Many of us regard athletes as heroes when we’re young, the options proliferating with each tic of television’s electronic eye. Around here we’re apt to idolize players from favorite college teams and then, if all goes well, to derive satisfaction from their professional careers.
Growing up near New York, where professional sports are king, I could, at various times, follow four different Major League baseball teams, two pro football clubs, and teams in pro basketball, pro hockey, and even pro soccer. Many of sport’s greats paraded across the stage in the world’s media capital while I watched from the stands, from Willie Mays in baseball to Pele in soccer to football’s Jim Brown and hockey’s Gordie Howe.
I was particularly taken with Joe Namath’s flamboyance and the way he threw the ball all over the field for the New York Jets, his passes often deep and subversively effective. I loved watching Mays, a wonder in centerfield, batter’s box and on the bases, who left town when I was six, only to return as a visiting menace with the San Francisco Giants. I pulled hard for Ron Hunt, a New York Mets infielder whose scrappy style is reflected in a sixth-place standing among all-time leaders in being hit by a pitch during a career (243).
More broadly, over the years I belonged to the legion of fans blessed to watch the rare handful of athletes whose presence in competition compels our attention, exciting expectation of the extraordinary. Mays comes to mind. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods mesmerized us too in their prime. Reggie Jackson fit the role while hitting homers as “Mr. October” with the New York Yankees.
Recently Stephen Curry and Cam Newton have staked budding claims to membership in that class of riveting performers. You just want to see what they’ll do next.
Yet in the end a single sports hero captivated my unflagging attention, his exploits eliciting an almost-boyish thrill – an athlete whom I never met, never personally saw compete, and with whom I had stunningly little in common at the time. Charisma may be difficult to define, but whatever it is Muhammad Ali possessed that quality in such abundance it was breathtaking. Whether you liked him or loathed him, it was difficult to look away.
For me, when Ali insisted he was the greatest, whether to hype interest in his heavyweight bouts or to express sincere belief, he was only sharing the truth, a truth that endures now that’s he gone. He was the greatest, and not merely as a boxer – a term appropriately more nuanced than simply calling him a fighter. Ali was a one-man show, the rest of the world his supporting cast. He was an electric package of subtlety and defiance, speed and braggadocio, audacity and humor and intelligence that commanded any stage.
Ali transformed a brutal sport into performance art. Before and after he fought, he defied stereotypes of manliness by unself-consciously spouting poetry, some of it playfully silly, some earnestly prophetic as he foretold what round he would take out an opponent. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became his enduring, lyrical motto. Journalist A.J. Liebling followed boxing in the New Yorker, and found Ali’s verbosity so grating, his often-simplistic rhymes so offensive, he dismissed the garrulous youth as “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet.”
Ali’s self-praise was uttered as America escaped the buttoned-down, segregated fifties. The old-fashioned virtue of being seen but not heard was still the order of the day, especially for African Americans. I don’t recall players of that era spiking the ball in the end zone, sack dancing, bat tossing, or pointing skyward as if crediting a supreme being for propelling a well-struck ball over the outfield fence.
Ali had an amazing capacity, especially early in his career, for emerging from a bout with face unmarked, after which he was quick to praise his own beauty. In his shameless preening and declaiming he didn’t just defy convention, he mocked it, and in the process drove older folks like Liebling to distraction. Maybe that was part of why I liked Ali.
He was unconventional as a boxer as well. Purists hated how low he held his fists, how he slipped head shots by leaning back … just … far … enough to make a blow fall short. Defying a slugger’s egotism, both his and his opponent’s, Ali pedaled glibly around the ring to avoid being hit, in the process confusing and frustrating straight-ahead fighters. The stratagem worked to perfection in his stunning upset win over intimidating Sonny Liston, from whom he first took the heavyweight title in 1964 at age 22.
A decade later Ali employed what he dubbed his “rope-a-dope” tactic to regain the championship against powerful George Foreman, who punched himself into exhaustion during their “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). As Ali told an interviewer prior to lying in wait on the ropes, letting his gloves and arms take the punishment before emerging from his protective cocoon to knock out the undefeated and favored Foreman: “I out-think a man. See, the matador beats the bull. The bull is the strongest, the bull hits the hardest, but the matador is the smartest.”
Ali also could be as brutally cutting as a matador. It was not his most endearing trait. Later in life, limited by Parkinson’s disease and chastened by his faith, he became a goodwill ambassador, the rare American welcomed around the world. But during his nearly-unbeatable boxing days Ali could taunt mercilessly, especially when an opponent insisted on calling him Cassius Clay.
Opposition to Vietnam War
Ali abandoned what he derided as his “slave name” immediately after defeating Liston, proudly declaring his allegiance to the Nation of Islam, which embraced the Koran and preached the need for black Americans to remain separate and pure. Not only opponents but interviewers, media outlets including the New York Times, and even the U.S. Supreme Court disrespectfully insisted on referring to him as Cassius Clay, arguing Ali was a stage name.
The champ thought differently, as he demonstrated when, citing his status as a Black Muslim minister, he claimed conscientious objector’s status and refused military induction.
By then opposition to the Vietnam War and tensions over civil rights bitterly divided the country. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” Ali had famously declared, indirectly choosing sides. On the day in 1967 he risked jail, sacrificing the ability to defend his title for nearly four years, Ali added unambiguously, “The real enemies of my people are right here, not in Vietnam.” (The Supreme Court upheld his right to an exemption from military service in 1971.)
Keep in mind there was real danger in those days in challenging the status quo. Four transformative public figures – John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – were assassinated within a six-year span even as Ali unabashedly espoused unpopular beliefs about religion, war and race.
If you’re a boxer, courage is essential to success in the ring. Bravery and individuality of the sort Ali demonstrated beyond the competitive arena, standing for what he believed regardless of consequence, are something else entirely. You wonder if those traits are obsolete among prominent contemporary athletes, if a hero like Ali could emerge in our hyper-commercial age.