Saturday, June 4, 2016
Damn, they keep dying. Though The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, has in effect been dead for a long time, when they actually go away I can't help but think about what they meant to me when I was young. I loved boxing as a kid. The history, the great fights, and Muhammad Ali.
I was pretty young when Cassius Marcellus Clay first burst upon the scene in 1964 by beating Sonny Liston (when the hell is a movie about that guy going to be made?) in what was considered to be a shocking upset but in reality was nothing of the kind. Then he got all goofy (my Dad said that) and became Muhammad X and eventually Muhammad Ali and hung around with Malcolm X and then Malcolm got killed and Ali was under guard before the second Liston fight.. Oh it was a mess, that I only remember because I have read about it.
Ali understood box office. And emulating Gorgeous George and the wrestlers of the 1950's made Ali a box office draw. He understood that being a heel to white people and a hero to black people would fill seats. Oh how they filled. Ali would rhyme and scream and insult his opponents with nicknames. Liston was "The Bear", Floyd Patterson was "The Rabbit", George Chuvalo was the "Washerwoman" and Joe Frazier was the "Gorilla". Ok yeah, he went too far at times but that was the nature of the man. He didn't mean any of it. You could tell. Because no other boxer, other than Joe Frazier, actually hated the man.
Ali was stripped of his title in 1967 because the United States Government decided drafting him into the Army was a good idea and Ali said nope, I aint going. No Viet Cong ever called me a n*****. I aint got nuthin against no Viet Cong. Why should I go 10,000 miles to drop bombs on brown people. These were radical quotes at the time. Well, radical if you were a white conservative who actually did have something against them Viet Cong though what that would be I have no idea (see Trump,Donald), Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison and lost his living. 3 years of his peak form were lost to an illegal immoral war that Ali quite frankly told the United States Government to shove up their ass. Too bad more people didn't have that courage in 1967 and about 35,000 Americans and untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people would still be alive.
He came back in 1970 and for the next 8 years or so, a golden age of boxing occurred that will never happen again. Ali,Frazier.Foreman,Norton,Shavers, Lyle, Rocky Balboa. All of that happend because of Muhammad Ali. And now he's gone.
I am not going to go all yeah I was hip and loved Ali since I was 6 years old on anybody because that's not true. I didn't appreciate Ali when I was real young. I rooted for Joe Frazier in 1971 for chrissakes. I rooted for George Foreman in 1974. I loved those guys a punchers. They were the home run hitters and Ali was the .350 hitter who led off the game. Didn't get the social implications of Ali because I was a white middle class kid. I didn't dislike Ali, I just didn't get it. That is until 1975, and the Thrilla in Manila. They showed that fight in a movie theater in Lincoln,Nebraska on closed circuit TV. Hey kids, that meant you had to go there and pay money to watch a fight on a movie screen. Barbaric I know. The place was packed. Packed with every black student at the University of Nebraska and me. And they loved Ali. The cheered and screamed and hollered at Frazier like he was some sort of Uncle Ruckus. Wow, this guy means a lot to them. I remember "debating" a elevator full of black kids the night Ali had beat George Foreman. They dismissed my rooting interest in Foreman as a bad bet. I didn't disagree. How could this guy we know is cool be for Foreman? Well, yeah I made bad bet.
Ali meant everything to these fellow students. And after that night in 1975 in the greatest fight I have ever seen, he did to me. The white small town Nebraska kids I knew still rooted for Shavers and Norton and Lyle and Wepner and anybody else who lost to Ali because Ali was a draft dodger. Well fellas, theres a recruiting office right down there you can visit. And then came the inevitable. Ali got old. And Larry Holmes knocked him out. Then some guy named Trevor Berbik beat him. What the fuck is a Trevor Berbik?
Ali went on to become a sort of ambassador to the world. Even as he suffered the effects of Parkinson's Disease and deteriorated into a shell he was loved. The sight of this motor mouth being silent made me sad. Oh I'm sure the assholes of the world thought it all ironic and shit that this happened to him and were glad to see it because you'd never see a hero of theirs like Donald J Trump or Dick Cheney ever avoid "serving" their country.
So it's goodbye to The Greatest. He wasn't perfect by any means. But his image was. Float Like A Butterfly my man. And Sting Like Bee.
One last thing on Ali. My Dad, a very liberal Democrat, refused to call him anything other than "Cassius Clay". Now knowing my Dad, he may have just done that to get under my skin, but one day he referred to Ali as "Clay". So I said, "Dad, nobody calls him Clay anymore, except you and the American Legion". My Dad, a WW II veteran, thought guys in funny hats telling war stories was the most pathetic thing on earth. Dad never called him "Clay" again.