Muhammed Ali – a Remembrance

To write this post I googled a timeline of Muhammed Ali’s life. For the purpose of this post I’m only interested in my own impressionalbe years from my age 9 until age 23′

I discovered that my Dad was a sport’s enthusiast of the barkalounger type early on. Just before I hit my teenage years I remember my Dad reciting the list of Heavyweight Boxing champions from the great John L. Sullivan to Cassius Clay. The modern era of champions started with Jack Dempsey just before my Dad’s birth and I am sure he was as well aware of Max Baer who was the undisputed champion when he was as I was of Floyd Patterson at the same age. Incidentally, when I was following Patterson’s career I was watching the Beverly Hillbillies staring Max Baer’s son as Jethro Bodine. I’m sure his depiction of a hillbilly transplanted to Hollywood explains why my Mother-in-law began explaining that her North Carolina origins (transplanted to Iowa) made her a “Mountain William.”

Even as Clay shucked off his “slave name” to announce he was a Muslim outraging much of white America I was mesmerized by him and followed his career avidly through the Supreme Court’s decision exhonorating him for his refusal to sign up for the Selective Serice – the draft – while the Vietnam War was raging. Here is a thumbnail of what I was up to through his early professional life.

Clay wins the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome and returns to his native Louisville, Clay finds he’s not immune to the racism that is so prevalent in the U.S. After being refused service by a waitress at a “whites-only” restaurant, a disgusted Clay throws his gold medal into the Ohio River. He turns professional and wins the first two fights of his career.

I spend the summer arguing with my next door neighbor that year telling her that Republican Richard Nixon will be elected President. To my chagrin JFK is elected.

Despite an unblemished 19–0 record, Clay is a heavy underdog in his championship bout with Sonny Liston. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to him. He brashly and colorfully predicts victory, and teases the champ by calling him, among other things, an “ugly, old bear.” When Liston refuses to leave his corner for the start of the seventh, the fight ends and Clay becomes heavyweight champion of the world. After the fight, Clay announces he has become a Black Muslim and has changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

I was enduring my first year in Minnesota being called a “Reb” because of my accent in the all white North Mankato Junior High. The previous year in Topeka, Kansas, half of my classmates were black. A Mad Magazine I’d been reading at a Boy Scout camp had cartoon of gorillas running over a field of mason jars poking fun at headlines as children saw them about the Vietnam War “Guerillas Advance on Plain of Jars.” Within a year I’d hear my Dad cursing at LBJ for sending more troops to SE Asia.

In April, Ali refuses induction into the U.S. Army due to his religious convictions. He angers many Americans after claiming, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” He is subsequently stripped of his WBA title and his license to fight. In June, a court finds him guilty of draft evasion, fines him $10,000, and sentences him to five years in prison. He remains free, pending numerous appeals, but is still barred from fighting.

A year later my family will agree to host a foreign exchange student regardless of his origin. He will be a Muslim from Ethiopia and integrate Mankato High School probably for its first time.

Due to a loophole (there was no state boxing commission in Georgia), Ali returns to the ring in Atlanta and knocks out Jerry Quarry in three rounds.

The year before I witnessed a draft card burning in my first month of college. I disapproved. I would also soon attend an Anti-Vietman protest that blocked up the main intersection in downtown Mankato. I later decided that was counter productive.

In March, he fights heavyweight champ Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden. A left hook by Frazier knocks Ali down in the 15th round. Frazier wins by unanimous decision. Three months later, the Supreme Court rules in his favor, reversing the 1967 draft-evasion conviction.

I will spend the summer of 1971 as an intern in Republican Congressman Ancher Nelson’s Washington D.C. Office. I have to go through metal detectors which have just been installed for the first time because the Weather Underground blew up a bomb in the Capitol Building.

In January, he gains a measure of revenge from Frazier, besting the former champ in 12 rounds. Regains the heavyweight title in the “Rumble in the Jungle” on Oct. 30 in Kinshasa, Zaire after knocking out champion George Foreman in the eighth round. He successfully uses his “rope-a-dope” strategy—Ali allowed Foreman to get him against the ropes and swing away until he tired himself out. Then Ali attacked.

I am married in 1974. Watergate is in the back pages of newspapers. The War in Vietnam is still winding down – disastrously – my college 2-S deferment has kept me out of the war that began when I was in seventh grade. I will begin teaching in the Fall of the year in Proctor, Minnesota. I am still a fan of Ali.