Monday, June 06, 2016

He Wasn't Always "The Greatest"

Whenever a prominent figure passes away it sends me on a Uber ride down memory lane. Such was the case with the death of Muhammad Ali this past Friday. I'm hard pressed to think of anyone who was more admired or respected than Ali. He was undisputedly the most famous person on earth. However, it is easy to forget that things weren't always that way.

My earliest memories of Ali go back to when he was known as Cassius Clay. Loud, boisterous and brash, he alienated a lot of people with his in-your-face style. He seemed to be the number one worshiper in his own shrine. His first match with the reigning heavyweight champ Sonny Liston was much anticipated and, as I remember it, just about everybody was rooting for Liston to defeat Clay. Clay stunned the cognoscenti by defeating Liston when the latter failed to come out of his corner as the bell rang to start the seventh round. I was in junior high school then. I remember the day after the fight that my wood shop teacher swore the fight had been fixed. No one wanted to believe a young loudmouth like Clay could beat the champ Liston.

The rematch between Clay and Liston took place in 1965, a fight my father and mother went to see, although they never actually got to see it. Let me explain. This was long before HBO or Showtime so the only way to see a heavyweight championship fight back then, if you didn't go to see it in person, was to go to a closed circuit broadcast at a local movie theater. My dad rarely liked to go out but he wanted to see the rematch so badly he shelled out the $200 to take my mom to see the fight. They arrived at the theater a tad late and just as the first round was starting. As soon as they sat down the fight suddenly was over. (It had lasted all of 2 minutes.) Clay had knocked out Liston. As my mother described it, the whole theater was in shock with most people in the audience, including my father, refusing to believe that Liston and the fight were history. When reality finally settled in my mom was able to convince my dad to take her out to a nice dinner since they were all dressed up with nowhere to go. She might very well have been the only person in the theater that night who was glad the fight ended precipitously early.

It was shortly after the Liston fight that Clay announced (or more accurately, confirmed) he was a Muslim, had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. And of course not long after that he refused to be inducted into the Army. The convergence of those two events put Ali at the nadir of his popularity. Although the U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld the validity of his claim of conscientious objector status, most people felt that he should have served. The great Joe Louis had gone into the Army, the argument went. Why shouldn't Ali?

As we all know, after being banned from boxing for his prime years, Ali literally fought his way back to the top of the fight game, regained the heavyweight championship and rose to become the most recognizable and one of the most beloved individuals in the world. He grew as an individual and matured as a citizen. The guy who never attended a day of college became the wisest man in the world and rightly so.

I often tell my kids (and anyone else who will listen) to "be nice to everyone you pass as you climb the ladder of success. You will see them again on your way back down" After finally making it to the top, Ali was one guy who never came back down the ladder.