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Appreciation: Muhammad Ali shook up the world forever

Muhammad Ali is not dead. He's every bit alive as he was last week, last year or half a century ago.

Ali's not gone because he wasn't merely human.

Muhammad Ali is an ideal, a presence, ethereal. He's not going anywhere. He's still here. He shook up the world forever.

He called himself "the greatest," but that's unfair. The word "greatest" denotes some type of comparison. He was incomparable.

Ali's body, quaked by Parkinson's syndrome almost certainly caused from repeated brain trauma in the boxing ring, finally submitted Friday night in Arizona. He was 74.

Muhammad Ali evades a left from Joe Frazier during their title bout, the "fight of the century," at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 8, 1971. (New York Times file photo)

Muhammad Ali evades a left from Joe Frazier during their title bout, the "fight of the century," at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 8, 1971. (New York Times file photo)

He was more than a boxer, more than a man. He'll remain a global icon and majestic figure. He was bigger than the Beatles, bigger than Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan and in many regions more recognizable than the Pope.

Ali defied the establishment, confronted inequality and challenged people to think. He rallied African-Americans. He jostled the status quo in the streets while he pummeled opponents with his fists.

Oh, did that young man rumble.

Parkinson's turned Ali's handsome face into a frozen mask and muted his formidable tongue decades ago.

Yet his aura endured and will continue to endure.

[Jerry Sullivan: Ali's message and impact needed no words]

Ali in silence produced one of the most striking sports moments in 1996. Expressionless and with trembling hands that used to crumple opponents to the canvas, he lit the Summer Olympics cauldron in Atlanta. Grown men who watched the scene got wobbly in the knees and wiped their eyes.

"The world will never get another Muhammad Ali," former heavyweight champion and Ali sparring partner Larry Holmes told me by phone Friday night. "If there was somebody you wanted to be like, it was him."

The opening sentence for his bio in the International Boxing Hall of Fame's record book reads: "In all of boxing history, Muhammad Ali stands alone."

But boxing does not define Ali's legacy.

I voraciously consumed Ali's fight films long before I covered boxing for the Las Vegas Sun in the 1990s and became Boxing Writers Association of America's president in 2006 with The Buffalo News. I've marveled at Ali's speed and slickness and – unfortunately – an unyielding chin that brought additional punishment later in his career.

Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson pose after a prefight physical in New York on Sept. 11, 1972. (New York Times file photo)

Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson pose after a prefight physical in New York on Sept. 11, 1972. (New York Times file photo)

Victories over Archie Moore, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and George Foreman are seared in my memory. Forever will I see a bewildered Foreman, looking up from the canvas after being rope-a-doped onto his rump at the "Rumble in the Jungle." Ali's trilogy with Joe Frazier remains the heavyweight standard.

My admiration for Ali's boxing brilliance, however, is dwarfed by the other aspects of his remarkable life. That appreciation was galvanized last summer while researching and writing the book "Muhammad Ali: Conscientious Objector" for Buffalo-based Cavendish Square Publishing.

Born in 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he emerged during a time of civil and political tumult in the United States, where black people were denied the same opportunities and services as white people.

A black man use the same restroom as whites? He'd better be careful not to get arrested – or worse.

He won a gold medal for a country that still allowed Jim Crow laws at the 1960 Rome Olympics then evolved into a multi-layered sociopolitical-cultural-sporting force. He befriended Malcolm X, converted to Islam, changed his name and three years later rebuffed induction into the U.S. Army.

Ali's military refusal threatened his lucrative career, but he stood by his principles.

America expected its sports stars and celebrities to serve their country. Ted Williams, Bob Feller and South Park High grad Warren Spahn were among the baseball superstars who lost parts of their careers to combat. Heavyweight champ Joe Louis volunteered in 1942 (but was assigned to a touring promotional unit). Elvis Presley dutifully reported when the Army drafted him in 1958.

Ali wouldn't conform. The sporting world's Alpha Male, which is who the heavyweight champion used to be, objected to what was happening in Vietnam, although there was concern Elijah Muhammad and his radical Nation of Islam sect were manipulating Ali to further its purposes.

"Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong!" Ali was famously quoted as saying, while it has been debated whether the Nation of Islam fed him the line.

[Jeff Simon recalls being in the 'presence of history' in a NYC coffeeshop in 1977]

Regardless, Ali was the one who put his reputation and career on the line. After refusing induction in April 1967, he was stripped of his world heavyweight championship, suspended from boxing and eventually convicted of draft evasion.

"When he refused to go into the Army," Holmes explained, "he was saying, 'Those guys never called me a n-----. Why should I go over there and fight those guys when people are persecuting us every day in the United States?'

"He was an example for black people to stand up and fight for what we believe in. He was like Martin Luther King, but just on a different stage."

