muhammad ali

 

The Gift of the Child

by Ed Collins/April, 1996, Nov., 2011

Ali wins a controversial split decision over Ken Norton, in September, 1973, in Los Angeles

I can remember when I first heard of Muhammad Ali.

It was in 1959. I was in my junior high school library, reading Sports Illustrated. In the feature, Faces in the Crowd, there was a paragraph about a championship amateur Louisville boxer by the name of Cassius Clay.

The next time I heard about him was during the 1960 Olympics. He had just been awarded a  gold medal for winning the light heavyweight title.

I was already a boxing fan. As a kid I remember sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed, watching the Gillette Friday Night Fights on our always-fuzzy often fluttering black-and-white Philco TV.

In the early 50s, San Diego’s Archie Moore held the light heavyweight title, Kid Gavilan was the welterweight champ, and the great Sugar Ray Robinson’s fights were stuff of legend[1]––and they were free, in my parents’ bedroom.

Athletes in those days were, how should I say…Godlike.[2] Most were seen as restrained and polite, moral and civil––low on personality but high on heroics. At that point in time, the media’s job was to recount the contests, not pry into their personal lives. Nowadays, without even trying, you learn that your favorite player has personal habits and problems that, sadly, make him harder to root for.

So along comes Cassius Clay, who, besides being a phenomenon of physical talent, was joyful, outspoken and stand-up comical.

Even before he could have been sure, he was telling everyone that he was “the greatest.” But when he said, “I’m a baaaad man,” you could easily tell that he wasn’t.[3]

What Clay was was childlike. He was a sensitive Adonis-like athlete participating in a sport where the idea is to hurt people by hitting them in the face.

Not everyone shared my opinion of Clay. Some thought he was a self-absorbed braggart who one day would meet his match, and be exposed as the coward he was.

One person who shared my admiration for Clay was ABC TV fight commentator Howard Cosell. His pre- and post-fight interviews with Clay were entertaining and seemingly unrehearsed. Cosell’s pompous nature and convoluted speech were an open target for the witty and mischievous Clay.

After disposing of his first 19 opponents, where his attention-getting gimmick was to predict the round in which they would fall, Clay challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship.

In February of 1964, during my senior year in high school, all eyes were on four British rock-and-roll musicians with bizarre haircuts … and the agile circus act of Cassius Clay. Most thought his title challenge was premature––that Liston, a sinister, extremely hard-punching, seemingly implacable ex-con would put the foolhardy, young, self-promoting poet on his seat, thus taking away his brashness, and, in turn, deal him a punishing dose of humility.

But they were wrong. Under a barrage of lightening quick jabs and combinations, a bloodied and beaten Liston refused to come out for the seventh round. Clay responded by leaping from his chair with both arms thrust skyward, appearing as surprised as anyone that he had won.

Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali[4] a few days after the Liston fight. By embracing the Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) faith, Ali seemed on the verge of becoming a race separatist.[5] It appeared that my hero’s engaging public playfulness was coming to an end.

It was at this time that the United States was being torn in two by a civil war in Southeast Asia. John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated, Lyndon Johnson was President, and every healthy young American man was being conscripted into military service.

Everyone, that is, except the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  In 1967, at the Houston Draft Center, Muhammad Ali refused to step forward; in doing so, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison.[6]

Claiming that his religion forbade him from taking part in war––“unless it was declared by Allah”––the press turned against him, calling him unpatriotic, and worse. The Government denied his claim for conscientious objector status, he was stripped of his title, and his boxing license was suspended by the World Boxing Association.

Ali’s action inspired equal parts admiration and hatred.

For the next three-and-a-half years, while his draft-evasion case was contested in the courts, Ali spoke out publicly against the war. When he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” it became a common refrain among all who shared his political viewpoint. In fact, his stance on the war was said to be an inspiration to Martin Luther King, who, to that point, had not wanted to alienate President Johnson and his support of the civil rights agenda.

Ali’s words and actions served as a touchstone for both antiwar and racial sentiment during this time. (Another Ali catchphrase at the time: “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”)

In 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated, Richard Nixon was elected President, a man walked on the moon, and on every campus across the country anti-war demonstrations were taking place. Millions of young Americans were doing whatever they could to avoid military service. Some sought conscientious objector status; some finagled medical deferments (me); some joined the Peace Corp (me––but when civil war began in El Salvador, where I was to be assigned, I made another plan[7]); some pursued advanced degrees to secure student deferments (me); and some simply left the country. Unlike any war in its history, the involvement of the U.S. in this war was splitting the generations like never before.

In 1970, National Guard bullets killed four students at a Kent State war protest demon-stration. And in 1970 the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s sentence, facilitating his return to boxing.

