A great boxer and an even greater humanitarian
Perceptions by Gerry Warner
It took me a long time to warm up to Muhammad Ali and that’s strange because I’ve been an aficionado of the “sweet science” as far back as the glory days of Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson, two of the sport’s greatest.
I knew the Champ was close to the end of his tumultuous life, because I’d been following his post-boxing career for a long time and his brave battle with Parkinson’s, one of the few defeats he had in his storied career.
Still, when I heard the sad news on the radio as I was getting ready for my morning run I was stunned as if I had been hit by an Ali blow myself. Honest to God, Ali was such a hero to me, it was like when President Kennedy was assassinated, the Twin Towers fell and Michael Jackson would moon dance no more.
Say what you want about the Excited States of America. They sure know how to produce legends bigger than life down there. Tall buildings too.
But as I said at the beginning, I initially didn’t like Ali at all. He was far too brash and arrogant for me. Just a big bag of hot air and braggadocio to me. He talked a good line alright, but as someone who’d seen boxer braggarts before, I thought it wouldn’t be long before someone knocked the wind out of this sails and he’d hit the canvas like a sack of spuds.
That was my thinking when the yappy 21-year-old challenged Charles “Sonny” Liston, a burly, ex-con with attitude, fists like pistons and the most menacing stare in boxing. Ha, ha, I thought. The “Louisville Lip” will join Sputnik in outer space when Liston gets through with him. But Liston was no match for the speed and agility of Ali, or “Cassius Clay,” as he was then known, and quit on his stool after six memorable rounds. In the rematch, Ali knocked Liston out in the first round, standing over him yelling at him to “get up” in one of Life Magazine’s most iconic sports pictures.
There must be something to this guy after all, I thought and I didn’t call him by his slave name Cassius Clay anymore. Nor did almost anyone else. But this was only Act 1, of the most remarkable career in boxing history and Ali soon transcended the sport itself becoming a Black Muslim to oppose racism and sentenced to jail for refusing to be drafted at the peak of the Vietnam War. “I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality . . .”
His eloquence enraged the boxing establishment and he was stripped of his title and didn’t fight for almost four years. But his courage and principled stand inspired millions and struck a devastating blow against a war that ignited student activists and anti-war protestors around the world and drove one of the best US presidents – Lyndon Johnson – out of office and played a major role in ending an unpopular war that almost tore the US apart and was one of the key events of the transformative 1960’s.
Not bad for a poetry spouting, US black man, who won almost every battle he fought in the ring and inspired millions of every race to oppose war and racism wherever they found it. No wonder he called himself “the greatest.” After he returned to the ring he fought titanic battles against Joe Frazier, “The Thrilla in Manila” and George Foreman “The Rumble in the Jungle,” who he was not expected to beat, but did with a spectacular knockout in the eighth round. But Ali couldn’t beat Parkinson’s and who can forget his shaky hands as he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta and raised millions to fight the dread disease.
And now he’s gone and the world is the poorer for losing one of its greatest athletes and personalities – but most of all – humanitarians.
Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and a long time boxing fan and fan of humanitarians.