I am sure there is nothing I can say here about how great he was that you have not heard before. I read about his death on my iPad on the USA Today website which I usually read around 4 am after I wake up to go to the bathroom. World news usually puts me right back to sleep.
One of the many columns about Ali in that USA Today issue covered his 30 greatest quotes. One of the great ones was, “If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize.”
That was pure Ali.
But there were two quotes they did not use that were my favourites:
Ali telling Howard Cosell how fast he was, “Why Howard, I’m so fast that last night I turned off the lights in my hotel room and I was in bed before the room got dark.” (Tony McKegney told me it was Satchel Paige who originally said it but Ali was the first guy I ever heard say it.)
My other favourite Ali quip was: “I’m so fast I can play ping pong by myself.”
Ali burst onto the world stage as Cassius Clay. He had just turned pro at age 18 after winning gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics. When he first started fighting I thought he was just some loud-mouthed, showboat: good at making headlines but surely nobody was that pretty and/or that good. Three years later in his 20th pro fight, he faced Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. A fight few people though he could win, but a fight Ali claimed he would easily win.
He was right and just to rub it in… he did it again.
He drove the establishment crazy with his claims, his rants and his constant boasting, but as he himself said, “It’s not boasting if you can back it up.” He claimed to be the greatest and then went out and showed us he was. He was more than just a pretty face… he was truly beautiful to watch as he, “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.”
But all the funny stuff went away when Ali was drafted into the US Army. The powers that be saw it as a way for the system to try and shut him up. They figured that a few hitches in Vietnam would bring him around to their way of thinking.
Boy, were they ever wrong.
That was Ali’s finest hour. He put everything he had on the line to back up what he believed. We were stunned when he refused. How could he just let everything he had, all the money and the prestige and the heavyweight world title, go? Can you imagine an athlete today doing that? A politician? Anyone at all? All he had to do was keep his mouth shut and do a soft touch in the army: after he initially refused they even promised that he would never be put in harm’s way just to get him to agree to serve so they could avoid looking like fools.
Not Ali. He said, “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.”
And so he became the hero of an entire generation and eventually the entire planet. He became the first man in history to be loved by the entire planet while he was actually on the planet.
And… he deserved it.
After the US government backed down, Ali was allowed to return to the ring—completely exonerated. He went to Zaire to fight George Foreman who then owned what we all agreed was Ali’s title, since it had not been taken from him in the ring. It had been taken from him by an establishment that had lost it’s credibility with an entire generation.
Watch the most excellent movie, “When We Were Kings,” and you’ll see why they call boxing, “The sweet science.” Just before the fight it seemed like Ali was the only one who really believed he could win. But that was all he needed. Watching him dismantle and take down the powerful George Foreman was like watching an artist: he saw something nobody else did. He saw himself doing what only he knew how to do.
Ali came to Sarnia in 1974 just before he went to Zaire to get his title back. He charmed the pants off everybody, myself included. He smiled, shook hands, kidded with everybody, signed autographs, posed for pictures and was especially good to the kids. A sixteen-year old Tony McKegney was there with his family and met him. (Ali could not believe that Tony was a hockey player.) Sarnia sports-caster George Heath did a great interview with him and J.D. Booth has a great story about that visit on his Lambton Shield website.
Ali’s keynote speech to us that night was about the heart: “everything comes from the heart.” Everybody believed him and he proved it a few weeks later in Zaire.
After the dinner when he was presented with the $5,000 personal appearance cheque that had been earmarked for Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka (who had backed out on the day of the event). Ali thanked them and then turned it back over to the Sertoma club to, “continue your good work.”
As Tony McKegney said, “He did the whole gig on his dime.”
Years later, I wanted to write a book called, “My heroes.”
It was to be about all the people of my generation who had achieved fame and notoriety and in the long run proved to be everything they said they were when their own “cojones” were on the line.
Ali was the only name I could come up with. Sylvia thought Ghandi would qualify, and I agree, but since he would have been unavailable for an interview at the time due to the fact that he was dead, (and thus, not of my generation), I left his name and maybe one or two others off my list.
I wanted to get four friends to drive with me to visit Ali, who at the time lived in Berrien Springs, Michigan. When we got there we would sit down with him, maybe over breakfast and tell him that we had watched him rise and fall and then rise again. All the while, never waiver: no corruption, no bullshit. “We just came here to see you and tell you that you proved to be the real deal. When it came time to stand up, and take the heat over your personal beliefs, the hell with the money, you did what you thought was right even though it cost you so much. We just wanted you to know that we admire you and love you for doing it… for giving us all someone we could really and truly believe in. Thank you.”
The fact that I didn’t do that makes me very sad and regretful. I wanted him to know how much he meant to me and to all of us. He was a brash, boastful kid from Louisville who turned out to be everything he said he was and a whole lot more.
Thomas Hauser, the New York Times writer who wrote the book: Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, said it best, “Don’t cry because he’s gone. Smile because we had him.”
I have to do that because I’d cry my eyes out if I didn’t.