Monday, June 06, 2016

Ali

A bout I remember
I didn't understand Muhammad Ali when I was young. I remember that, for the most part, I rooted against him in most of his fights. I don't remember any specific reasons for my feelings on the matter, but whether it was Frazier, or Foreman, or the now largely forgotten Ken Norton, I preferred the other guy.

I didn't figure out what made Ali great until later on. He was tough and talkative, but what separated him from everyone else was simple -- he was the most intelligent athlete of his era, and one of the most intelligent athletes of all time. He understood what boxing needed when he came on the scene -- Sonny Liston was a sullen, angry man and the rumors about organized crime connections were rampant. Ali seemed apart from all that, at least initially. Yes, he was a follower of Elijah Muhammad and yes, Don King was around, too. In the end, Ali transcended them, too.

Ali's fight against Parkinson's Disease defines Ali even more than his career in the ring. One by one, he had his talents taken away from him, yet he remained a revered figure and a dignified presence. Even when we was no longer able to speak, you could hear him.

The figures of our past have been disappearing in a hurry this year, especially in the popular culture. We don't know what's coming next, but it doesn't look like a particularly promising future awaits. I'm thinking it's going to be better than we can now imagine. We have a lot of Sonny Listons in our midst, but we have Alis as well. They will emerge.

1 comment:

R.A. Crankbait said...

Oddly enough, Muhammad Ali will always be associated with amateur gambling in my mind. The first "bet" I ever made was when I was in 8th grade with another kid that Frazier would beat Ali. No money (I rarely had more than 50 cents in my pockets those days), just bragging rights. My "winnings" were slim as the other kid avoided me for a week. Because of it,though, and the funny ways our minds work, just about every March 8 I think, "The day Frazier beat Ali."

In college in '78 a guy in my poli-sci class was offering 10-to-1 that Ali would beat Leon Spinks. Flush from my pizza delivery earnings I agreed to take that action, not really expecting Spinks to win. Several of my classmates also took that bet. The guy offering the bet never came back to class. You'd think I'd remember the name of someone who owes me $100, but the funny ways our minds work, I don't.

Saturday morning I was trying to put Ali in context for my wife, who has never followed sports. Speaking of the context of the times; the hopes, dreams and agendas of others focused on a person who was willing and even eager to carry that burden; the budding cultural awareness of what a "brand" is; and how Ali was the man who could step out of a car anywhere in the world and be instantly recognized. Even my wife knew who he was, but little of his story. The fabric of my generation's history has multiple layers and veils; it is amazing to realize just how many of them are threaded with Muhammad Ali.