Larry Holmes, left, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman attends the Sports Illustrated Tribute to Muhammad Ali at the Muhammad Ali Center on October 1, 2015 in Louisville, Ky. (Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)

Larry Holmes, left, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman attend the Sports Illustrated Tribute to Muhammad Ali at the Muhammad Ali Center on October 1, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. (Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)

Ali didn't serve prison time. He remained free while appealing the verdict, but no boxing commission would license him for nearly four years of his prime. To pay his bills, he went on a college speaking tour. He visited Canisius College for $1,500 and also visited UB.

His stand against the Vietnam War played a significant role in shifting the public's opinion on whether American soldiers should be over there. His draft-evasion appeal made it to the Supreme Court in 1971. The conviction was reversed.

About that time, Ali began training with a young heavyweight prospect.

"He gave me a job," said Holmes, the world champion from 1978 to 1985. "I was able to travel with him and fight with him for four years. When I told him I wanted to try to make it myself and chase my dream, he told me, 'Good luck. You will always be my friend.'

"He would give you anything, everything. He would take you by the hand."

Holmes and Ali fought in 1980. It was revolting. By the time the student squared off against his mentor, Ali already was showing signs of brain damage. Ali's speech was slurred, his reflexes noticeably slower. He didn't float like a butterfly anymore.

[Jerry Sullivan's encounter with Ali in 1994, 'a shadow of himself']

The physical decline probably began earlier than Ali's third fight with Frazier, but not obviously. The "Thrilla in Manila" was 14 rounds of ruthless sledging in a 107-degree arena. The proud rivals were just enough past their primes to be elusive no longer, yet still thunderous enough to injure.

"It was at the very top, the tip top of a slow murder," Ali's corner physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, told me for the fight's 30th anniversary in 2005. "Do you think after the beating he took that day in Manila he went home happy and had chocolate ice cream?

“He g------ near died. It's the reason he's a shambling, neurological wreck."

In between the Thrilla in Manila and Ali's unwise matchup with Holmes, Ali looked shoddier and shoddier. Leon Spinks, a gold medalist with seven career professional bouts, beat Ali in a 15-round split decision. Ali avenged the defeat seven months later and then retired, only to return in two years.

Holmes obliterated his idol, dominating him so badly he begged referee Richard Greene to stop the fight when not unleashing a barrage of punches, most of which landed with grimacing accuracy.

Muhammad Ali lands a punch on Ken Norton during their title bout at Yankee Stadium in New York on Sept. 28, 1976. (New York Times file photo)

Muhammad Ali lands a punch on Ken Norton during their title bout at Yankee Stadium in New York on Sept. 28, 1976. (New York Times file photo)

One year later, Ali tried to leave the ring triumphant. With no title belt on the line, mediocre prospect Trevor Berbick won a comfortable unanimous decision that inflicted further damage to Ali's brain.

Hubris wasn't Ali's only character flaw. He was far from perfect. Ali, inspired by pro wrestler Gorgeous George, valued showmanship over sportsmanship. He humiliated opponents with poetic predictions and below-the-belt insults – he called Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, an "Uncle Tom" and a "gorilla" – that overshadowed those otherworldly skills.

"I don't care what mistakes Muhammad Ali made in his life, God had a plan to put him on the planet," Holmes said. "No matter what crime he might have committed, what bank he might have robbed, he was The Man. I can't tell you how blessed I feel to have been a part of that."

In 1990, Ali made the U.S. government nervous like the old days. He defied President George H. W. Bush's wishes and went on a diplomatic mission to Iraq, which had recently invaded tiny, oil-rich Kuwait and taken hostages.

Ali arrived in Iraq, met with Saddam Hussein and nine days later boarded an airplane with 15 Americans who had spent four months in captivity.

Ali was Nelson Mandela's hero. Mandela was exiled for trying to overthrow South Africa's apartheid government but became president in 1994, four years after apartheid was abolished. He said of meeting Ali for the first time: "I was paralyzed because it made my day."

Boxing champion Muhammad Ali speaks at a press conference about the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 20, 2001, in New York City. Ali spoke out against terrorism saying that true followers of the Islamic religion are peaceful. (Getty Images)

Boxing champion Muhammad Ali speaks at a press conference about the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 20, 2001, in New York City. Ali spoke out against terrorism saying that true followers of the Islamic religion are peaceful. (Getty Images)

A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani summoned Ali to help calm a terrified nation.

"Islam is not a killing religion," Ali said at a news conference. "Islam means peace, and I couldn't just sit at home and watch people label Muslims as being the reason for this problem."

Ali was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Century, GQ magazine's Athlete of the Century and the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

His honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United Nations Messenger of Peace Award and the Amnesty International Lifetime Achievement Award.

"His unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way," President Barack Obama said, "he has shown us that through undying faith and steadfast love, each of us can make this world a better place. He is and always will be the champ."

Ali is a monolith, immortal.

His will is everlasting. As long as his spirit floats and his absence stings, he won't be forgotten.

That will be forever.

"I want to cry, but I can't cry," Holmes said.

"There's just love."

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