The Riddle That Is Muhammad Ali

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - January 24, 2007
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We tend to become reflective on anniversaries and birthdays, and with Muhammad Ali’s 65th passing last week, it’s hard not to look back and wonder how one man could have sparked so much passion. Athlete or clown, compassionate or cruel, revolutionary or nationalist, Ali was a product of his time. He also helped define it.

People disliked the man because they failed to understand him.

Ali was a carnival barker. Getting crowds into the Big Top is all that mattered, be it for the beauty of the trapeze or the shocking exhilaration of the freak show. Come one, come all to the greatest show on Earth!

And we all bought it. We paid record ticket prices and crowded around the television to see if the lion ate the tamer or if Ali got his head kicked in.

Talking to Sports Illustrated in 1961, Ali said, “... the reason for that (boxing’s loss of popularity) is because they (the other fighters) cannot throw the jive. Cassius Clay is a boxer who can throw the jive better than anybody.”

He was right.

When he changed his name and refused to enter the draft in 1966, the nation exploded with anger, disgust and pride. While Americans by the thousands were fleeing into Canada or burning their draft cards, Ali became a symbol for both sides of the era’s most explosive debate. And it wasn’t simply a black and white issue.

To many whites, it was bad enough that he was a black and opinionated, but worse he was a Muslim and a member of an organization that threatened the very fabric of the country. Many African Americans, especially those who reached a certain level of economic success or fame, were outraged that he would reject Christianity and refer to Cassius Clay as his slave name.

To the anti-war crowd, he was a hero. For black activists tired of second-class citizenship he was their vocal leader whose bravado, talent and fame pushed their struggle to the front pages of the newspapers.

For all of Ali’s charisma and humor, he could be brutal and unfeeling.

Prior to their fight in 1965, Floyd Patterson said he was going to win the title back for America. Patterson, outskilled and suffering from back spasms, was no match for the younger, better and angry Ali. Ignoring trainer Angelo Dundee’s advice to knock out Patterson, Ali punished him for 12 rounds while calling the former champ an Uncle Tom before the referee stopped the fight. Fans booed, and the next day Joe Lewis called Ali selfish and cruel.

It wasn’t the only time Ali settled things in the ring.

Like many, Ernie Terrell refused to call Ali by his new chosen name. Unlike the masses, however, Terrell had to enter the ring with him. For 15 rounds Ali carried the battered fighter, following up blistering combinations with shouts of intimidation.

“What’s my name, Uncle Tom, what’s my name?” he yelled before resuming his attack, each time doing just enough damage to inflict pain while keeping the referee from stopping the bout.

One of the many conflicting, or hypocritical, aspects of his personality was that while he was quick to be angered by those he felt had disrespected him, he often had no problem disrespecting others.

Saying he was just trying to hype the fight, Ali taunted Joe Frazier before the famous Thrilla in Manila by calling Frazier ugly and comparing him to a rubber gorilla he carried in his pocket - a slight that Frazier still carries to this day.

Writer Frank Deford described Ali’s progression in life as going from Don Rickles to Paul Robeson to Will Rogers. The Rickles comparison doesn’t quite nail it, but the comparison to Rogers is fitting. Over the years Ali had been transformed from an angry militant to a cultural hero for not just African Americans but for all Americans. Never did this seem more apparent than at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Clad in white and visibly shaking from the effects of Parkinson’s disease as he lit the Olympic flame, he may never have been more admired and respected. Maybe it was that the years had mellowed the anger of his critics, or maybe we had a better understanding of the man or quite possibly, we felt sympathy for a once great athlete who now had difficulty controlling his own body. Whatever it was, a page had definitely turned.

After the ceremony, Ali sat in his hotel room quietly holding the torch, thinking, maybe, about how far he had came in the 30 years since his last Olympic moment when he threw his gold medal into a river after being refused service at a Louisville restaurant because he was black.

Ali will probably always invoke a variety of opinions. Just as he was critized for not supporting Vietnam, he has taken heat for not speaking out against Iraq. And while Congress has considered a tribute to the man once known as the Louisville Lip, comments in the Louisville Currier-Journal question his true religious convictions or whether the nation should honor a man who refused to put on a uniform.

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