I can still remember sitting in the kitchen of our home at 25 Brunswick Road in February of 1964. With no screen to view, yet with eyes transfixed on the radio atop the refrigerator, it was the 24th of February, and Cassius Clay, as he was known then, stepped into the ring to fight the heavily favored title holder Sonny Liston.
Liston was like the Mike Tyson of his day, and some feared he would kill Clay. Literally. For his part, Cassius didn’t seem to help matters much as he antagonized the “bear”, saying he was “too ugly” to be champion, and chanting pre-fight predictive verses like: “…the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money, that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny!”
Liston was indeed eclipsed, and the emergence of Muhammad Ali coincided with the arrival of the Beatles. For a youngster, it was like the national mourning for our President Kennedy was tacitly over, and totally new expressions of vitality were beginning to rise.
Ali was bigger than boxing, and his fights were more social expressions than sporting events. Black men were not expected to speak as Ali openly did, and well before Joe Namath’s brash predictions of 1969, Muhammad violated common racist conventions, igniting a revolution with impact far outside any punches in the ring.
Refusing induction to the Army, his title was taken, without due process, and few know that Joe Frazier loaned Ali money in the three years of down time when he couldn’t fight. Both men would later leave significant portions of their own health behind in the wake of three memorable fights, and Ali would reprise his David and Goliath performance with an incredibly improbable knockout of George Foreman.
Certainly not without flaws, and not an adherent of my Christian faith, Ali stood firm in his beliefs, amidst serious personal risk.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of that going around nowadays, and in this regard, he did us all a service well beyond what would have been achieved in him donning a uniform.
At the victorious conclusion of that fateful first heavyweight title bout, as he screamed, “I shook up the world!” it turned out he would do just that. Smashing racial stereotypes as definitively as he outclassed opponents, Muhammad Ali forced us to be a better nation.
The “Louisville Lip” transformed a sport and made billions of people across the globe very happy. In declaring himself “the Greatest” he caused each of us to take stock and consider the values we carry in our own hearts and the commitment to our faith that we undertake in our lives.