Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Muhammad Ali is Old

Muhammad Ali is 65 today – happy birthday...rumble, old man, rumble. Has there ever been a public figure like Ali, so controversial in his youth, so popular in his middle and old age? People have forgotten (or are too young to know) just how hated and reviled he was in the 60’s. His stance against the Vietnam war, his refusal to take the oath and join the Army, his adopting Islam and changing his name from Cassius Clay, brought forth a level of condemnation rarely seen. When he was stripped of his heavyweight title, his defenders were few and far between. Yet by the time of the Atlanta Olympics, less than 20 years later, he was a heroic figure, nearly universally beloved. Now, he is close to sainthood. Part of it is the passing of time, much of it is the ravages of his illness, which has left that most expressive of faces blank and mask-like, and that incredible athletic body a near prison.
Of course, one large part is that the generation which hated him most has died. Old (and most middle aged) people in the 60’s could not comprehend his refusal to accept being drafted, let alone his changing his name and religion. My father was among them, he thought he was a coward for refusing to accept induction. When the courts vindicated him legally and he was allowed to fight, finally getting the showdown with Joe Frazier, sides were drawn. I admit to being on the Frazier side, in spite of my youth. As a boxing fan, I preferred Frazier’s attacking style. On a personal level, Ali’s attack on Joe Frazier’s authenticity as an African-American offended me – while Ali grew up a middle-class kid in Louisville, Joe Frazier was actually picking cotton; you don’t get blacker than that. It was a great fight, living up to its Fight of the Century billing. After the fight, my father changed his opinion of Ali. My father was a long-time fight fan, and when Ali got up after being knocked down by a spectacular, jaw-breaking, left hook, my father said he knew then that Ali was not a coward, that a coward doesn’t get up and fight after that. No, he was no coward, he risked his career, one limited by age, for what he believed. He risked condemnation by a nation over a principle. Cowards don’t do that, heroes do.


Blogger samG said...

I think you left out one element that contributed to the intense dislike for Clay/Ali. His rhyming pre-fight predictions often included insults of his opponents which demeaned their ability and/or background.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Barry Rubinowitz said...

For the most part, the poetry and nicknames was his charm -- there were some who didn't like them, but they were people who would never like him anyway. What he did with Frazier lacked wit or charm, it was just nasty. But Joe was friends with him before that and friends after that, so who am I to hold it against him?

2:08 PM  
Blogger samG said...

My understanding is that Smokin' Joe still hates him. Ali also embarrassed and demeaned Floyd Patterson and, to a lesser extent, Ken Norton.

8:59 AM  

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