LOUISVILLE – It is impossible to realize fully the significance of a time or events as one lives them. It’s only in looking back from a distance of time and perspective that you might be able to understand.
In February of 1964 I was 12 when I became aware of a brash young boxer named Cassius Clay. My Pop was rooting for the kid from the West End of Louisville to defeat the bear of a heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, but he didn’t believe it possible.
Pop didn’t like the “The Louisville Lip’s” trash talking, but the kid was from Louisville so Pop rooted for him. My father’s pride turned to dismay, however, when Clay announced he’d forsaken Christianity to join the Nation of Islam and taken the name Muhammed Ali.
I didn’t much care; I was fascinated by Ali and if he wanted to be known as Ali, well then, he was Muhammed Ali.
Ali screamed he was “The Greatest” and shouted he was pretty — and he was both. He stood up and challenged authority, which even then appealed to me in some mysterious way I didn’t understand.
If you’re not old enough or if you haven’t watched films of his fights before he was stripped of his crown for refusing induction into the Army, you have no idea just how good Ali was in the ring. The courageous, determined Ali who fought Joe Frazier three times and won back the heavyweight boxing championship from George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” couldn’t have beaten the majestic Ali who won 10 heavyweight fights between 1964 and 1967, stinging like a bee and floating like a butterfly in all of them.
Search the Internet for video of Ali’s November 1966 fight against Cleveland Williams, the fight both Ali and Howard Cosell said “The Greatest” was at his greatest. Williams, known for thunderous punches, might have touched Ali once in three rounds before Ali sent him to the canvass for a final time.
Ali was despised by nearly everyone I knew. The times were a changin’ but a lot of people fought change every inch of the way. Uncles who’d fought in Europe, the Pacific and Korea had no use for a draft-dodger.
From here, from more than 50 years away, it’s easy enough to regard Ali as a man of great courage and conscience, as the man who gave young African Americans hope from the despair of second-class citizenship. People forget there was no “Black is beautiful” before Ali asked, “Ain’t I pretty?” Or that Ali was a proud black man who refused to apologize for it to white America before white or black America heard of Black Pride.
But why should an adolescent white kid from rural Barren County be so proud of Ali and like him more with each new jab in the face of the establishment or convention? I know today why I admire Ali, but even now I’m not sure I understand why I loved him so much back then.
And a funny thing occurred during those three years between Liston and Williams. My Pop came around to the defense of Ali, grudgingly at times, yes. But he told me it took great courage for Ali to give up everything — the belt, the riches, everything — to stand up for what Pop realized Ali sincerely believed. He admired that.
Ali wasn’t the only pivotal social phenomenon in my life in 1964; that fall Glasgow schools integrated and my world went from black and white to living Technicolor. That made my life richer and fuller and so did Ali.
He really was for me The Greatest.