Sunday, June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali

This one hurts a lot.

Feels like I lost a member of my family. Watched a tribute to him on Meet The Press this morning and the tears rolled down my cheeks. Fittingly enough Jim Brown was one of the people paying tribute - it was like coming full circle for me.

Ali came in to my life in 1964 when he defeated Sonny Liston to become the World Heavyweight Champion in a massive upset. He exploded boxing world stereotypes - he was intelligent, bold, hilarious, principled, handsome and a beautiful fighter - graceful, fast and powerful.

Sonny Liston had no idea how to deal with Muhammad; you can see the perplexed and angry look on his face at press conferences and at the weigh-in. He was helpless in Ali's shadow. Muhammad called him a big, ugly bear, said he even smelled like a bear and that after Ali beat him he was gonna donate him to the zoo.

That, my friends, took balls. Liston was much feared in the boxing world.

1964 was a big year for me. I was ten years old and impressionable. The Beatles came into my life, Muhammad Ali came into my life; I became aware of Jim Brown who ignited my love of football. In 1965 it was Joe Namath who fired my imagination.

All of these people and others are people who I love and respect. People who had qualities I identified with and admired; qualities I wanted to burn into my own personality.

But Ali was the king. If I was forced to pick one person who inspired me more than any other it would be him.

The man was fearless. He changed the world of boxing completely and popularized it beyond belief. I could not wait for an Ali fight.

When he started I was too young to stay up late to watch the fights. Back in the day the fights were not pay per view. Any humble man could watch a fight and they were well worth watching, unlike the slugs that fight today in a sport that has become meaningless.

My father knew how much I loved Ali. He would watch the fight and hang a note in my bedroom - "Ali won in eight by a knockout" - so it was the first thing I saw when I woke up.

That ritual meant a lot to me.

When I was older and could watch the fights, I was mesmerized. The man was magic in the ring, absolutely beautiful to watch. He was so graceful that you would be stunned when he unleashed a punch so powerful it staggered his opponent or knocked them down. He had a combination of grace and power that blew your mind.

When he got knocked down in a fight I would cringe. I could never believe that any fighter could get to him and I definitely never wanted to see him get hurt.

When he lost, I hurt.

Ali made celebrities out of the men he fought. Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, man those fights were epic. Ali taunted them mercilessly and had nicknames and insults for all of them.

But he backed it up. He always backed it up. He backed up everything he ever did, doing whatever was necessary in and out of the ring to defend his principles and validate his words.

Ali revolutionized the sport like a nuclear explosion and then went on to become a powerful activist, even as his career continued, despite a long hiatus. When he was drafted to fight in Viet Nam he stood up to the government and refused to go. He was arrested and found guilty of draft evasion. He was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in prison.

He never served time but he lost almost four years of his career in his prime fighting this bullshit. The conviction was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971, proving Ali right and the government immoral.

Ali went on to become the most recognizable sports figure in the world; quite possibly the most recognizable person ever in history.

Muhammad Ali inspired me, he entertained me, he made me laugh, he showed me what a real man could be, what one person could accomplish.

He felt like my friend.

I feel empty today, I feel like nothing.

Even though he struggled with Parkinson's for over thirty years, I think maybe knowing he was alive subconsciously comforted me.

Now that he is gone my heart aches and my soul is starving.

I loved Muhammad Ali.

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