The African-American experience over the past century in the United States has been one of pioneering firsts; and an awakening of the ability and power that is present in each of us when extended an opportunity.
On the eve of one of my personal inspirations, and even greater I should note, was this man’s impact on the world’s community, and now Muhammad Ali has transitioned to the heavens.
Having refused induction into the U.S. military on April 28, 1967, in the violent and tumultuous 60’s, Ali sacrificed almost four years of his short sporting time on the national stage (an athlete’s window of competition is very short).
After the U.S. Supreme Court finally over turned his conviction, in part (his lawyers said it nicer in court) because of Ali’s contention that: “Those Vietnamese never called me n***er, I ain’t got anything against those Brown people.”
What modern athlete around the world would sacrifice almost four years of his or her prime for a belief? No one I would interject.
“If”!! Is there a more opened-ended word in the English language?
The word “if” challenges history and all of us. The word if makes the wanderer in all of us dream about what could have been (and maybe what should have been).
What if John F. or Bobby Kennedy were still alive today? What if Martin Luther King had not been assassinated and was walking around spreading his gospel?
There is no doubt in my mind that if the Kennedys or King were still alive each would be having a positive impact on people and the issues we face today. Have there ever been or are there any sports figures that can impact people and move social agendas like Ali?
What if Ali had been in full vocal harmony and able to create and recite those amazing poems of his? Or even better, captivate an audience with an energized speech about current events?
Canastota, New York, just outside of Syracuse, I was blessed to have the pleasure of Ali’s company and witnessed his interaction with people.
What I observed was his legend found resurgence (and until his death it continued to do so).
For a man who retired in 1981, his legend reawakened with a vengeance that never waned after he lit the Olympic cauldron after taking the torch from Janet Evan in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
With shaking hands from Parkinson’s disease, as I sat in the media tribune seating, flanked by a writer from Africa and one from Poland on the other side, we all wondered who would light the Olympic Torch.
I personally had teary eyes that were not tears of sorrow for his present condition, but were tears that represented to me and millions around the world – peace and justice, relentless effort and a magnificent commitment to a belief. The writers next to me must have felt like I did, because they were teary eyed too.
“Ali was a man who fought for what was right and for us,” wrote President Barack Obama. “He stood with King and (Nelson) Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.”
Former president Bill Clinton wrote: “Hillary and I are saddened by the passing of Muhammad Ali. From the day he claimed the Olympic Gold medal in 1960, boxing fans across the world knew they were seeing a blend of beauty of grace, speed and strength that may never be matched again.”
Former president George Bush wrote, who awarded Ali the highest honor in civilian America in 2005, the President’s Medal of Freedom: “Ali was an iconic and historic figure who thrilled, entertained, influenced, and inspired millions. Americans will always be proud to call him one of our own.”
Although boxers have found a magical place in American society (e.g. all the movies made about the sweet science), because they are generally men that have chosen – many times they have no other options – to risk it all and put in the agonizing work, sweat and pain for a chance at glory; they have an ability to charm us all.
But Ali, 74, had long since moved himself from being just a charming boxer to being arguably the most popular athlete in the world.
“The Greatest” list of accomplishments are endless. Refusing military induction after his status was mysteriously changed, the Supreme Court ruling in his favor, getting stripped of his heavyweight title and regaining it, changing the pay scale of all athletes, being a high-profile athlete that changed his name in the volatile 60’s, having a personal relationship with Malcolm X, his work with the United Nations, his working as an acting U.S Ambassador to Africa, and unofficial ambassador to the world community.
As I wrote from the NY Hall of Fame event, reflecting back to the Atlanta Games and now his passing, I will always remember the moving emotion I felt during the Opening Ceremonies when it became apparent that Ali would light the 1996 Olympic Torch.
“When a man does something or possesses something that is complementary to his character, it is virtually impossible for him to hide this thing [or] keep it to himself,”
George Jackson “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters.”
As Parkinson’s disease overtook his body, reducing him from the “Mouth that roared” to the “Mouth that now whispered,” he initially secluded himself. But when he came out front before the world and showed himself, he became an inspiration to millions of disabled people around the globe.
Imagine being the world’s greatest athlete and voice, and then suddenly you are unable to vocalize your ideas.
