Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ali's soul and spirit will live forever

If there are individual spirits that never die, even when the body is exhausted and cannot go on, Muhammad Ali’s is in the world’s upper echelon.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Arthur Ashe were other international folk to similarly impact me.

Certainly, there are others who partially shaped my thinking, feelings and direction, but Ali, Dr. King, Ashe and Mandela were so giving of themselves even a dope such as I had to recognize.

Ashe and Ali, who died June 3 at 74, may have touched me deeper because of their sports affiliations, but in many ways these four black men from different areas, experiences and trials and tribulations are alive inside me.

Like Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson, Ali reached the masses because of sports, but his true reach was incomparable to any who have the wherewithal and substance to feel.

Ali brought the noise to America at a time when - the world’s greatest super power, land of the free, home of the brave and all that BS - didn’t want to hear it. Refused to listen and attempted to suppress.

As a black (yeah, we were just moving away from Negro and hadn’t yet gotten to African-American) child growing up in the 60s, I was trying to figure it out. Who was I, why was I and why does it seem as if a large portion of this country has an issue with me because of my skin color?

A skin color I quickly realized many racists sought to incorporate into their own bodies. What was this Coppertone stuff for, anyway?

I grew up in New York City and fell for the okey-doke. At one time, I believed people from the South were ‘country’ and ‘backwards’ and Northerners were more sophisticated and aware.

Yep, I was that stupid. If nothing else, attending the predominantly black Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia quickly opened my mind.

But before then, I was smart enough to quickly realize this young, country, backwards Cassius Clay was something special to watch as a boxer. This was before I really started hearing from him and listening to him.

Ali’s athletic gifts were beyond belief. His hand and foot speed, to me, were incomparable. Sure, my pops and others told me how fast Sugar Ray Robinson was, but Ali was 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. Robinson was a natural welter-middleweight at most.

It’s funny now his footwork known as the ‘Ali Shuffle’ really was the ‘Clay Shuffle’ because he didn’t change his name to Muhammad Ali or his religion to Islam until 1964.

Ali’s black pride was so evident and real, it was impossible for me to ignore. I saw Ali and thought of James Brown’s song, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

I still do.

It always was cool to be Ali, but never universally popular. He dealt with an overwhelmingly racist white American media. Many of these media members, I feel safe to say, had little interaction with black people or an inclination to open their minds to a black experience.

In many ways, like the media didn’t understand who Clay was and how he became who he was, it’s impossible for me to understand how they saw his conversion to Islam and his linkage to a group then known as the ‘Black Muslims.’ Hell, my father, who was a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army until the arrival of my sister, didn’t understand and refused to call Ali by his name until years later.

He couldn’t understand how Ali could refuse induction into the Army or military. Joe Louis was in the Army and the Brown Bomber was his Ali. Louis was the man who sent blacks into Harlem’s streets for the inevitable party after listening on the radio to one of his victories.

It was years later when my pops relented and began to give Ali the respect of calling him by his adopted name. However, that was after Ali lost his first fight to Joe Frazier and legendary New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo depicted the man known as
‘the Louisville Lip’ with his mouth zippered closed.

My pops must have purchased 10 copies of that newspaper drawing and placed them all over the house for me to see.

Ali’s ability to talk a good fight and then fight a better one likely never will be matched. Perhaps former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson had it like that, but I didn’t hear or see him. I lived with Ali’s experience.

Many times Ali said he was not a saint and did and said things he regretted. He was human. He fashioned some of his braggadocio after wrestler Gorgeous George’s shtick. Ali admittedly took things too far during fight promotions with rival Frazier. He called Frazier and ‘Uncle Tom’ and compared him to a gorilla, unfair denigrations Frazier did not deserve.

They were depictions one would expect to hear from a hurtful person designed to do just that to another. Ali would come to apologize to Frazier long afterwards, but the damage had been done to the pride-filled Philadelphia champion.

I was lucky enough to meet Frazier in a Philadelphia Rite-Aid about 2:30 one morning and never have I been in contact with a nicer brother. Despite us both having a bit of buzz, or perhaps because of it, two strangers chopped it up in the drug store for a few moments talking boxing and more.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ali briefly at a mosque while covering the release of Mike Tyson from the Indiana Youth Correction Center, a prison in Plainfield, Indiana. There merely was a shake of the hand and a ‘What’s happening, brother.’ But I felt and still feel that I’d been touched by greatness.

I’d cried like a baby when Ali lost the first of three fights to Frazier. The only other time I remember crying behind a sports event was when Bill Mazeroski homered in the ninth to beat the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series.

I didn’t know any better. I was 5. However, when Ali lost to Frazier in 1971, once again, I’d fallen for the okey-doke. It was as if Black America had lost even though two Black Americans had fought.

Damn, that was 45 years ago.

Ali remains an iconic figure, one whose place in time and indomitable character were so intertwined that he’ll never be matched. He was more than a superb boxer whose career had been unfairly been interrupted in what would have been his prime by a racist American power structure.

I believe Ali wouldn’t have been defeated by Frazier had his career not been interrupted for 3 and a half years. The fight still would have been a monster, but I believe Ali’s speed and ability to evade punches then would have been combined with his strength and power to make him nearly unbeatable.

He’d have lost at some point because everyone does. The day Floyd Mayweather truly thinks he was/is better than Ali, he should smack himself and beg for forgiveness.

There was the relationship with broadcaster Howard Cosell that never will be matched. Cosell also stood strong aside with Ali during the years in which his career was take away. It was a time in which Cosell received little respect for his support of Ali. It was an unpopular approach, but one that at the time Ali needed and respected.

I can’t think of Ali without thinking of one of my late friends, Ronaldo Heywood, who perhaps was the only person I’ve known who could do the Ali shuffle as well and as fast as Ali.

To see Ali affected by Parkinson’s Disease was to realize how things and life can change for us all. Ali may have been the best athlete I’ve ever seen, yet it became difficult to see him robbed of his mobility.

Ali’s simplicity – ‘I ain’t got no problem with them Viet Cong.’ He also said, “They ain’t never called me nigger.’

His decision to stay away from the Vietnam War was founded in that simplicity. It makes so much sense it must have been too deep for many to comprehend.

There’ll never be words supple enough to capture this man’s contribution to the world. However, I wish my man, the late Ralph Wiley, was here to break it down like none other.

Rest In Peace, Ali. The body is gone, but the heart and soul will live forever.

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