Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Greatest Is 70

When I was growing up, Muhammad Ali — who was born in Louisville, Ky., 70 years ago today — was an inspiring figure.

In the eyes of many, he was a braggart, a smart aleck, the embodiment of the antiwar movement — even though, to my knowledge, he never participated in an antiwar march or protest after being stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing military induction during the Vietnam War.

It is appropriate, I suppose, that this milestone birthday comes one day after the national observance of Martin Luther King's birthday. Ali's stand, it was said, persuaded King, who had been hesitant to speak out against the war, to reverse his policy.

He took his share of scorn from those who supported the war, though, and, as I wrote last year on the 40th anniversary of Ali's first fight with Joe Frazier, the war was the reason most of those people rooted against Ali when he was in the ring.

They said he was arrogant, and they called him names like "the Louisville Lip" — an anti–Ali spin on his own declaration that he was "the Greatest" — but I always felt it was mostly a case of transference. The war was the real reason for their opposition.

Maybe they really did dislike Ali — he could be abrasive at times — but the war was their excuse.

I don't know if Ali was the greatest of all time, as he claimed. Perhaps the very suggestion was offensive to those who remembered Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano.

But I felt then — and I still feel today — that he was the best in my lifetime. Admittedly, some of that may have been due to my youth and susceptibility. But not everyone who saw him fight was as young as I was — and even many of those who disagreed with his politics acknowledged, however grudgingly, how talented he was.

His talent was never an issue for me. When Ali said he was "the Greatest," I never thought he was boasting. I thought he was stating a fact.

And today he is 70. And, strangely, I am the one who feels older.

Happy birthday, champ.

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