Saturday, June 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali

"Don't count the days. Make the days count."

Muhammad Ali (1942–2016)

Nothing lasts forever.

Muhammad Ali himself said that when he retired from boxing. I knew at the time that he was right, but I didn't want it to be true. I wanted him to continue to box — and to win — just as I had wanted Roger Staubach to continue playing football and how, many years later, I wanted Brett Favre to continue playing.

I knew he wouldn't live forever, either, but, again, I didn't want it to be true. His death yesterday affected people everywhere, even people attending a Paul Simon performance.

Somehow, though, it seems appropriate that he should be taken from us this year of all years — when so many have already been taken. And when many more, no doubt, will be taken from us before this year is over. It seems to be that kind of year, a deviation from the norm from politics to mortality. The political process has been the same, but it has yielded two unusually unpopular nominees.

And mortality is about the same as usual, but it seems to be taking more influential prominent people than it does in an ordinary year. Actually, that probably isn't true. It just seems that way.

Muhammad Ali was a human magnet, drawing people to him more through the force of his personality than his boxing skills (although they played a role in it, too, make no mistake about that).

The thing about magnets, though, is that they repel as well as attract. And Muhammad Ali certainly repelled a lot of people. It was a divisive time in America, the late '60s. From the vantage point of half a century later — and with a black president in the Oval Office — it is easy for those who weren't there to think that the '60s were all about civil rights, but that was really only one issue that divided Americans in those days. The war in Vietnam divided people, too, and it was Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam that exacerbated the situation.

It was often claimed that Ali said, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger" as justification for his refusal to be conscripted into the Army, but that isn't what he said.

What he really said was, "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother or some darker people or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."

There were a lot of people in America who didn't like Ali when he refused to go to Vietnam. They derided him for what they saw as arrogance in the ring and cowardice outside of it. Some people attributed that to racism, just as some people today dismiss opposition to Barack Obama's policies as thinly veiled racism, too. I didn't buy it then because I knew many people in my small hometown in Arkansas who supported the war and spoke critically of antiwar demonstrators, too, and most of whom were white.

Race can be a convenient scapegoat, and I have no doubt it plays a role for some people but not all. For most of the people in my hometown in the late '60s and early '70s, race really had nothing to do with it. It was all about politics.

When Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time, in what was widely called the Fight of the Century, it became more than just a fight for many people. Folks who were against the war tended to support Ali, and folks who supported the war effort tended to support Frazier.

That, too, was called racism by many people, which never made sense to me, either. How could it be racist? Both Ali and Frazier were black.

Maybe it is true what they say about time healing all wounds, though, because I have heard nothing said about that time in Ali's life and career — except for the facts that he refused to serve and was stripped of his title. Nothing more than that.

Even from people who probably would be expected to be critical of Ali for his politics.

Remarkably, considering his chosen profession, Ali was a peacemaker. At the very least, that seems odd for a professional fighter, doesn't it? In trying to resolve this contradiction, comedian George Carlin described Ali's refusal to serve this way: "That's where I draw the line. I'll beat 'em up, but I don't wanna kill 'em."

Now, at the end of his life, Ali is being remembered for his pursuit of peace after his violent career. Part of his refusal to fight in Vietnam was grounded in his recent conversion to Islam, and he maintained his core beliefs throughout his life.

Last December, after the shootings in San Bernardino, California, Ali told NBC News, "I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino or anywhere else in the world. ... True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so–called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion. ... We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. ... They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody."

There was a time when Ali was regarded as the most recognizable man in the world. Many saw him as an heroic figure.

Heroes usually need a reliable sidekick (i.e., Robin to Batman) or an arch rival (here I guess Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would fit the bill). Solitary heroes tend to have short lives in the spotlight.

In the ring, I suppose, Ali will always be remembered for his three epic fights with Frasier. As for sidekick ...

Broadcaster Howard Cosell was Ali's reliable sidekick, I suppose. He wasn't part of Ali's entourage, his traveling roadshow, but he always seemed to be ringside, providing the commentary at Ali's fights. It wasn't unusual to see the rich and the famous attending Ali's fights, but Cosell owed much of his fame and personal fortune to his association with Ali — as well as his Monday Night Football gig.

If you ever saw Cosell interviewing Ali, you could see what a symbiotic relationship they had. Ali had considerable skills and probably could have succeeded without Cosell. Cosell, though, might have found it much more difficult to succeed alone, being limited to only four months per year of Monday Night Football and Dandy Don.

Together they were an iconic pair, and now they're both gone.

Time doesn't march on, folks. It sprints.

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