Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali, Dead at 74, Took His Stance Even If It Made Him Unpopular, Which You Won't See From Today's Athlete
Saturday, June 4, 2016, 6:00 AM

I was the Vietnam War protestor. My dorm-mate, Joe, was the ROTC recruit. We were good friends at the University of Wisconsin, bound by somewhat limited social schedules and a love of hockey.

Our disparate politics, however, were incomprehensible to each other. How could I march with those rowdy radicals, throwing rocks through downtown windows? How could he support such a failed cause and a corrupt President?

On March 8, 1971, the debate took on a new urgency. We bundled up and headed through the cold for the theater where Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier would be shown live on a remote telecast from Madison Square Garden. And of course, our rooting preferences were predictable: The radical from the East would cheer for Ali. The conservative Midwesterner would support Frazier.

Ali lost that day, we all know, and it was generally a very sad night on the Madison campus. I resented Joe a bit more, sneered at his military uniform the next morning. There was a sense that the protest forces had lost a very real battle — as if Ali had been tear-gassed alongside us in the streets, or a rally had been dispersed.

In the years that followed, I would learn there were grays to that particular boxing match that I did not comprehend at the time; that Frazier was in some ways more connected to the black community than Ali, and that “The Greatest” had hurled some very hurtful labels at Frazier, like “Uncle Tom,” without cause or much concern for their effect.

But back then, in a time even more polarized than today, Ali represented much more than a boxing champion or a title belt. He was the embodiment of several social movements, all of them anti-establishment: He was a conscientious objector. He was a Black Muslim. And he was not going to take any nonsense from the U.S. government.

“Muhammad Ali is the first ‘free’ black champion ever to confront white America,” Eldridge Cleaver wrote in “Soul on Ice.” “In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro of boxing.”

With all the acclaim and love now showered upon Ali in his death, it is just as important to remember how hated this man once was in some quarters; how he once was reviled by many, even as he sacrificed his titles and his fortune. Before he was hailed universally, he was a divisive figure, not that different in his time from Jane Fonda. For some reason, however, Ali was forgiven more easily than Fonda over the years. Some of that forgiveness, frankly, might have been born of condescension, from guilt mixed with pity toward an increasingly vulnerable soul.

At his peak of prowess and then a bit later, Ali couldn’t land a TV commercial for anything more prestigious than roach spray. This very newspaper, The News, once carried on a terrible crusade against him. Its columnist, Dick Young, who would later become friends with the boxer, insisted on calling him, “Cassius Clay,” long after he changed what he always termed his “slave name.” Other white sportswriters were no less antagonistic. Jimmy Cannon had famously trumpeted Joe Louis as “a credit to his race, the human race.” But when it came to Ali, Cannon reached his limits.

“Boxing has been turned into an instrument of hate,” Cannon lamented. “Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit.”

Ali revealed his membership in the Nation of Islam shortly after becoming champion, giving America little time to process his rapid sporting ascension. On March 6, 1964, he was given a tour of the United Nations by Malcolm X and then renamed Muhammad Ali that same evening by Elijah Muhammad. Ali eventually would spurn Malcolm X for Elijah Muhammad, but white America was never very interested in this nuanced split.

Many journalists and a few foolish opponents, like Ernie Terrell, continued to call him Cassius Clay, but Ali refused to answer to that name. In 1966, after his draft status was upgraded to 1A, Ali refused to serve in the Army. With a poetic innocence, he produced a quote that would be repeated over the next decade by millions of protesters and draft dodgers: “I ain’t got not quarrel with those Vietcong,” he said. And then, more pointedly, he said, “No Vietcong ever called me n-----.”

He declared he wouldn’t travel thousands of miles just to wage a white man’s war on darker-skinned people. He became a hero to future mavericks, men like Dr. John Carlos, the sprinter who would hold his fist up and his head down during the Star-Spangled Banner on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.

“Ali was the light in the ocean, trying to lead people through the fog,” Carlos said recently. “He was a marquee type of individual who set the precedent very high in terms of morals, standards and beliefs. He was an individual willing to sacrifice it all to give people a new paradigm, a new way of thought.”

Ali angered many people in power with these revolutionary thoughts, and infuriated the nascent religious right with his comment, “We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” He was virtually banished from boxing in 1966. He fought some matches overseas. By 1967, very much in his prime, he was stripped of his titles by the boxing commission and forced into a three-year hiatus. Ali was convicted of draft dodging and sentenced to five years in jail, beginning a long appeals process that would leave him financially battered, very nearly broke.

He gave speeches on campuses to raise money for his court case. He began fighting again in 1970. Before his bout in Atlanta against Jerry Quarry, the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, declared a day of mourning.

The Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction by an 8-0 vote on June 29, 1971 — about three months after the first Frazier bout. He scheduled many fights in a short period of time, perhaps too many for his own health, in part so that he could recover financially from his banishment and legal fees.

In the limelight again, Ali continued to be a great believer in symbolic acts. He would tell black reporters to sit in the front of his limo, while the white reporters were assigned to the back. Promoting the Frazier fight, he agreed to appear only on the show of Flip Wilson, a black comedian.

Ali’s life and politics might have taken many different directions, if it had not been sabotaged by Parkinson’s. In 1980 while with the Bergen Record, I was lucky enough to interview him alone at his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., before the unfortunate Lary Holmes fight. Though he was very much “on” that day, still mischievous, still predicting another championship, Ali was already slurring some words and repeating too many of his quips. I came to believe that those once-hostile boxing writers were protecting his public image, and the image of this vicious sport, at the expense of Ali’s own future health.

Battered and diseased, a shadow of himself, he became something of a politically toothless, beloved international ambassador. Ali accepted an invitation to Gerald Ford’s White House after he regained the championship, the first sign of mellowing. He was invited to light the torch at the Atlanta Olympics in 1994. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush. He endorsed a new line of snack foods.

Ali did some good in recent decades with his jet-setting diplomacy, shook a lot of eager hands, but he offended virtually nobody with his stances. And there were moments, as when he stood around silently in Singapore in support of New York’s Olympic bid, when Ali appeared a pitiable figure.

Carlos says that doesn’t matter. None of it matters.

“Ali didn’t have to take any more stances,” Carlos said. “The stances he took are embedded in society. John Carlos doesn't have to put his fist up in the sky again. And anything else somebody wants to do to make things right, they stand next to Ali trying to do it.

“When Muhammad Ali came out, you think he wanted to be an activist?” Carlos said. “No more than Gandhi, myself, Paul Robeson. Along the way as you’re growing you see certain things are affecting you indirectly, because it’s affecting your race. You stand for those who won’t stand for themselves.”

The new generation of athletes — black and white — won’t do this. It is not only that there is so much more money at stake. It is that the athletes haven’t been educated about their own history, about the sacrifices of pioneers.

The Ali of 1966, transported several decades, might have raged against George W. Bush and the Iraqi war, about anti-Arab sentiments in this country. He might have spoken against those Armed Forces commercials aimed at young minorities during televised sports events. He might have complained about seeing the American flag on the backs of helmets, sports uniforms, everywhere; about “God Bless America,” during the seventh-inning stretch and about all the Christian prayer sessions for players before and after events.

Ali might have said almost anything. And then, maybe, there would be some outrage against him, instead of the universal lovefest. He would have been proud of that, because at heart he was a rebel, a visionary, a troublemaker, a symbol of dissent.

He was an athlete who spoke his mind, on behalf of a race and a generation. He was the only pro boxer I ever bothered to watch.

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