Even before he won the heavyweight title, Muhammad Ali had established himself as the boomers’ champ.
Ali, who died on Friday at 74 after a three-decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease, was not a boomer, officially. He was born four years too early, in 1942. That didn’t matter, especially since he enacted so many of the touchstones of our lives.
Emerging from Louisville, Ky. and announcing himself (loudly and exuberantly) by winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Cassius Clay — his name at the time — exhibited not only literally dazzling boxing ability, but also the singular trait that most endeared him to the boomers: The establishment couldn’t figure out what he was about, thus viewing him as a threat to respectable America. (Heck, he was!)
The establishment couldn’t figure out what he was about, thus viewing him as a threat to respectable America. (Heck, he was!)
His Memorable Mantra
No one had ever seen a big man so fast, with his feet and with his tongue. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was his mantra. (It was amazingly like the rock hit of the same era by Bob Lind, The Elusive Butterfly.)
As a complete break with what had come before, Ali was like other of our icons: James Dean, Elvis, The Beatles. They mesmerized us, which scared the hell out of our elders. The youthful Clay did not conform to any boxing mold. Previous champions and up-and-comers had spoken softly while carrying big fists, but Clay went around proclaiming, “I am the greatest!” and employing prediction poetry concerning his bouts against game, but often hapless, foes.
Like Elvis wiggling his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show, this was just not done. But ever since, trash talk has been the norm for athletes. (And now, it seems, also for presidential candidates.)
America’s First TV Champion
In the heavyweight division, Ali also was our first real TV Champion. He was a master of the medium, with the visceral understanding of an Emmy-winning director.
In his heyday — the 1960s and early ‘70s — there was no ESPN or 24-hour sports talk radio. Instead, we were rationed to ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons. There, with another anti-establishment figure, Howard Cosell, playing straight man, Ali mugged shamelessly and proved to be the most hilarious ambassador his sport has seen. Go to YouTube and check out some of the clips, particularly the one featuring ringmaster Cosell and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who had challenged Ali to a fight. Luckily for Wilt, it never came off.
Losing His Popularity and Innocence
Of course, as time went on, life intruded on the Ali Show. Upon joining the Black Muslims in 1964, Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali; among a certain segment of the population, he would never again be quite so popular or innocent.
But the boomers were steadfast — particularly in 1967, when, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted by the Army. Citing religious beliefs as a minister of his faith, he asked to be classified as a conscientious objector. This was denied. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his heavyweight title and unable to get a license to box. During the Vietnam era, similar, if less noteworthy, battles were being fought in many homes. Ali boiled it down in words that resonated in the peace-and-love era: “Shoot them for what?” Ali said of the Viet Cong. “They never called me nigger. They never lynched me.”
Ali’s conviction eventually was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But as with so many who refused induction, he paid a price.
The Price He Paid in the Ring
Ali lost more than three years of his boxing prime and when he returned to the ring, he was just a tad slower. That made all the difference when he met a new set of fearsome foes such as Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.
In his younger days, Ali literally could not be touched. Now, he had to figure out how to take punches and strategize a victory. This he did, twice regaining his heavyweight title, the second time coming up with the vaunted “Rope-a-Dope” technique to defeat the younger, bigger George Foreman in the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974.
This was the time that Ali became genuinely beloved. By now, he was the most famous athlete — maybe the most famous human being — in the world.
His Life With Parkinson’s
But again, his courage exacted a terrible toll.
By the early 1980s and almost certainly because of the shots he took in the latter part of his career, Ali had developed Parkinson’s. Gradually, the once-rapier-like tongue was silenced. Again, we saw the same tragedy that so many of us were enacting privately with our parents and other loved ones. Ali pluckily continued to travel and make public appearances, though the strain was increasingly visible.
Muhammad Ali had given us one last lesson: Even if you can’t float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, you can fight the good fight — till the end.