali my parents’ generation wanted. They wanted Ali to cooperate, play the game, show some appreciation for what America had given him.

They wanted an Uncle Tom, something Ali unfairly and cruelly would later call Frazier while promoting their first fight, which hurt and enraged Frazier until the day he died. They wanted Ali to be a good “boy,” lacing the word with disrespect, patronizing Ali, trying to knock him down.

And that’s where Ali, a three-time heavyweight champion between 1964 and ’78, had the last laugh, because white America, which included lots of sports writers, had no idea at the time that taking a punch, in and out of the ring, would evolve into the most overlooked quality Ali possessed.

And perhaps his best.

YouTube Frazier’s 15th-round knockdown in 1971, the most electric moment in sports history, a subset of the most exciting event in sports history.

You’ll see Ali, the right side of his face puffed like a grapefruit, rise by the count of four and finish the fight. Frazier won a unanimous decision, the first loss in Ali’s career.

No other boxer at the time, however, would have even gotten up from that left hook in New York City, which began from another zip code before landing squarely on Ali’s jaw.

White America wanted Ali to stay down, put in his place by the boxer who preferred not to rock the boat.

But Ali kept getting up. And white America kept throwing its own left hook, hoping he’d stay down for the 10 count.

Around this time, I’d been taught in school and read in history books that America was great, in all areas, all the time. And, in many ways, that was true.

World War II and beyond had elevated us, making me feel proud, a light against the darkness that had emerged from governments in Germany and Italy and Japan and the Soviet Union.

We had stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate a continent, and we had every right to tell our children about it. We had dropped supplies into Germany during the Berlin Airlift, and the people there cheered.

But the Ali of the late 1960s tried to peel back other layers, and white America kept telling kids like me to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The scene there, behind that curtain, illustrated racism, an unjust country that asked blacks to die in foreign wars, yet refused to provide them with equal and fair treatment under the law.

That’s what Ali tried to show. That’s what made white America mad. They saw him refuse induction into the armed forces in 1967, during the Vietnam War, and cheered when he got stripped of his title, lost his license to box and forfeited millions of dollars.

Ali’s handlers were negotiating a sweet deal for the champ, like the one Joe Louis had during World War II. Ali would serve as morale booster for the troops. He’d put on exhibitions.

He said no.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam,” Ali said, “while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

By the fall of 1974, Ali’s act had grown tired, white American thought. He had lost the ’71 fight to Frazier and suffered a broken jaw in another loss, this one to Ken Norton.

Perfect, white America thought. Ali’s mouth was wired shut. Justice had been served.

Meanwhile, George Foreman had emerged as the champion. A menacing figure with a stare that could melt rock, Foreman had taken the title from Frazier in ’73. Knocked him down six times in two rounds, in fact. He’d beaten Norton to a pulp as well, knocking him down three times.

That’s nine knockdowns against the two fighters who’d beaten up Ali.

Surely this would be the end of the mouth that roared, I figured. Ali was old, 32, his act tired, Foreman a young 25, his fists made of dynamite.

I was 14.

By that time, I still hadn’t gotten it, still hadn’t figured out the importance of Muhammad Ali, still hadn’t gotten the message, his message.

The fight was held in Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974. I woke up the next day and learned Ali had regained the title he’d relinquished seven years earlier. Amazing.

Then I heard he’d won by knockout in the eighth round.

Knockout? That hit me like, well, an Ali jab. Somehow his win over Foreman, considered an indestructible force, ran parallel with his victory over the U.S. government, another indestructible force.

It woke me up, forced me to do my homework and read about this man, who he was, what he stood for, what he had sacrificed and why. 

After Ali’s death last weekend, I emailed former Monitor editor Mike Pride, a great boxing fan who is a few years older than me, 20 in 1967. What did Ali mean to him?

“When ‘uppity n-word’ was still a righteous epithet around which white men united, Ali was the uppitiest of them all,” Pride wrote. “With his confidence and braggadocio, not to mention the rightness of his stance, he captured the imagination of a rising generation, black and white.

“There was this moment, created by him, when some boys my age knew we weren’t our fathers anymore.”

I learned this later than Pride did, but I learned it nevertheless. I learned our country, a great one, had flaws, just like my parents and their generation. I learned what civil rights meant, that we needed to move forward as a nation and that sometimes a professional athlete had a lot of worthwhile things to say.

In his later years, Ali, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, spoke in a whisper and rarely appeared in public. By then, though, his message was loud and clear.

He was the greatest.

Inside the ring, and out, too.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)


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