Muhammad Ali. Who among us today can suppress a smile of appreciation at the mere mention of the name? I can unabashedly confess that the man was my hero, the single most impactful athlete of my generation.
However, as a Black male, sports journalist and citizen of the United States of America, I also have to honestly admit that was not always the case. Ali, the universally unstoppable force, pulled me into his orbit as he did others who might have been opposed to what they thought they knew of him ― or perhaps, more accurately, because of what they thought they knew of themselves.
You see, I actually did not like Ali even though I was a kid living in Louisville as he was beginning to make his meteoric ascent into the global consciousness. The root of the dislike was easy to trace. My father, a life-long Navy man, disparaged the young fighter as a “loud-mouthed draft dodger.” He never told me not to like Ali but he didn’t have to. My father was the wisest man I knew at the time so he had to be right.
Besides, I could think for myself. In my world of little plastic, green military figures, if your country called on you to serve, you served. Why wouldn’t you unless you were a coward? Rules were rules. Who did this guy think he was, already talking about how he was “The Greatest” and how he didn’t have “no quarrel against no Viet Cong?”
He mocked opponents. The arrogant man changed his name from Cassius Clay. Who were these frightful Black Muslims he was running with? I thought justice was served when he was stripped of his titles and jailed as the result of being a conscientious objector.
Then the world’s harsh realities began to make an impression on a now more inquisitive and socially aware adolescent.
Walter Cronkite would give us the body count for both sides on the evening news as if the “Vietnam conflict” were a sporting event that we were somehow winning every day. Some folk for whatever reason gunned down Malcolm, Martin and Bobby even after having already traumatized us with the assassination of JFK. Desegregation was not exactly going off without a hitch. Cities were aflame and college campuses smoldered as students dared to blatantly question authority.
My father left us to start another family.
Don’t get me wrong, I still backed Joe Frazier against Ali because too many people simplistically broke down the fight as Ali representing the Black man and Frazier, a proud Black man, playing the part of Uncle Tom. Even as Ali relentlessly and mercilessly verbally marginalized Frazier, I sensed a change in the “Louisville Lip” and the way I felt about him.
I came to the conclusion that Ali indeed already had fought and won a major battle, showing more courage than I had the wisdom to recognize at the time. He had a point about Vietnam and the Supreme Court underscored his stand by overturning his conviction. I began to realize that you can’t go through life just following the crowd. I discovered that Jesus was not a White man unless there were other miracles that we weren’t told about, that our leaders in government sometimes did lie to us and that every person on this planet has flaws.
I began to look at Ali totally differently. I embraced his showmanship, appreciated his skill and would never again underestimate his heart. I soaked up his confidence and girded myself with it. I took notice of how he gave tirelessly of himself to help others improve their lot in life. Through this different lens, I looked back on many of the things he said and did and recognized the simple brilliance.
How could you not admire if not love outright love a man whose life clearly demonstrated the power of belief and spiritualism? Without that foundation, could one man bear the burden of a lifetime of success and failure under the intense glare of the entire world? After getting knocked down literally or figuratively in life, he always got up.
I’ve never been so proud of so many things at once as when Ali, standing tall in defiance of the effects of Parkinson’s syndrome, lit the Olympic flame at the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996 ― proud of him, my country, my Black people, you name it.
Ali had come full circle from the gold medal winning Olympian who returned home and still was dogged by racism to claiming his place as one of our country’s national treasures.
Now, his earthly stay has ended as it will for all of us. You can imagine him somewhere with his cornerman Drew Bundini Brown eternally hyping each other up:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,
Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.
Rumble, young man, rumble!”
G.E. Branch III is the Online Editor of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education and previously covered professional sports on a national level for more than 20 years.