On March 8th, 1971, when undefeated Muhammad Ali fought undefeated Joe Frazier for the heavyweight title, Judy and I had been married just over a year. We were living in Oakland, on the border with Berkeley, which, at the time was the national epicenter for draft card-burning and public chanting of “Hell no, we won’t go.”

No sporting event, before or since, seemed to match the media hype of the first Ali-Frazier fight. Everyone, it seemed, weighed in on the event. Ali was the favorite of the anti-war protestor/civil rights backing black man; Joe Frazier, somehow, was made out to be an “Uncle Tom,” a white man in black skin.

I watched the fight at the Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum Arena, where a huge screen hung from the ceiling. Ten thousand fans, most of them black, screamed with every punch.[8]

The fight more than lived up to the hype. In the 15th round a leaping left hook caught Ali flush, and he ended up on his back, feet in the air. I remember how it got quiet in the huge arena as Ali struggled to return to his feet. Minutes

later, it was announced that Frazier had won a unanimous decision.

The next morning’s San Francisco Chronicle ran a photo that caught my eye. It showed Ali leaning against the ropes, Frazier hitting him on the side of the face. It was graphic and, to my eye, perfectly composed. I decided to make a painting of it.

With Judy’s guidance, I made a black, white and gray acrylic painting of the photo. Upon its frazali1completion, I realized we had created an historical keepsake of a point in time that would never leave our memories.

A couple years later, while President Richard Nixon was denying that he had knowledge of The Watergate cover-up,[9] I watched Ali fight again, but this time

it was in person, against ex-Marine

Ken Norton–-in San Diego. Three days before the event, on Wednesday, March 29, 1973, I accompanied Richard Hall, my doctor, to watch Ali train a Mission Valley hotel banquet room. I took my painting with me.

I wanted to catch Ali before the workout, to have him sign my painting, but we were 20 minutes late.

I knew where the room was located, and I was in a full jog, when a door suddenly swung open, stopping me in my tracks.

Out stepped Muhammad Ali. I literally almost ran into him.

“Muhammad,” I said, breathlessly. I couldn’t believe I was calling his name––to him. He turned to look at me. As his trainers and handlers followed through the door, in a stuttering voice, I’m sure, I said, “Would you please sign this?”

Without responding, he took my felt pen, scribbled his name on Frazier’s arm, then handed it back to me. I was in a mild state of shock. Someone in his group asked, “Are you gunna sign that, chanp?  It shows you getting hit.”

“I get hit,” is all he said.

I can’t remember if I said thank you. I just stood there, staring, as he and his party walked away.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Hall and I were seated among a hundred or so spectators in the makeshift boxing gym.

Everything about Ali’s physical presence was, in a word, smooth. He carried his perfectly sculptured body like a ballet dancer, a floor gymnast, a matador. His long arms hung loosely from rounded shoulders that were defined by flaccid, not bulging, muscles.

I wouldn’t call it a work-out as much as a performance. His effort was so natural, so efficient, so fluid, that it appeared he wasn’t expending energy. At times he moved as though there was a cushion of air between his feet and the tarp.

Although he worked skillfully, he did not work hard. Ali was carrying an extra 15 pounds for this fight and it was obvious that, in addition to being overweight, he was overconfident.

We were being treated to a live example of his ever-present assistant trainer/cornerman Drew “Bundini” Brown’s popular exhortation, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

After a 90-minute workout, Ali sat down in the ring, leaned against the bottom rope, drank from a water bottle, and bantered with the crowd. Every once in awhile, one of his handlers tried to coax him to the showers, but each time Ali put him off.

Everything he said amused or interested me. He answered questions with respect and humor. Occasionally he responded with a poem or a parable. It was like a scene from a movie––an old man dispensing Southern homespun philosophy from a rocking chair on his well-worn wooden porch.[10]

After the workout, I approached his handlers and asked them to autograph the painting. On the back of the painting, Angelo Dundee,[11] his renowned trainer, signed his name. When I asked “Bundini” Brown to sign, he gave me a feigned look of contempt. “I ain’t gunna sign it on the back.” With that he signed his name on Frazier’s glove. Then he carefully drew a heart and arrow pointing at Ali.

Two nights later we were at the San Diego Sports Arena. From a seat 20 rows back from the ring, I watched the out-of-shape Ali lose to a tenacious and unorthodox Norton.

At the tennis courts the following day, the subject of conversation was my attendance at the fight. One of my students, a middle-aged Peruvian nurse named Flavia, told me that a somber young black man had spent the night at her hospital, where he had his broken jaw wired shut. “I had to show him how to drink through a straw,” she said. “He was handsome but his face was swollen,” she teased me.

It wasn’t until I had asked some questions that I knew she wasn’t kidding.

