One of my fondest memories as a child is that of watching Muhammed Ali fights with my father. I can still remember sitting on the floor with my dog Beau at the foot of my dad’s big black leather Lazy-boy recliner, the smell of my mom cooking in the kitchen and the secret joy of sneaking a taste of my father’s beer when he wasn’t looking.
It is no secret that my dad had wished with all his heart for a boy. He wanted a baseball player. I am an only child, needless to say, I can throw a curve ball and hit a line drive with such precise accuracy as to take out the knee of any pitcher that might cross me (sadly enough, I don’t think he ever came to see me play). My mother and grandmother did their best to raise me to be a lady, but they will admit, it is only ‘a thin veneer with many cracks’. I was a tomboy at heart.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
Long before anyone thought of cage fighting, Muay Thai, or the WWF, there was boxing. A heavyweight fight carried all the hype of the superbowl and twice the dramatics. I thought Muhammed Ali was the coolest character around. I was too young to know anything of boxing skills, but I knew he was funny, he was charismatic. He had a larger than life presence. His exchanges with Howard Cosell were legendary. I remember shooting marbles with my friends (when other girls were busy with Barbie), arguing over the fight known as the ‘Thrilla in Manila’, when an aging Ali faced Smokin’ Joe Frazier for the third time. I bet my prized aggie that Ali would win and he didn’t disappoint me. Ali had lost the previous match he had with Frazier, and many believed he did not have what it took to comeback.
“Frazier is so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wild Life.”
The fight lasted 14 grueling rounds in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Ali won many of the early rounds, but Frazier staged a comeback in the middle rounds, while Ali lay on the ropes. By the late rounds, however, Ali had reasserted control and the fight was stopped when Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the 15th and final round (his eyes were swollen closed). Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to allow Frazier to continue.
“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
I remember my dad yelling and shouting at our old console television. I remember how worried I was for Ali, how anxious I was when he was on the ropes and my elation at his comeback. My dad and I were both on our feet by the end, hugging and happy over his win. Good times, fond memories. I still have the marble I won in that bet.
“I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
Knowing all that I now know of Ali, he is more than just a childhood hero to me. He is a lifetime hero. What he stood for, his beliefs and convictions are an inspiration whether I completely agree with them or not. Ali has been absorbed by the establishment as a legend—a harmless icon. There is barely a trace left of the controversial truth: there has never been an athlete more reviled by the main-stream press, more persecuted by the U.S. government or more defiantly beloved throughout the world than Muhammad Ali. There is now barely a mention of this Ali, who was the catalyst for bringing the issues of racism and war into professional sports. The mere thought of athletes using their insanely exalted and hyper-commercialized plat-form to take stands against injustice is now almost unthinkable.
“Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”
After proudly winning a Gold Medal for the United States in 1960, he returned home with the medal on his neck and went out for a cheeseburger. When he was denied service due to his race, he threw the medal in the Ohio River. In 1964, he failed the US Armed Forced qualifying tests because his writing and spelling skills were sub-par. However, in early 1966, the tests were revised, the standards greatly lowered and Ali was reclassified as draft eligible. When drafted in 1967, Ali refused to fight, and fought the US Government for years to overturn the mandatory draft. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He stood for peace in a time of war. No one could call this man a coward, he defeated every top heavyweight in his era, which has been called the golden age of heavyweight boxing. In 1971 after 4 years of court battles, the Supreme Court reversed the verdict.
“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
The present Muhammad Ali is also a very public figure, despite his near total inability to move or speak. His voice has been silenced by both his years of boxing and Parkinson’s disease. He still makes appearances on behalf of causes which he supports, his trembling hands have lit the Olympic torch, he visited Afghanistan as a UN Messeger of Peace. Since he retired from boxing, Ali has devoted himself to humanitarian endeavors around the globe. He travels the world over, lending his name and presence to hunger and poverty relief, supporting education efforts of all kinds, promoting adoption and encouraging people to respect and better understand one another. It is estimated that he has helped to provide more than 22 million meals to feed the hungry. Ali travels, on average, more than 200 days per year. Ali is generally considered to be one of the greatest heavyweights of all time by boxing commentators and historians. His gloves are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. In 1998, Ring Magazine, a prominent boxing magazine named him the number 1 greatest Heavyweight Boxer. Ironically, in 1971, the magazine refused to even include him due to his loss at that time to Joe Frasier. ESPN has named him the second greatest boxer of all time, behind only welterweight and middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson.
“A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
All Photographs courtesy of Magnum Photos, edited by me.