The impact of Muhammad Ali on my life is a strange one, but not unusual. It’s strange in that I essentially missed his entire boxing career, but it seems like I lived it every step of the way. I didn’t see any of his fights live, but I know the fights.
I remember when Ali’s straight right smoked George Forman in the Rumble in the Jungle. Years before that I remember when my jaw hit the floor watching Ken Norton beat the champ. I remember watching Ali step inside the ring at the Superdome attempting to regain the championship against a much younger, and lethal Leon Spinks in 1978.
But I didn’t see that. Not live. I was 6 when Ali beat Spinks to become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world for the third time. At best, I saw it on Wide World of Sports weeks later. Strangely enough, a kid could watch a months-old boxing match on TV and have no clue as to the outcome. It was a life without spoilers.
Watching Ali was like going to the movies. Everything stopped when he was on the screen – whether it was Ali’s epic battles in the ring, or Ali goofing on a set with his sidekick Howard Cosell. He made you shout with joy, or laugh out loud. He was dynamic and always the star of the show.
“He’s from Kentucky.”
I was standing in front of the TV in our house in Burlington, Kentucky, when those words floated over my shoulder. I was a tiny human, probably just big enough to be impressed upon by sports. My dad told me the news, as if he was giving me a present. From then on, Ali was not only a sport hero, but also a part of me.
We’re from Kentucky. My older brothers, Greg and Scott, used to have a litany of, “games,” that we could play inside of the house, usually while my parents were gone, and oddly enough the games always involved me getting pounded by them. Goal-line stand was one of their classics. It entailed my two brothers, side-by-side, sitting on their knees waiting for me as I ran down the short hallway with a small, plastic football in my hand and tried to blast my way through this minor legion of doom. After a while, the game would always evolve, or devolve, into me attempting to leap over them, to which they would clip my legs and send me into a perfect 180-degree heels-over-head spin into the wall behind them. Touchdown.
Another game that Scott and I played was boxing. A more apt title would have been Snow Glove Boxing. You go with what you have, folks. And, like Ali, I think I showed some willpower standing in on some wild bedroom melees, pretending those snow gloves were protecting us. I knocked Scott’s tooth loose once. Another time he sent me to la-la land. And even though it was Sugar Ray Leonard that I was emulating those days, the Ali Shuffle always made an appearance, and if I was lucky enough to get the win, an, “I am the greatest,” always followed. Years later, on the high school football field, a teammate nicknamed me, “Mouth of the South.” Ali was always with me.
But Ali’s presence was bigger than just sports, bigger than a good time.
As a kid you can get through a good deal of your life without giving two cares about anything political. Heck, most kids – even for all of the talk of them being different than their parents – follow the exact same path as their folks. Without a thought. But Ali opened my eyes to the world of politics, and to original thought.
He was different. He was the biggest sports hero in the world and he did not care. There were real things – his faith, a nation’s racism, opposition to war – that were more important than sports. Which might not seem like much in this digital age, where we seemingly have 24-hour access to our heroes and their opinions. But, as a kid, hearing and watching these stories unfold – it was mind-boggling.
Because now Ali wasn’t only a boxer. He was a fighter for what he believed in. The stories were enthralling. Ali comes back home to Louisville from the Olympics, and is denied service at a diner by a racist owner, prompting Ali to throw his gold medal into the Ohio River. Ali becomes a member of the Nation of Islam and counts Malcolm X as a mentor. Ali tells the U.S. government that he’s not going to Vietnam.
Ali said, “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?”
Yes. Why, indeed?
They were all stories that spoke to a rebel heart, all told in retrospect, but lived and carried with me. A pale reflection, but a reflection still. I’ll never get inside a ring – real or imaginary – but there are causes to fight for, and that fight continues. And as you, my friend, go out there to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, take this other Ali quote with you:
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Rest In Peace.
And like a fine wine with a steak dinner, every battle should be accompanied by hope and song.
The Great Ali – “Rumble In The Jungle”
Playlist Recommendation: Cassius Clay – “Stand By Me”
Around the Way
The Tulane Green Wave’s baseball season has come to an end with their second loss to Boston College in the NCAA regionals. The Green Wave eliminated the Top 10-ranked Ole Miss, 6-5, on a ninth-inning two-run homerun that was accompanied by this beautiful call by Tulane’s play-by-play announcer Todd Graffagnini. Tulane also knocked off the Pac 12 champion, Utah Utes, 4-1. Unfortunately they couldn’t get by the Eagles and end the season at 41-21.
It was a great season for the Uptown boys, as Tulane spent the majority of the season ranked in the top 25, swept the LSU Tigers, and recorded a team-record 13 shutouts. The Green Wave also won the American Athletic Conference regular season championship. It was the team’s first title in 11 years.