ENGLISHTOWN, NJ – By now we have all read at least one obituary on the passing of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. There is no way to do justice to the life and times of a polarizing figure such as the former Cassius Clay, Jr. in about five-hundred words, so there will be no attempt at doing so. And while my family and I were no fans of Clay/Ali the boxer, I became a great admirer of The Greatest later in life.
Firstly, there are thanks to a 1950’s Louisville, Kentucky bicycle thief who stole a then fuming pre-teen Clay’s ride, thus prompting his foray into the sport of boxing. The rest as they say is history in a career highlighted by being feted as an Olympic Gold Medalist and Heavyweight Champion of the World three times and facing all comers. Epic fights dotted a career record of 56 wins (37 by knockout) and 5 losses.
Much to my father and brother’s doing, along with them I was a Joe Frazier fan, for all the reasons Frazier was dubbed the “white man’s champion.” Smokin’ Joe was antithesis to Ali and my father liked it that way. A humble, hard-working, quiet man with a middle-America mindset, my dad could never be part of the Ali camp. Dad liked his quiet sports heroes, along the lines of Ted Williams and others who fought for their country mid-career and weren’t loud-mouthed braggadocious draft-dodgers like Ali. It was a ruse to sell tickets along the lines of pro wrestling and to promote sports’ first individual brand–all one-named stars have this in common (Pele, Elvis, etc.).
There was always that political side to Cassius Clay that crossed the demarcation line between sports and other issues, way back to the time he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, following the victory with his conversion to Islam becoming Muhammad Ali. Admittedly, there was a fear of the unknown, due to a certain ignorance becoming Dad’s eighth-grade education. The sports world had never seen a self-promoter like Ali and didn’t know how to react other than to fight it the same way a pugilist did in the ring.
To this day, as a people we struggle with “otherness,” and through the years afflicted with Parkinson’s disease (for a good portion of his post-boxing career), Ali was true to himself and his being. There was always a paradox to the man that I didn’t realize until his retirement from the squared ring; He became a teacher to the world as a model in dignity, while battling his disease.
Ironically, a man who fought as a profession was against our conflict in the Vietnam War but was consistent as an exemplary man of peace that Islam preaches, a religion many have much doubt – as current events will have us believe. One of the highest orders of Islam is a branch called Sufism (which Ali practiced as of 2005) and promotes a divine love. When a man can no longer articulate his opinions due to illness there is a presence he must carry with him to relay a message. The Pope is one such person and the only other I can think of until his passing Friday night was… Muhammad Ali.
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