It’s a little after 1 am on Saturday, June 4, 2016. I’ve come home from a long night of two music gigs to hear the news that Muhammad Ali has died at the age of 74.
I was born in 1954. In February of 1964 two events happened that profoundly shaped my life.
On February 9, The Beatles appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was a musical and cultural earthquake that changed the lives of millions. For some of us, it was akin to an arrow going through the heart. For me it was a calling. I was only 9 years old, but I knew something profound was happening to me.
Then on February 25, a brash loudmouth named Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship in boxing. No one gave him a ghost of chance. Boxing against Liston was like boxing with a battleship. Cassius Clay didn’t flinch. He bragged long and loud that he would win. Then he did. It was every bit the earthquake that happened 16 days earlier on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
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I idolized Sonny Liston, so I hated Clay after that fight. He was a braggart. He was loud. He made bad rhymes and talked about how “pretty” he was. But then he went further. He became Muhammad Ali. I simply didn’t understand ... but after a while, I did.
In 1967, he refused to be conscripted for military service. If you are old enough to remember 1967, you know why. If you aren’t old enough to remember, ask someone who does. You will learn a lot. Mostly, you will learn that what Ali did took a lot of courage. He had a lot of it – both inside and outside the ring. I grew to truly admire him – both as an athlete, and as a man.
After 1967? You can read about it if you don’t know. Joe Frazier, George Foreman. He won, he lost, and he won again. He won the championship in 1964, 1974, and 1978. He was the only one to do this three times. His skills were unparalleled – but they were not just physical skills. If you want to study what an athletic genius is, learn about his “rope-a-dope” strategy against George Foreman. He was an artist in the ring, pure and simple.
Let’s just cut to the chase. There are very few that I deem the greatest. I’m going to give you my opinion – my opinion only – about who a few of those are. In American music they would include Charlie Parker, Hank Williams, Marian Anderson and the Gershwins. In the movies, I would list Charlie Chaplin and Sergei Eisenstein. I think that Mark Twain was the greatest writer, and Vincent Van Gogh was the greatest painter. I have my own pantheon of sports greats, too: Jim Brown, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan.
But for my generation, I believe the greatest all came into being in February of 1964. If you look at that picture at the top of this piece, it says almost everything. The Beatles weren’t just about music, and Ali wasn’t just about sports. They were also about fashion, movies and television, civil rights struggles, war, religion ... in short – everything.
A force like Muhammad Ali comes along very rarely. I am glad to have been on this planet during his lifetime. He was THE greatest. Long rest and peace to his soul. Thanks be for his life, his work and his integrity. The ripples that will always keep moving.
Danny Gotham lives in Chapel Hill.