The news resonated during Friday’s Dukes and Bell broadcast that Muhammad Ali’s condition had worsened, and when I fell asleep later that night, I prayed that the Champ’s condition would improve. It didn’t take long for me to wonder why my son was waking me up a little after midnight as the television played in the background.
“Boxing legend Muhammed Ali is dead at 74.” – ESPN SportsCenter exclaimed.
A deep sense of loss struck me as one of my greatest legends as a man, and a sports fan, lost his final battle.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, Ali was introduced to boxing by a local police officer when he was 12, and from his start as an amateur – he won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national national Golden Gloves crowns, and an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) title before he was introduced on the international scene at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. He captured the gold medal as a light heavyweight, and concluded his amateur career with a sterling record of 100 wins against five defeats.
Ali’s social impact resonated throughout his career, placing him against many establishment types when he refused induction into the armed forces and the Vietnam War. It costed him dearly, losing his heavyweight crown, and unable to fight from March 1967 to October 1970 – in the prime of his career, as he was convicted of draft evasion and watched his case wind its way through the judicial system. In 1971, Ali earned perhaps his biggest victory as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling.
A pioneer of American culture, he was willing to take a stand, even if it wasn’t popular.
Ali, 74, was one of the most charismatic individuals of my lifetime, personifying style before style was cool, especially for a black man and an athlete. I’d first heard of him prior to the first Ali/Frazier matchup – the epic “Fight of the Century,” March 8, 1971 as New York’s Madison Square Garden – and at that time, while I didn’t understand the loud, boisterous persona of the man, I was rooting for Joe Frazier. I wasn’t used to Ali’s style back then, and frankly, I thought he was annoying as hell. I didn’t appreciate him at that time, and I wasn’t old enough to understand the social implications that came with that bout, but those feelings would quickly change as I grew older.
When I heard the next day (there was no live broadcast of the fight, it was available at theaters via closed-circuit, and yes, there was no ESPN or CNN-type breaking news coverage back then) that Frazier had won (Ali also suffered the first knockdown of his career during that fight), many of my friends were angry because of the historical implications connected with the fight. I was a kid, I couldn’t comprehend any of that, I rode with Frazier because he was cool and confident in his own way, and that Philadelphia toughness was evident whenever he stepped into the squared ring. It was two black men fighting each other. For me, that was it, that was all. Years later however, I understood why Ali’s willingness to stand up against the establishment at that time would earn him the self-anointed title of “the Greatest,” not only because his accomplishments in the ring, but outside as well, and how it would impact future generations for years to come.
The rematches against Frazier were brutal. Both fighters talked about how “the Thrilla in Manila (in 1975)” brought them close to death. It was the third and final time we’d see these two gladiators get it on. “Smokin’ Joe” was relentless, as he wanted to continue, but his corner said enough prior to the start of the 15th round, and Ali was on top of the world. It gave Ali the series against his chief rival, but you knew after watching that brutal exhibition, those two would never be the same again. Ali later told his biographer, “Frazier quit just before I did. I didn’t think I could fight any more.”
It certainly wasn’t the last we’d see of the Louisville legend, initially called “the Louisville Lip.”
Ali was certainly polarizing. He was sometimes brutal in his descriptions of Frazier, later saying he regretted what he did, and Frazier was extremely bothered by those characterizations. Whether or not Frazier fully forgave him isn’t known, but it was a hint of the early days of sports promotion, no matter how cringeworthy it sometimes was.
Between his second and third bout with Frazier, however, Ali took on the imposing heavyweight champion George Foreman, an Olympic champ in his own right, in “the Rumble in the Jungle,” on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. Foreman was a bully, yet Ali’s famous ‘rope-a-dope’ style rendered the hard-punching Foreman unable to knock Ali out, and resulted in Ali’s finest hour, KOing the younger Foreman in the eighth round. The 32-year-old Ali was champion once again, 10 years after losing the title, relishing the pro-Ali crowd in Africa as they chanted throughout his time there and during the fight, “Ali, bomaye!”
He was hip-hop before hip-hop, delivering colorful rhymes prior to many of his epic battles, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see,” but he also knew when to get serious and eloquent, “a man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life…”. Amazingly, Ali once said, “I don’t like fighters who talk too much.” Hilarious, isn’t it?
As was and is the case with most fighters, Ali couldn’t walk away and it affected him later in life. After coming out of retirement to fight against one of his former sparring partners and attempting to win the heavyweight title for the fourth time, the younger Larry Holmes, it was disappointing to watch this icon endured one of the worst beating of his Hall of Fame career. Around this time, his desire to continue fighting started to show the difficult aftereffects, as he later developed the debilitating Parkinson’s disease, which he endured until his death.
As sports fans, we all have our favorites, and if Muhammad Ali wasn’t your ‘greatest of all time,’ he should be in the top three – unless you’re so young, you have to check out Google for your information. As his legacy grew over time, he was not only recognized as one of boxing’s greatest ever, but he became an ambassador throughout the world. Few would argue if there was anyone who made more of an impact in- and outside of the sport, and I was proud to have been in his presence three times over his career.
I attended his rematch against then-champ Leon Spinks at the Louisiana Superdome in 1978, when Ali regained his title for the third and final time. That night was electric, and so was the future champ, whom, despite Spinks’ inexperience and first defense of his then-title, showed the youngster who was indeed the teacher, taking the student to school.
In attendance 20 years ago for the Atlanta Olympic Games’ opening ceremony, it was riveting to watch him light the Olympic cauldron to signify the start of the 1996 competition. If you didn’t have chills that night, you weren’t human. It made us all proud. August’s anniversary will hurt a little more now that he’s gone.
My final opportunity came in 2009 at the NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix, when word began to circulate that the champ was in the building and would stop by the locker rooms to greet the East and West teams. I made sure I was somewhere in the room to catch another glimpse of him, but what was most interesting was watching the reaction of the All-Stars, many of whom were stars in their own right, but up against the greatest athlete of my generation, they were acting like children who were meeting their hero for perhaps the first time.
I’m still unable to sleep – it’s now 4:50 AM – and that sense of loss is still as bothersome as it was when I first heard the news. 2016 has been quite a year, as I’m still dealing with the death of Prince, and the many other notables and friends who have passed away over the last few months.
Life isn’t promised to anyone, and while Ali was certainly often imitated, he will never be duplicated. There will never be another one like him, because he will forever remain the Greatest.
He was a global icon, a tremendous leader and a hero to many. The 10-count tolls for the last time. Howard Cosell, get ready, heaven’s about to get another showstopper, your friend, Muhammad. Rest in peace, Champ. Thanks for the memories. Rumble young man, rumble.