i watched many of his early fights, we all did. Like most white folks, i laughed at his humour, his endless self-promotion, his poetry, but didn't really understand how far ahead of us he was [and probably still is]. My mom's boyfriend Bruce brought me with him to the local tavern in Feb. 25th, 1964 to watch, as Bruce put it, "Cassius Clay get killed by the champion Sonny Liston." The tavern crowd was 100% white, just like the little New England town. Everyone booed Clay. He was viewed as a loudmouthed ni..er. Half an hour later the crowd there and everywhere were stunned, Cassius Clay had won.
Most of us first heard about our future hero in 1960 when Clay went to Poland as part the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team and won the gold medal. Upon his return to segregated Louisville Ali was refused service at a local restaurant. He stormed out of the restaurant and headed for the nearby bridge over the Ohio River. Fuming that in America's regressive culture he was 'still a ni..er' and threw his Gold Medal into the river. That day was a turning point in his life, and consequently mine. He used that phrase, 'still a ni..er', for years as a motivator.
Publicly Clay boxed, privately he'd become a politically motivated spiritual seeker. Soon after winning the crown Cassius Clay announced he'd converted to Islam and in 1964 he officially joined The Nation of Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali. Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and The Nation of Islam were hated and hounded by the authorities back then, but Ali was the champ and through all the derision still commanded a respectful audience. Infuriating as they were in white rural New England, we heard his words and thoughts because of his athletic status.
In '66 i went off to Union College where almost every conversation revolved around the Vietnam War to some degree. It too was populated by mostly white upper middle class kids almost all of who were against the war and looking for a way out of it. In 1967 the U.S. Department of Justice pursued Ali, denying his claim for conscientious objector status. He was found guilty of refusing to be inducted into the military. He said at his trail, referring to the Viet Cong, "they never called me nigger". Ali put his personal values ahead of his career [integrity]. Ali walked the walk, he chose jail over fortune or fame.
i was floundering at Union, by the time Ali refused induction, i'd converted to a hairy, hippie, pot smoking anti-war demonstrator, but one without direction, without the courage to 'do' it, to dropout. Ali's integrity and courage in standing up to authority inspired me and millions of others to stand up. Last night the CBC's Passionate Eye showed the recent documentary 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali', i highly recommend it. Whether you lived through that era or not, you'll be inspired.
Personally, i never understood that Ali in standing up to authority, in refusing to be drafted, had inspired downtrodden hearts everywhere not just mine. Then after a The Supreme Court victory and years of struggling to recreate the magic Ali went to Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) to fight another undefeatable giant, George Forman 'The Rumble in the Jungle' was a mythic event, Ali proved he was still 'the greatest' by using the now famous rope-a-dope strategy to tire the giant out enough to pounce.
Everywhere Ali went in Zaire the deafening crowds chanted “Ali bumaye!”
Ali has continued his work inspiring folks despite the progression of his disease for the last 30 years [at this point]. Over the decades many have visited and received help from the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona, many more have visited the Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville. Today Ali also continues his philanthropy by supporting Generation Ali which represents a series of initiatives that empower young people to find their voice and become leaders in social justice issues.
Ali is/was a real real living breathing 3 dimensional hero, complete with the dichotomies we all endure, not a fictional literary character like Camus' Diego. Muhammad Ali is 'the greatest' hero of my generation because he used the platform boxing gave him to inspire others like me to have the courage of their convictions and to live lives of integrity. Thank You Muhammad Ali, don't know if i coulda done it all without you.