I can’t remember when I first heard of Muhammad Ali. It seems like he’d always been a part of my life. I knew this: my father loved him so therefore I did as well. (The same went for Frank Sinatra, Afro-Cuban music, jazz, the New York Mets and our home borough of Brooklyn.)
My dad was a tough man, a street-smart ex-boxer who – understatement alert! – wasn’t easy to impress. But Ali did. Next to Sugar Ray Robinson, Ali was the fighter my father spoke of in the most glowing terms. He had seen on television Ali – then Cassius Clay – fight in the 1960 Olympics and win as a gold medal for the U.S. of A as a light-heavyweight. (‘From the get-go, you saw he could be great,’ said my dad. ‘From the get-go.’) Soon after, Ali turned professional and – after a bit of bulking up – entered the heavyweight division.
My dad often told me about going to see Ali’s first fight in the old Madison Square Garden. “He was tangling with this guy Doug Jones,” said my father. “Jones was a good tough fighter. Many of the top guys in the division avoided him that’s why he never really made it. A lot of people were surprised Ali was going to fight him but back then to make a name sooner or later you had to fight somebody.”
It was a terrific fight, my father said. A terrific ten-rounder that Ali lost, he would always insist. “Oh, Jones won the fight,” he told me. “He definitely won more rounds and outpointed him. But, in that last round, Ali fought with this furious desperation. No one –no one! – had ever seen a heavyweight move like that. The hand-speed, the foot speed, the co-ordination. Ali hit Jones with everything but the kitchen sink. And the crowd, the crowd roared with each jab and combination he threw. Everyone was on their feet screaming until the bell rang (and after). When the judges awarded the fight to Ali, I don’t remember hearing a single boo.”
“But Jones really won the fight?” I asked.
“Yes he did but Ali was the new guy on the way up and the boxing powers-that be gave him a gift.” Then my dad would always chuckle and add: “But Ali and his people made sure to never fight Doug Jones again. You can only cash in that gift once.”
Do you remember the days of closed-circuit television? When folk would pay top dollar to see a sporting or musical event in a specially designated movie theater? I recall my parents getting dressed to the nines to go out for dinner and then catch the first Ali-Frazier fight in some cinema in midtown Manhattan. These were the pre-ESPN and WFAN days. The only way one could find out how the fight was going was to listen to some AM news radio station and hope they’d give you a periodic update. Unfortunately for me, my beloved grandmother – who was minding my sister and me for the night – was not going to allow me to listen to my transistor radio past my assigned bedtime.
“You’ll find out who won when your folks get home,” she told me.
And so I tossed and turned in my bed, in my darkened room, listening intently to the street noises outside my window, hoping that a yell or a whoop would give a hint to the victor. Nada. Nunca. Nadie. My normally raucous Brooklyn block was as quiet that night as my church St. Leonard’s was whenever the plate was passed around for donations during Sunday service. Did everybody go to the fight? I wondered.
In the wee small hours of the morning, I heard the front door to our apartment open. As my grandmother and sister continued to sleep, I ran into the kitchen to greet my parents. My father looked me in the eye and slowly shook his head.
“He lost?” I asked in shock.
“He played around too much in the early rounds,” answered my dad. “Just gave them away. And then late in the fight Frazier hit him with a hook…” My father reenacted the punch.
“Knocked him out?”
“Knocked him down,” corrected my dad. “Ali was ferocious after that but…”
“Too little, too late,” chimed in my mom. She had taken off her coat and put on a burner on the stove to boil some water for coffee for both of them.
“But I’ll tell you one thing, son,” said my dad as he took off his coat and pulled up a chair at our kitchen table. “The shot Frazier hit Ali with could’ve killed a horse. Ali went down and bounced right back up.”
“Means he can really take a punch.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“Yes and no,” said my dad. “It’s good to be able to take a punch but you don’t want to make a habit of it. It’ll mess you up in the long run.” Then he gestured for me to come over to him. I did. He rubbed the top of my head and told me to go to bed. I smiled, kissed my mother then went to bed. In my mind’s eye, I saw Frazier hitting Ali like the Rhino belting the Hulk in a Marvel Superheroes cartoon. But the Hulk always gets up, doesn’t he? That’s the last thing I remember thinking before I fell asleep.
I was in the school cafeteria a couple of days before Ali was going to fight George Foreman in Zaire conversing with my friends – all Latino and Black and all Ali aficionados – about his chances of winning the fight.
“My dad is convinced he’s gonna do it,” I said.
“But Foreman’s a big guy,” said one kid.
“Hey, as my dad pointed out to me, so is Ali. In fact, they’re about the same height.”
By the oohs-and-ahhs at the table, I knew this fact impressed the table so I continued.
“Besides, Ali does well against big fighters like Foreman. He beat Sonny Liston twice.”
Now my pals began to nod their heads in agreement with confidence.
