I tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
and throw thunder in jail.
You know I 'm bad.
Just last week, I murdered a rock,
injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.
I am so mean, I make medicine sick."
This morning I woke up to the news of Muhammad Ali's passing and the black series of cultural icons passing doesn't seem to abate. But even in the illustrous line up of Prince, Glenn Frey, David Bowie, Lemmy etc - Muhammad Ali is a class apart.
Since he was an exceptional athlete and a cultural icon of the 20th Century I thought it would be appropriate for the London Rangers Hockey Club to pay tribute to the voted greatest athlete of the 20th century, to write an obituary to the Champ. And since I am the oldest member of the club and actually saw his fight vs Sonny Liston live on my folks B&W tv set I thought I was uniquely qualified to take a shot at this.
I became aware of the challenger Muhammad Ali as a kid of 7-8. My dad being a sportscaster and sports journalist was fascinated by Cassius Clay's boxing skills and his antics even though none of us understood his lingo and his verbal abuse and boasting heaped at Sonny Liston. I remember vividly I was firmly in Sonny Liston's camp because my dad was supporting Cassius Clay. I loved the sound of the name Sonny Liston. And wanted to name my son Sonny one day. Instead we named our daughter Sunny, the closest I got to that.
I know this date quite well because my baby brother was born day after this historic bout between Clay and Liston in February of 1964. After the fight I remained a Sonny Liston fan hoping the deposed champ would put the usurping kid into this place. But we know it was not to be. Liston faded into oblivion and Clay by now named Muhammad Ali continued on his path to Greatness. As a kid in communist Czechoslovakia him taking on Islam was exploited as an anti American/imperialist move by the propaganda machine and I bought entirely into that programme. My dad knew sport and he knew how good Ali was when he saw him at the Rome Olympics 4 years earlier. Most people didnt. My dad used to wake me up on school days to watch Ali's fights because he said it was history in the making. I didn't get that at the time but I know I was trying to force feed my kids with events that they may come to appreciate these historic events later in life. Olympics, 9/11, war in Iraq, The Rolling Stones in Prague live etc.
I no longer have my dad around to discuss such events with him, I miss it, and now With Ali gone it feels like my dad lost his brother as well.
Muhammad Ali's amazing career was unfolding in front of this boy's and later teenager's eyes, I saw all the fights. I was devastated when he lost to Smokin Joe, I was enthralled when he beat the ugly George Forman, I was pitying Smokin' Joe when Ali overcame him in Manila in what was arguably the most gruelling box fight ever. Ali admitted later that he thought he might die in the ring that day. I saw him fight Quarry, Jurgen Blin, George Chuvalo, Floyd Patterson, Joe Bugner, Ken Norton, Rudie Lubbers, Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, Earnie Shavers, Trevor Berbick, Alfredo Evangelista, Oscar Bonavena, Karl Mildenberger etc. And I saw him fight a Japanese Wrestler in what must have certainly been a lowest point of Ali's illustrous career.
Ali came from typically humble beginnings and his decision was to take up boxing in order to whup the thief who stole his bike. The officer receiving his complaint asked him if he wanted to try boxing. The rest is history. He was refused restaurant service upon his return to his native Louisville after winning the Olympic Gold Medal for the USA. His eventual refusal to serve, his fight against inequality, his generosity for causes, his longevity in the ring for which he paid the price and his acceptance of this illness later in life were simply exemplary and inspiring.
Boxing allows for feats of heroism more so than other sports. Playing Football or Hockey can hardly compare to being in the ring in 100 degree heat and 95 pct humidity to face 6 foot 7 George Forman with "wrecking ball fists". Liston was considered unbeatable, Ali humiliated him, Ali genuinely feared for his life in the extended build up to the Forman fight in Zaire. If anything, George Forman then was even more fearsome than Liston. And Ali thought he was actually dying during his he last Frazier fight. Frazier was that tenacious and strong! Nothing other than possibly mountain climbing compares to boxing when facing sheer danger and fear of life before the event.
Even those who have hated him for his refusal to serve and conversion to Islam must respect what he has achieved.
I saw him lighting the Olympic Fire in Atlanta worn down by the disease and he moved me to tears. As I am revisiting the clips and the tributes to his career I am sad and teary eyed. No doubt he was the Greatest!
Thank you Muhammad Ali - RIP