Years ago, when my son was small, we went to the Muhammad Ali Museum, a must see if you’re ever in Louisville. As we watched video of clips of the champ over the years, my son looked at me and said, “Wow, he never shut up.”
A young Cassius Clay, days before he became Muhammad Ali, takes the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. He was already an Olympic champion, but this is the start of the legend we mourn this week.
You’re going to see a lot of tributes in coming days to Muhammad Ali, who died in Arizona last night of respiratory problems. People are going to say the three-time world champion heavyweight boxer transcended sports and was a great humanitarian. They’re going to say how he was a powerful symbol for oppressed people. They’re going to say how good he looked and how watching him in action was witnessing the physical expression of poetry.
Which is all true.
But don’t let the tributes fool you. When Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his talents, he was one of the most hated people in America. Black people loved him. White people hated and feared him. Anyone who was alive in the ’60s and ’70s knows that was the case. He was hated because, unlike today’s athletes, he spoke out against injustice.
Remember civil rights? When people were saying we’ll all get along by just grabbing hands and singing “Kumbaya,” Ali was in America’s face talking about its hypocrisy:
In the previous video, they talked about Vietnam, the issue that resulted in the the theft of his heavyweight crown. But when smug college boys tried to tell him that he wasn’t patriotic and anti-American because he wouldn’t support his country’s war against a tiny nation thousands of miles away, he threw the issue back in their faces.
He really threw terror into the hearts of white America. Don’t think that everything was beautiful and the multitudes agreed with the things he said at the time he said them. He was lightyears away from today’s athletes in terms of skill in a sport, but most of all in terms of impact on society. Today’s athletes aren’t going to do anything that threatens the removal from their sport or the loss of multimillion dollar sponsorships they have with sneaker companies.
The greatness of Muhammad Ali is that he gave up everything for what he believed.
Really, when you think about it, there are only two great athletes who spoke on behalf of black America when blatant racism was just the routine of life. Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson.
Robinson was told to internalize the injustices he was subject to. Don’t fight back. Don’t say anything no matter what the bigots in the stands or on the fields said or did. So, in what was the right move for his time, Jackie took the abuse, but he also spoke up against it when the opportunity came.
Jackie Robinson died when he was 53. He died young, and I’ll always believe that the mistreatment he faced in his early years in baseball contributed to that.
One thing you can say for Muhammad Ali was that he didn’t internalize anything:
I’ve seen Muhammad Ali live twice and neither was in the ring. The first time was in 1979 at the No Nukes all-star concert at Madison Square Garden. He said a few words and tried to endorse a senate candidate, but the crowd was surly and shouted “No politics.” Which was kind of stupid because:
Anyway, Ali left the stage and the bands played on before an oblivious crowd.
The second time I saw him was at the 2013 Louisville vs. Florida Sugar Bowl college football game in New Orleans.
It made me so sad. Look at that beautiful vibrant intelligent man of the 1960s, and then to see him 50 years later wasting away is heartbreaking.
But we shouldn’t feel sad, because we’ve witnessed one of the most important people of the 20th century.
He was the greatest of all time.