Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 5, 2016

Ali’s Greatest Victory

How does one choose to remember an athlete the world will not soon forget? How does one honor someone chosen as the “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated in 1999, whose smiling visage will grace that magazine’s cover this week for the fortieth time? In the hours since news came of Muhammad Ali’s death at age 74, the tributes pouring in from all around the globe have understandably focused on his magnificence in the ring and the reverence in which he was held long after his final boxing match as he waged a bout of a different sort, a decades-long battle against Parkinson’s disease.

The accounts of his boxing career perforce recount the night in February 1964 when as a heavy underdog he stunned the crowd at the Convention Center in Miami Beach and boxing fans everywhere by dethroning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston with a 7th round TKO. But much of the coverage has been about the second half of Ali’s career, a period that included compelling battles.

The drama in three acts starring Ali and Joe Frazier was unlike anything the heavyweight division had seen since the days of Dempsey versus Tunney or Louis versus Schmeling. There has certainly been nothing to match it since.  The first two fights, both at Madison Square Garden, resulted in a decision for Frazier in March 1971 and a win by Ali three years later. The rubber match was held half a world away, in a sweltering Araneta Coliseum in the Philippines in October 1975. More than four decades later the “Thrilla in Manila” is still considered one of the greatest matches in boxing’s history. For fourteen rounds the two aging warriors gave each other no quarter. In a virtually even battle the tide turned late when Frazier’s left eye began to close from Ali’s repeated blows, leaving Frazier unable to see his opponent’s right hand punches. Ali, who would describe the fight as “the closest thing to death,” won when Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the final round.

Between the second and third Frazier fights Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title by knocking out George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. Once again a heavy underdog, as he had been when he first won the title a decade earlier, Ali surprised Foreman with his rope-a-dope strategy, leaning far back against the ropes and allowing the champion to deliver vicious body blows. But Ali absorbed the punishment while protecting his head, until Foreman finally tired, having literally punched himself out. Then Ali attacked with a flurry of right hooks to Foreman’s head, ultimately sending him to the canvas.

Four years later Ali became the first three-time heavyweight champion when he avenged a loss against Leon Spinks. After he retired and as the effects of Parkinson’s began to take hold, he became what one obituary termed “a secular saint,” lionized for his commitment to peace and spirituality. When he appeared at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta as the unannounced final torchbearer, charged with lighting the cauldron to open the 1996 Atlanta Games, the thousands in attendance first gasped with surprise and then rose to shout their approval and salute The Champ.

But there is another part to Muhammad Ali’s story, one that is ultimately more important than beating Frazier or Foreman, or winning the title three times. It should not be forgotten that among those with tears in their eyes at seeing the trembling Ali in Atlanta were journalists and sports fans who had vilified him three decades earlier.

He won a gold medal in the light-heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympics, then came home to Louisville where he was refused service at restaurants and called “the Olympic nigger.” He turned pro later that year and wrested the title from Liston in his twentieth professional fight. The following day he publicly confirmed his rumored membership in the Nation of Islam.  Shortly thereafter he announced he was changing his name; yet most media outlets including the New York Times, which likes to think of itself as the country’s paper of record, continued to refer to him by what Ali came to call his “slave name,” Cassius Clay.

Unlike Liston Ali fought regularly, defending his title nine times over the next three years, but he was far from the wildly popular figure that he would eventually become. At least two of his opponents joined the majority of the press in referring to him as Clay. Ali delivered savage beatings to both. Video of the bout with Ernie Terrell shows Ali taunting his opponent at the end of each round, snarling “what’s my name?”

Then in early 1967 Ali’s draft status was changed to 1-A. The world remembers him saying “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Cong,” a statement that was harshly criticized. Largely forgotten is his next sentence, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” In late April of that year, after his request for conscientious objector status on religious grounds had been denied, Ali appeared at an armed forces station in Houston. Four times he was asked to take one step forward as his name was called to accept induction into the military. Four times Ali refused. As a result he was arrested and stripped of his title. Months later he was convicted of draft evasion.

Ali was just two months past his twenty-fifth birthday when he refused to step forward. He would be approaching twenty-nine before he climbed back into a boxing ring. He sacrificed three and a half years of his prime, along with untold earnings, for the sake of his beliefs. In that time he grew, becoming more articulate in explaining his religion and his opposition to the war.  America changed as well.  Those who supported the “unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war” as Red Smith described Vietnam opponents in a 1967 column on Ali’s draft status, found themselves in the majority by the time the Supreme Court unanimously overturned Ali’s conviction in 1970, three months after the first Frazier fight.

Sports fans will never know what Ali’s career would have looked like had it not been interrupted. However magnificent the numbers might have been, instead we know something better. For Ali taught us all, including those who would not cheer him until decades later, that there are values more important than winning and that true courage is best found in places other than the ring or the playing field. Muhammad Ali thrilled us every time he stepped into the ring; but his bravest step, the one that nearly half a century later still symbolizes the awesome power of principle and the simple majesty of faith, was the one step forward that he refused to take.

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