“I’m telling you guys, it’s a lock,” I said.
“Bullshit,” said a voice behind me.
I turned around. It came from a rather large, rather ugly member of the school football team. He big, he was White and he was ugly. Oh, and he was flanked by a number of large, White and ugly teammates.
Now I might have been small in stature—I graduated high school a few years later topping out at 5 foot 3 in my stocking feet—but, as previously noted, I had been raised by a tough ex-boxer. I wasn’t looking to get my ass kicked but I wasn’t going to back down either. Besides I had seen far too many Bob Hope movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons to not know how to handle such a situation. It was going to be a steady diet of wisecracks and nerve. I stared right at him.
“I don’t recall inviting you into my conversation,” I said.
“I don’t need an invitation,” he said.
“Probably can’t read one anyway,” I said.
“Are you calling me stupid?”
“No, I’m calling you illiterate but I’ll settle for stupid. Especially if you’re backing Foreman.”
“He’s gonna kick Clay’s ass!”
I glanced at my friends. Their eyes were as wide as saucers. They were scared. I was too. I just knew how to hide it better.
“Oh, you’re one of those,” I said.
“One of whose?” he asked
“Those,” I corrected. “One of those guys that think because he rejected his slave name for Muhammad Ali that you demean him for bringing it up.”
“He was born Cassius Clay.”
“And John Wayne was born Marion Morrison. Tony Curtis was born Bernie Schwartz. This is America. Sometimes you gotta change shit to get somewhere. And sometimes you change it to make a point.”
“He’s a fucking draft-dodger.”
I got it now, I thought. This motherfucker is parroting his parents’ bullshit.
“And no one in your family is, right? Listen, chuckles, the colleges are full of draft-dodgers. White draft-dodgers. Why don’t you go piss on them?”
“Well, that colored draft-dodger Clay is gonna lose.”
“Colored? I’m surprised you didn’t say Negro. Too many letters?”
“He is gonna lose.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“How much?” I asked.
Now it was his turn to look at his buddies.
“I don’t bet money,” he said. “I bet a punch in the face.”
“I win, I get to punch you in the face.”
I smiled at him then spoke: “Well, shit, judging by that fucked-up face of yours, you must lose all the time.”
Before he could react, I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my pocket. My allowance for the month.
“Twenty dollars, that’s the bet, put up or shut the fuck up,” I said.
He nodded and then walked away.
Needless to say, I was one happy puppy when my parents came home from another closed-circuit screening to tell me that Ali had kayoed Foreman after using some tactic he’d dubbed “the rope-a-dope.” (Today, we’d call it the ultimate form of passive/aggressive.) The next school day I went looking for my ugly gambling partner. He was quietly sitting with his teammates. In fact, the whole table seemed to be in mourning as if Ali’s victory had guaranteed the extinction of their race. As I walked to the table, the cafeteria crowd fell silent. It was as if I was the quick-draw artist who’d just entered a saloon looking for a gunfight.
“Got my money?” I asked.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out an old, wrinkled twenty dollar bill. The center of it looked like it was being held in place by some Scotch tape.
“Is this what you want?” he sneered.
“You wanna know what I want? I want world peace, a lot of money and a woman as fine as Pam Grier,” I said. “I want your prejudiced White ass to learn that you should never bet against a strong Black man. Oh and I want you to keep your money.”
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Keep it?”
“Yup. Keep it and buy yourself a new face. That one ain’t working for ya.”
Not only did the cafeteria laugh but so did his teammates. I almost felt sorry for him but I was too busy strutting my narrow little ass Ali-style out of harm’s way.
A couple of decades later, I was invited to some soiree at the New York Public Library. I don’t remember the exact year. who the ceremony/benefit was for or why I attended. The following is the only vivid memory I have of the event.
I had just gotten a drink at the open bar when I saw Ali flanked by his entourage. Due to his worsening Parkinson’s affliction, he was ever-so-slowly making his way through the well-dressed crowd. As he was about to pass me, a gorgeous girl jumped in front of him and demanded a hug. He smiled and opened his arms as if beckoning her to him. She grabbed tight and as he hugged her in return a mischievous smirk came across his face. He slowly dropped his hands down her back and placed them on top of her booty. I had to laugh as I watched the Greatest cop a feel of this beautiful brickhouse of a woman. He saw me checking out what was going on and gave me a wink. Then after they stopped hugging, he turned to me and opened his arms. I gave him a mock suspicious look and theatrically pulled at the back of my suit jacket. He smiled again and I embraced him. “If only my father was here,” I thought, “how thrilled my personal champion would’ve been to see his boy hugged by the People’s Champion!” Then we uncoupled and he was on his way. The gait may have been unsteady but Ali—as he had throughout his life—pressed forward. It was that special combination of charisma and determination that got him through the adoring throng that evening. And it’s the irreplaceable loss of Ali’s alchemy which now saddens the world’s heart.