My first memory of Muhammad Ali is from February 1964 in Miami’s funky Fifth Street gym, just after the Beatles had departed from a memorable photo shoot.
Ali was still in the ring shouting his pre-rap couplet, “Save your money and don’t bet on Sonny!” “Sonny” was Sonny Liston, the surly champion and 7-1 betting favorite, whom I’d heard the day before dismiss his challenger as a “virgin” and a “faggot.” Ali had just turned 22.
I am old enough to remember when Ali was underestimated, reviled and exiled, called a coward and a traitor, and referred to as “Clay” by all the best papers, long after he had changed his name, when those same papers had no difficulty calling Robert Zimmerman “Bob Dylan.”
When Ali shocked the world and vanquished the invincible monster Sonny Liston, the arena was half empty, because so few fans gave him a chance to survive the first round, much less prevail. Only Ali’s front-row faction of American black royalty had faith in him that night–Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson.
But today Ali is universally beloved as he turns 60 (January 17), basks in the glow of Michael Mann’s superb new movie about his life and sees rapper Will Smith impersonate him to perfection, down to the shoulder dip in the ring and the lower register of his voice in repose.
The once-reviled Cassius Clay has come to be perceived as America’s Buddha, our Dalai Lama, who personifies peace and harmony. Ali at 60 is the most famous face on the planet, and probably the most loved person, if a democratic election were held that included Africa, the Islamic world, America and Vietnam.
His trembling hands and muted speech from Parkinson’s disease only make him seem more revered, vulnerable and heroic; he is not afraid to display his impairment to the world. He has a serenity that allows him not to hide.
What happened is that America has changed more than Ali since the 1960s.
Like all mortals, Muhammad Ali has made his mistakes and said his share of stupid things, to which I will return. He did have a mean streak of venom he used against his best black opponents. And he did betray and abandon his teacher, Malcolm X, out of blind loyalty to the cult racketeer Elijah Muhammad.
Ali is what he is today, I think, primarily because of his draft resistance and opposition to the Vietnam War. This is what made him bigger than sports, and allowed him to endure so long after his career ended and to become an international icon.
This is what made him come to personify principle and sacrifice for all times. He gave up his championship, surrendered his prime athletic years between 26 and 29, and lost millions of dollars in earnings. He sacrificed all this–without being given any due process–to become a conscientious objector to an unjust war that was still popular when he took his formal stand in April 1967. He had moral courage equal to his physical courage.