Six months later, Ali fought Norton again, this time at the L.A. Forum. Again, Dr. Hall and I went. In that fight Ali also had trouble with Norton, but this time he won a controversial split decision. In the final round I sneaked down to ringside and took some poorly executed photos. But when Ali climbed out of the ring, I caught him in mid-stride. The lighting was perfect. Ali is slightly out of focus but the sea of smiling faces at his feet is sharp. I’ve never been more pleased with any photo I’ve taken.

That same year Ali fought Frazier again. A second loss would certainly end his career. But a win would give him another shot at the title (then held by a young and powerful George Foreman, who had easily knocked out Frazier).

Ali won by a unanimous decision.

In October of ‘74 Ali challenged Foreman for the title in what was called the Rumble in the Jungle (held in Kinshasa, Zaire). By leaning against the ropes, and covering his head, Ali invited Foreman to wear himself out in the early rounds. The tactic, later referred to as “rope-a-dope,” worked, and in the 8th round, Ali, against all odds, knocked out Foreman.

After the third Frazier fight, dubbed by Ali as the Thrilla in Manila, I thought he should have retired. In that fight Ali TKO’d Frazier in the 14th, but was close to losing earlier on. Afterwards, he described his weariness as “next to death.”

In spite of his obviously diminished skills, Ali continued to fight, eventually losing the title to Leon Spinks, then regaining it months later. In the interim, he fought New Jersey’s Chuck Wepner, who Sylvester Stallone called an inspiration for his uber-popular Rocky movies.

In 1984, a few years after losing his last fight, a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, a degenerative neurological disease that may or may not have been caused by getting hit in the head so many times.

Since retirement, Ali has devoted himself to philanthropic causes. In 1998 he received the prestigious United Nations Messenger of Peace award, and in 2005, George W. Bush honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I’ve watched several documentaries about Ali, read a few books and any number of magazine articles. One, which appeared in Sports Illustrated especially touched me. In it, writer Gary Smith described Ali’s physical decline in the most poignant and inspirational way.

 

       Now his key will not open the car door.  Sometimes he misses the key hole.  Sometimes he gets the key in but cannot quite make it turn. For three minutes he works at it … four minutes … five. He never mutters, he never scowls or shakes his head.  He never gets angry at his shaking hands.  He never apologizes to me for the delay. He never shows the slightest trace of self-consciousness. He starts over, again and again.

       No, this is not sad, it occurs to me. This is a man where hands once worked as quickly and efficiently as human hands have ever worked. A man who will make do with this trembling flesh and bone that now hangs from his wrists. A man of integrity and strength.

       To be vulnerable, and yet never embarrassed––this is the gift of the child…

 

 


[1] See Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull.

[2]  Football’s Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas; baseball’s Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle; basketball’s Bob Cousy and Bill Russell.

[3] “I’m the king of the world,” he said. “I am the greatest, I’m Muhammad Ali. I shook up the world, I am the greatest, I’m king of the world, I’m pretty, I’m pretty, I’m a bad man, you heard me, I’m a bad man. Archie Moore fell in four, Liston wanted me more, so since he’s so great, I’m a make him fall in eight, I’m a bad man, I’m king of the world! I’m 22 years old and ain’t got a mark on my face, I’m pretty, I easily survived six rounds with that ugly bear, because I am the greatest.”

[4] Ali: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose I and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name. It means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.”

[5] Ali was reportedly influenced by Malcom X, a onetime spokesman for the Nation of Islam. At the time, he taught black supremacy and the separation of black and white Americans, which was contrary to Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, and their emphasis on integration. But after breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X disavowed racism and expressed willingness to work with civil rights leaders. He was assassinated a year later.

[6] “Why should they ask me to put on uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs.”

[7] I personally knew people who, in the period of a few short weeks, after having been notified to take their physical, were sent to basic training.

[8] Held at Madison Square Garden in New York, it was called “The Fight of the Century.” Supposedly unable to acquire a ringside seat, none other than Frank Sinatra took photos of the match for Life Magazine.

[9] It was eventually learned that (Republican) President Nixon, authorized the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. (to place wiretaps on telephones)––leading to his 1974 resignation.

[10] I wish I had a tape recorder, or at least pen and paper. I do recall that he at times he was philosophical, other times comical. I more than chuckled when he said, “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” And, if I remember correctly, he preceded or followed with this: “It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as I am.” “To give the reader an idea of what else he may have said that afternoon, I Googled Muhammad Ali quotes; among many were these:

“Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”

“The man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”

“I never thought of losing, but now that it’ s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”

“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.”

And for an example of Ali’s poetry, something he wrote before the Liston fight: “Now Clay swings with a right. What a beautiful swing. And the punch raises the bear clear out of the ring. Liston is still rising, and the ref wears a frown, for he can’t start counting ‘til Sonny comes down.”

[11] Dundee acted as cornerman for Sugar Ray Leonard in many of his biggest fights.barcloaf1-1