Phoenix – Former three-time world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali died on Friday at age 74 at Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center. Known simply as “The Greatest,” Ali succumbed after a valiant 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Particularly in the latter years of his life, Ali championed humanitarian efforts away from the ring that were as enduring as his legacy in it. In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for, among other efforts, his work in advancing human rights.
As a younger man, Ali was viewed less generously in the public eye, particularly when he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I’ve read a handful of books on the Champ, none better than Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. The United States of America by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace. It offers a nuanced account of the formidable challenges that Ali (then Cassius Clay) faced at the time.
His battles with Joe Frazier were, as with many my age, the highlights of our sports youth. I rooted for Frazier as I could tell – even as a boy – that Smokin’ Joe wasn’t as talented as Ali and struggled to match the Champ’s hand speed in the ring and verbal velocity away from it. The two fought a trio of bouts, with Frazier capturing the first and Ali winning the second and third.
Still, when it came time for my first childhood bout – an older neighbor named Louis had a penchant for kicking and pulling the hair of passing kids – I had to ask my father for permission. My father only agreed if we both wore boxing gloves. “Dad, can you get me the gloves Ali wears?” I asked. I wanted to leave nothing to chance. He assented.
My mom, unaware of the arrangement, watched me walk slowly up the street with my gloves lofted skyward, ala Ali. She quizzed my father at home and ran up the street to stop it mid-third. By my card I was up, and apparently on Louis’s as well, as he never bothered me again.
Ali was imperfect, brave, talented and courageous. With age, his courage gained hold and, as with many, his youthful bluster diminished. It’s the combination of these attributes that made him the consummate boxer and imbued his great heroics with a compelling humanity. – TF