The first time Muhammad Ali—then known as Cassius Clay—beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title later unfairly stripped from him, it was a big media event in the days in which there were many more newspapers, but only three television networks. Mass culture tended to be more homogeneous than today: people heard the same music, watched the same shows, read the same papers. People talked about the first Clay-Liston fight for days before, yet all the talk was of the beating Liston was going to inflict on the loud-mouthed punk. Every male I knew—my classmates, friends, the adults who supervised us, my father, uncles and cousins—predicted that Liston was going to win.
Except me. I was for Clay.
It wasn’t that I thought he was a great fighter. I knew nothing about boxing except that Emile Griffith killed someone in the ring and my father thought Rocky Marciano was the greatest heavyweight fighter ever, but that the greatest boxer was Sugar Ray Robinson. No, I didn’t care much for watching fighting, or for engaging in fisticuffs myself, although I had recently, after weeks of provocation, punched out a bully in gym class, earning me the admonishment of the teacher to take off my glasses before my next fight.
Nor did I like Clay all that much. His doggerel poetry was funny and clever, but it wasn’t the way I had been taught athletes were supposed to act. Clay taunted his early opponents. Mickie Mantle and Willie Mays rounded the bases head down and tight-lipped, not wanting to rile up the pitcher. Maybe all that proves is that you can inflict more pain and injury with a thrown baseball than a fist, but to me, quiet dignity during combat and in victory was part of the athletic code of ethics.
Nor was I playing the odds, figuring that no one would remember my prediction if Clay lost, and if Clay won, I would make sure they’d remember what a great fight picker I was.
No, I picked Clay for no other reason than to be different, to set myself apart from everyone else. I was thirteen and entering the stage when I felt myself a stranger, an “other,” and predicting Clay’s victory was another of many small acts of defiance. Like a freedom fighter in a ghetto uprising, even if I knew in my heart Clay would lose, I would still support him.
Little did I know at the time that Ali would come to symbolize all the “others,” not just in the United States but to all of humankind, the ultimate outsider in race, religion and political creed who fought peacefully with honor and dignity for a world in which all “others” can be embraced as part of the community of man. Like the mythic John Wayne in “The Quiet Man,” Ali was the man who earned a living with his fists who was a pacifist when it came to politics. Except unlike in the fictional John Ford movie, Ali never flinched, never faltered.
Ali preceded most Americans, including me, in his opposition to the Vietnam War. I had mixed feelings when he was stripped of his title for draft evasion, thinking that Ali had the right to his own views and that the boxing commissions were wrong to take away his crown, but wondering why he picked that unimportant distant war for his political martyrdom. Within months, my views on the Vietnam War changed, and soon after the rest of the nation’s did as well. The longer Ali was denied the right to fight, the more unfair his situation seemed to Americans, and to people around the world. It didn’t take long for the pariah became a hero. And he deserved to be. He deserves every honor he received in his lifetime and all the accolades he is gathering posthumously. That a man who emerged from the most brutal of sports should be a supreme representative of peace is one of the great ironies of the 20th century.
Because Ali was not just a great fighter, but also a great athlete, I can’t help but speculate how his life may have gone if he had gotten into another sport. He was unfortunately a little too short to play power forward, which would have been his natural basketball position. Although I suspect Ali would have been one of the greatest running backs or pulling guards of all time, I wouldn’t want Ali to exchange the dehumanizing brutality of boxing for the equally savage football. As a baseball player, however, Ali intrigues. With his tremendous strength and great hand-eye coordination, he would probably knock the lights, crap and stuffing out of the ball. I’m guessing that he would not be among the speediest of runners, but would likely have a good arm, and so would end up in right field. I imagine him hitting the ball with the authority of a Dick Allen or Manny Ramirez, two troubled and brooding outsiders who sometimes spouted off things better left unsaid. But Ali was a gregarious, social type with highly developed social skills, so it’s more likely he would have been like Reggie Jackson or Willie Stargell, natural leaders. If Ali were lucky enough to play for a good team, he would likely have dominated at least one World Series, if not several. Reggie Jackson put it best when he said that he didn’t get better in October, he merely got less tired than other players. Stamina is one of the central skills of any boxer, and Ali was one of the greatest of all time. With a team like the Yankees or the Orioles of the 1960’s, I’m thinking Ali would walk into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Speculation of this sort is always idle, but one thing I know for certain: If Mohammad Ali played baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, soccer, Lacrosse, archery or just about any other sport, he would still be alive. Boxing apologists claim that the brain damage Ali sustained only occurred in his last few fights, when he was clearly over the hill with a diminished capacity to protect himself, but needed a few more paydays. Even if we accept that self-serving nonsense, it underlines what a few fights can do to someone and thereby serves as perhaps an even greater argument in favor of outlawing the sport.
We honor Mohammad Ali and all he stood for whenever we engage in peaceful protest. We honor him when we confront the police and judicial system about racist practices. We honor him when we open our doors to war refugees. We honor him when we walk for peace and against nuclear weapons. We honor him when we remove the barriers to same-sex marriage. In short, whenever we stand up for the poor, minorities, immigrants, religious minorities—for the stranger and the other—we participate and honor Muhammad Ali’s memory.
I would like to honor him in another way: by outlawing the sport of boxing. Let the future Muhammad Alis find their glory in athletic endeavors for which the object is not to hurt the opponent.