Muhammad Ali was a walking contradiction. He was reported to have had a substandard IQ, but possessed the ability to speak to an entire population. Early in his career he was one of the most polarizing people ever. He was either beloved or reviled due to his religious and political beliefs and actions. Ali proclaimed the Nation of Islam stood for peace, while many thought them to be militant.
Later in his career, his was the most widely recognized name in the world. He became a healer and a unifier. How? By changing absolutely nothing. He always remained true to his ideals. The dichotomy continued as his Parkinson’s disease robbed him of the ability to use his voice, the very ability, paired with his boxing prowess, which sent him into the rarified air of global celebrity. And, still his influence increased even though silenced.
He was the product of a weak and segregated education system. So much so that he failed the literacy section of the selective service exam and was originally exempt from being drafted into military service in 1964. Other than in reference, that may have been the last time anyone spoke of the then Cassius Clay, soon to become Cassius X and finally Muhammad Ali, as being dumb.
Ali was the first athletic trash talker and could be represented as the first rapper. He taunted his opponents into anger, making them easier to out box. Of Sonny Liston, Ali said, “He’s a big, ugly bear. He smells like a bear. When I beat him I’m gonna donate him to the zoo.” Of Floyd Patterson, “I’m gonna hit him so hard he’ll need a shoehorn to put on his hat.” These are not the ad-libs of a feeble mind.
When Clay became Ali he ruffled the feathers of the government powers. He openly and peacefully challenged the war efforts. When the going got really tough in Vietnam in 1966, the selective service lowered the standard of the literacy test and singled Ali out by reclassifying him into a 1-A status when he was 24 years old. While not strictly too old to be drafted, most inductees were 18-20. The average age of an American soldier in Vietnam was about 21. Others at the ripe old age of 24 were already discharged or were being left alone.
The rest of this saga is history. Ali was drafted, applied for conscious objector status, was summarily denied, sent induction papers, and in turn refused to be a part of the military. He was tried and sentenced to jail. Ali never went to prison due to appeals that eventually led the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction. He did lose three of his prime years of boxing. He was stripped of his heavyweight crown and temporarily banned from the sport. The contradiction here is that he did all of this exercising his strong, unwavering belief in and love for America.
Most who knew him thought Ali a charming man–generous, thoughtful, kind and most particularly open and honest. He was likely the most accessible celebrity. He was often spotted at events and public places. He did not hide out or avoid daily life. He reveled in being among people. Consequently, there are millions of Ali stories being told now that, at age 74, he has lost his battle with Parkinson’s disease.
It seems that everyone is coming out of the woodwork with a story of a sighting or an encounter that left the storyteller more of a fan than ever.
I am such a person. I taught elementary school in Louisville, Kentucky for several years in the early 70s. During that time I had one of Ali’s relatives, a second cousin or some such relation, in my sixth grade class and on our basketball team. Todd called Ali, “Uncle”. Todd was tall and handsome, like his relative, but was not the athlete the family hoped for. When Todd took an interest in and showed ability with tennis lessons being offered at school, Ali came to class to see what it was all about.
Muhammad Ali came to our class like any other relative showing an interest in their student. He watched the tennis lessons, got a good look at his relation doing well, was pleased with what he saw, and quietly left without fanfare.
I got to shake his huge, strong hand and chat for about half an hour. Not one word was about Ali, rather totally about Todd and his tennis interests.
I was left with a memory of a humble man who constantly called himself “the greatest”.