Long after his boxing career was over, Muhammad Ali did a classic interview with Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes” that showed the effect Parkinson’s had on the boxing legend’s body, but not his mind. At the time, my father was going through a similar struggle (which he would lose the following year at about the same age Ali was when he died Friday). I could see the same look in Ali’s eyes I saw in Dad’s — the brilliant mind was still sharp, but the disease-riddled body was failing him, a constant frustration.
That’s not the Ali to remember. It’s better to recall his other television appearances, the ones at the height of his fame, when we were amazed by his talents and amused by his charisma. His boastful statements laced with wit, backed up by power and ability in the ring. His conversations with Howard Cosell. His rope-a-dope strategy against George Foreman. His steadfast refusal to go to war, regardless of the consequences. His playing along with Billy Crystal (who had his career breakout moment at a dinner honoring Ali as Sport magazine’s 1974 Man Of The Year, organized by Dick Schaap). His torch-lighting at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
You will not read a better obituary of the legendary boxer — and long-time Most Famous Person In The World — than this one by Jerry Izenberg, who wrote about and knew The Champ for five decades:
With Muhammad Ali, it was always the people.
It didn’t matter whether they were rich or poor, black or white, celebrity-famous, blue-collar weary or welfare poor. It didn’t matter what language they spoke, what God they worshiped, what gender they were. Well, in this last group I’d have to say that the ladies had a little edge.
I have been in this business more than 60 years and shared time with most of the great ones — Pele and Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, with Joe Willie Namath and Vince Lombardi, and even Jim Thorpe in his declining years. But in all that time, I never knew an athlete who could stop a room, a building or even a city street dead in its tracks, the way Muhammad Ali could and did.
Izenberg goes on:
America first embraced him in his initial incarnation as the good-looking, big-mouthed kid who turned monster-slayer when he stopped Sonny Liston. But when Cassius Clay became enmeshed with the Nation of Islam — a group that was more Afrocentric cult than religion —Judeo-Christian America, both black and white, grew uneasy.
When he tried to classify himself as conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, chauvinistic America, both black and white, got furious and called him a coward and traitor. The anti-war factions anointed him as an icon.
In truth, he was neither. He was simply a guy who said what he thought.
President Obama released a statement about Ali, one of his role models:
“I am America,” he once declared. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”
That’s the Ali I came to know as I came of age – not just as skilled a poet on the mic as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us. He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.
One last point: Donald Trump tweeted this morning that Ali was “A truly great champion and a wonderful guy. He will be missed by all.” Of course, Trump doesn’t get the irony that, under his presidency, Muslims like Ali wouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States.
Previously on Harris Online…