For me it took the shaking hands at the 1996 Games that made the reality of Ali’s condition come to life. I could only imagine the Ali I knew from the 1960 Games in Rome where he won the Olympic Gold medal and won or regained the heavyweight title three times in threatening and daunting situations.
As his life journey is remembered it has become clear to all that Ali’s special journey has made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world.
Sure it was his style, magnificent boxing proficiencies, his oratory competences, brash-manner, his poetry, admittedly good looks and his intrinsic motivation.
“Ali is one-of-a-kind,” his personal photographer for over 40-years, Howard Bingham, told me. “Everyone loves and admires him. He always had that aura about him that could shut down streets no matter what country we were in.”
Ali embraced the Muslin religion right after he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1967. His name change and refusal to fight in the Vietnam War helped make him a world figure in name and deeds, although that was not his initial reasoning.
Ali’s timing in life was not unlike Joe Louis and Jesse Owens.’ Both endured blatant and cruel racism in the 30 & 40’s, but their athletic prowess was able to help galvanize this segregated nation like nothing before them.
Lewis and his dismantling of German champion Max Schmelling and Owens’ worldly four Gold medal effort at the 1936 Games in Germany elevated the Black athlete into the American consciousness as more than a minstrel sideshow.
Ali’s timing in this world was not unlike Owens’ and Lewis’, all were great athletes; however, the world and U.S. stages were in serious conflict.
While Hitler was running rampant in Europe proclaiming Aryan Supremacy, in spite of the suffocating racism and degradation of Blacks in America, Lewis and Owens became somewhat folk heroes after nationally debunking Hitler’s prognostications.
Ali made a similar transition through the American consciousness. While on an almost four-year forced exile from the ring, he became a folk hero to many on the college speaking circuit. His messages and rants about racism and the War ranged true with many and his popularity exploded to another level. Sure, his extroverted personality took him to another level that even Lewis and Owens could not reach.
Ali was scorned and ridiculed as he proclaimed himself “The People’s Champion” and “The Greatest,” but eventually he had the U.S. and the world in full vocal harmony with him.
The perfect choice of Ali as the torch lighter competed a wondrous 180-degree turnaround in how Americans and even Ali thought about things.
Let’s look back at the fact Ali tossed his Gold medal into the river upon his return to the U.S. following his Olympic title effort and his subsequent denial of inclusion into a hometown restaurant in Louisville.
As Don King happily proclaims, “Only in America”, three decades later Ali stood atop the Atlanta Olympic Stadium with the whole world watching and lit the ultimate symbol of peace through sports – the Olympic Flame.
I have been blessed as a writer to have been in Ali’s personal company at his home in L.A., at the Atlanta Games, at the Boxing Hall of Fame in NY and at the ESPYS in L.A.
The Boxing Hall of Fame brought us all together in celebration of the inclusions of Don King, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jose Torres and at the time, the late Luis Rodriguez; Ali stole the spotlight from the inductees, without trying. Although Larry Holmes, Michael Dokes, Frankie Liles, Felix Trinidad, Frank Randall, Tony Tubbs and Michael Moorer, just to name a few champions, all left their egos at home and it ended up being a love fest for Ali.
With Parkinson’s, working on his speech at the Hall of Fame, he still stole the spotlight without even trying. He could not “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” but he retained that special presence that only a few people in the world have ever possessed.
As I look back on that moment in NY, and observing how people responded to him, it only begs the question: “Would the world have been better if ‘The Greatest’ was in full vocal harmony?”
Unfortunately, we will never get the chance to find out, because the disease grounded his voice and finally took him away from us.
How strange life is when people like Ali, King, Malcolm and Gandhi leave us so early or in tough situations.
Ali in particular, transcended sports, race, and national boundaries like no other athlete ever. Wouldn’t Ali have been out front in the national discourse about race, poverty and humanity? Yes. Of course he would be vocalizing his message on center stage to all who would listen and even to those that would not.
Although the “Voice that Roared” was mainly silent in recent years, his voice was still being heard. The world was made a better place just having him around to listen to, write about and reminisce about.
Leland Stein III
Former BVN Sports Editor
(Some excerpts are from my column published in the Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper – December 30, 1999 – and were written from the Boxing Hall of Fame event in Canastota, NY and are included in this narrative.)