Sunday, June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali

The best sparring I ever saw from Muhammad Ali came during his televised (staged?) bouts with legendary announcer Howard Cosell.

Or so it seemed.

Bear with me now. I'm hearkening back to the increasingly turbulent mid-1960s. I'm still a teenager, and Ali — who had just changed his name from Cassius Clay —was becoming something none of us had ever seen before. Especially in boxing.

I was never a fan of boxing. Watching two men pummel each other is not my idea of fun. The Sweet Science? Really? Boxing is not something I wanted to do in my free time after school, like play stickball or toss a football around. I wasn't into throwing right hooks at the heads of my friends.

And yet, when ABC's The Wide World of Sports aired a boxing match with Ali, I didn't want to miss it.

Part of that was because of the relationship between Ali and Cosell, which at first glance almost always appeared confrontational. I'm not so sure it wasn't intentional, and well thought out — if not actually choreographed — in advance.

Doesn't matter.

What really caught my attention came in 1967. I was 16 years old and the war in Vietnam was getting closer and closer to my doorstep. It seemed like a war that would never go away, and I was getting old enough to fight in it.

Then Ali, at the height of his prowess as an undefeated heavyweight champion, refused induction after being drafted into the U.S. Army, citing conscientious objector status based on the foundation of his Muslim beliefs.

This was different. An athlete making a stand. A serious stand. He was convicted of draft evasion, and while he never served jail time as his conviction was being appealed, he was stripped of his title and had his boxing license revoked.

We'll show him. How dare he.

Only he showed us. I kind of admired his stance, wondering what I was going to do if I was ever drafted. These days, I wonder if Ali didn't actually give impetus to the antiwar movement that was rising in the country. Civil rights legislation had just been passed. Kent State was still three years away. Crazy times, and Ali was the lightning rod in the thick of it.

Five years later, his conviction was reversed by unanimous Supreme Court decision (is that even possible now?) and Ali's social currency seemed to increase in value. He returned to boxing and gave us the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla.

Then came retirement. Then came Parkinson's. Then came inconic status.

He was many things to many people, mostly as an inspiration, but also as a focal point. I had other sports heroes: Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath and Bart Starr come to mind. But Ali was different, and somehow deeper.

And I think we're all the better for who he was and the times in which he lived.

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