Just as I slowly come to terms with the death of one of my heroes, Prince, I am walloped by the passing of my biggest hero of all, Muhammad Ali.
Hero talk is often banal and bandied loosely, ladled out to people just doing their jobs, or making a comeback in sports. But Ali personified the meaning of a person “who is admired for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” His life was one of sacrifice for what he believed in, and what he hoped others could achieve.
I was a mere 10 years old when I used to watch nightly, grainy black and white footage of the Vietnam War, understanding little of its politics and meaning.
But I vividly remember the young Muhammad Ali, vilified for refusing to enter the draft. He was a scary figure with a scarier name, a black Muslim with lethal fists and a bad attitude. He was loud and brash and willing to confront the white man, something I had never seen before.
But I was just old enough to also detect a glimmer of a smirk, a crooked smile that belied the intensity of his rant. I saw the mugging with the bombastic Howard Cosell, and detected a playfulness beneath the bluster. This confused me because, despite the militancy, he was funny. And poignant. And that made him undeniably cool.
It wasn’t until three and a half years later, when Ali returned to the ring, that I understood the full significance of his actions. The most famous athlete in the world had sacrificed the absolute prime of his career to protest a war he would have never seen combat in, but nonetheless would have supported ceremoniously. He was repudiated and shunned by the establishment for daring to stand against the US government, yet his actions had a galvanizing effect, not only on the anti-war movement, but on the civil rights movement as well. Yet, much like Gandhi, Ali never espoused violence.
His voice, intellect, and compassion were his weapons of mass insurrection. And oh what a poet he was. Who else could say, “I’m so mean I make medicine sick,” or “I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled a whale. I done handcuffed lightning. And thrown thunder in jail.”
And what more profound sentence could he utter to reinforce his resistance to the war than, “My enemies are white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
When other athletes brag, it comes off as narcissistic. But with Ali, perhaps the most physically beautiful man who ever walked the earth, it was calculated, entertaining sound bites from a humble, deeply spiritual man.
Follow him training in Zaire during the famous Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman. He psyches out Foreman by rallying the entire country around him to chant, “Ali Bomaye” (Ali kill him). Yet at the same time, he approaches children and says things like “Stop eating candy. We must whup Mr. Tooth Decay.”
This fight and the surrounding theatrics (the single biggest payday for professional athletes) was a carnival on a global stage. Norman Mailer wrote a book about it. Leon Gast made the documentary, “When We Were Kings.” Ali, the heavy underdog, was expected to be annihilated by the sledge hammer-hitting Foreman. Yet, not only did Ali get into Foreman’s head, he also employed the famous “rope-a-dope” strategy that tired Foreman into submission.
The beautiful thing is, Foreman and Ali became great friends after, with Foreman acknowledging that all of Ali’s rancor was an act. In a recent interview, the classy Foreman called Ali “a phenomenon, a gift to me, my family, the whole world. He survived my relentless pounding because he knew if he fell, too many people around the world would fall with him.” He was bigger than boxing.
And as he matured into the elder statesman after he retired in 1981, Ali’s message for equality was universal. The beauty of social media is, besides the many famous anecdotes of his altruism, we are now sharing so many deeds and gestures he performed for regular folks. He was relentlessly giving, always taking time to make people feel good. Used his fame to broker peace, release hostages, and to preach universal love and tolerance. You don’t get much more heroic than that.
I’ll leave you with a poem he recited from memory in 1974 on the David Frost show, when asked how he would like to be remembered:
“He took a few cups of love. He took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness. He took one quart of laughter, one pinch of concern. And then, he mixed willingness with happiness. He added lots of faith, and he stirred it up well. Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime, and he served it to each and every deserving person he met.”
Prophesy fulfilled. Well done. What a beautiful life. You’ll always be The Greatest!
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8pm on KX93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]