If Prince provided much of the soundtrack to my youth, Muhammad Ali had a starring role in the highlight reel. I've been a huge sports fan since birth and Ali was the first athlete I would claim as mine. I read books on the man, watched his fights, studied his style in and out of the ring, and became appreciative and grateful of the things he did and how they impacted the world. More importantly, those things impacted me.
In truth, I'm too young to have experienced what it was like during the prime of his athletic career or the most important moments of his life outside the ring. Yet, I've heard, read, and watched so much about it I feel like I was there. As if reciprocating it always felt like he was present in my life though I've never met the man. I didn't even get to watch many of his fights live. In fact, I only got to see two as they were happening. They were both of his bouts with Leon Spinks. I was a few months shy of my seventh birthday for the first. Ali was an old fighter, 36, by that time. I didn't comprehend what that meant. I had no idea that he was well beyond the point when speed and reflexes start to decline. I just knew that he was the great Muhammad Ali and I had never heard of Leon Spinks. The fight was aired on ABC on February 15, 1978. It was a Thursday night, a school night, but Mama Dell knew how important Ali was to me. She let me stay up to watch. It turned out to be a sad night as a slow Ali lumbered his way through fifteen rounds and lost a split decision. The entire evening defied everything I thought I knew about the man. I went to bed, hurt and bewildered.
Exactly seven months later, Ali showed me the heart of a champion. During the passage of that time, it had been explained to me numerous times the erosion of skills that has taken place by the time a professional fighter reaches age 36, especially one that had been in as many wars as he had. I was prepared for the possibility of him losing again, but hoped with everything I had he wouldn't. Ali rewarded me with a victory by unanimous decision. I'd be lying if I said he resembled the young, spry fighter I'd learned about. Instead, he was cagey veteran using guile and wit to outpoint his opponent. He was a man bouncing back from a failure. That bouncing back was possible was an important lesson for seven year old me.
As I grew older, I was able to comprehend more of what I was reading about him. I came to understand that there was indeed a period of time where he was one of the most polarizing figures in the world. At least in America. More specifically among white people in America. You may have heard a thousand times in the last couple days that he announced his conversion to Islam and the changing of his name immediately after becoming the youngest man to ever win the heavyweight championship of the world. Much like now, Muslims weren't too popular with mainstream America. Then, the hatred was focused on the Black Muslims of the Nation of Islam, the organization of Malcolm X. You may have also heard he was thrown in jail a few years later for refusing to enlist in the military and go to Vietnam. If there's one thing Americans don't take too kindly to, it's people refusing to fight for "their country." He did so on the basis of his religion and his race. I'll let him speak for himself, here.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. 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. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Here's a young man in his prime at the height of his profession and, presumably, of his immense earning power who voluntarily put all of that as well as his own personal freedom on the line for something he believed in. He even saw it through to the end and spent time in prison, robbing him of several of what should have been the best years of his career. That's an immensely brave and powerful thing to do whether you agree with his beliefs or not. I hate to repeat myself, but his beliefs were rooted in his spirituality and his ethnicity. For these reasons, I have been a bit troubled by all the people who have come out and said they love Ali regardless of those things. It's been clear for fifty years that he wanted you to love him precisely those reasons. When I first heard people playing the "colorblind" card when speaking of Ali, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was that was bothering me about them saying this. In this case, social media is a good thing. One of the people I follow, one of the few I can even approach calling famous, is ESPN personality Bomani Jones. Rather than just heaping praise on Ali, he also chose to critique others weighing in on the champ's legacy. This tweet from him crystallized my own feelings...
if you can't honor ali without seeing color and religion, you can't honor ali. cuz he *clearly* wanted you to see those things.— El Flaco (@bomani_jones) June 4, 2016
Color and religion are essential components of both the private identity and public persona of Muhammad Ali. Without them, or his intense feelings about them, everything we love or hate about him would not exist. He would be just another fighter. No matter how great he was in the ring, everything we remember about him would be contained to the squared circle. However, he put those things up front and forced us to accept or rebuke him with those things at the forefront of our reasoning. Either way, we had to deal with him. In that way, Ali was the polar opposite of the man I was just paying tribute to a few weeks ago, Prince. Both sought to bring people together. Prince essentially saw race as a barrier between us and he tried to break them down with his music. Ali saw race as a part of him that must be accepted if the whole was to be accepted. He wanted that acceptance, but he wouldn't play down any aspect of himself to get it.
This brings me to the most famous part of his personality, his arrogance. Let's make no mistake, the man was arrogant, at least in front of the camera. His most famous statement is "I am the greatest." It might be a put off for some, but for me and lots of other youngsters of color, it was a confirmation that we, too, could be great. I'm not naive enough to think that was his intent all along. His brashness, cockiness, and all the pre-fight antics helped sell tickets. He knew that. However, it made an impact far beyond his pocket. Many of us took it as something to live up to. It also echoed something Mama Dell told me on many occasions. If you don't think you're great, no one else will. He thought he was great and let us all know. To people constantly told they're anything but great, it was something for us to hold on to, and try to live up to. I'm still trying.
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I didn't forget that this is a movie blog. If you didn't know, Muhammad Ali appeared in a number of movies. One of them was playing himself in his own biopic, The Greatest. There have been tons of documentaries made about him. To sum it all up, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Yes, it's mounted on a wall. It's up there because he didn't want his name walked on. That's awesome, and I don't give a damn what you think of it.