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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Muhammad Ali, The Greatest

This past weekend mourners came from across the globe as thousands from his hometown of Louisville Kentucky lined the streets of his funeral procession. All paying tribute to Muhammad Ali.

Ali universally is recognized with the appellation, “The Greatest”. Years ago, while travelling in London a Pakistani waiter, in difficult-to-understand English, inquired where in America we were from. Upon telling him we lived in Louisville, the waiter immediately replied, “Ah …Muhammad Ali, the Greatest Boxer.”

Muhammad Ali won Olympic Gold in 1960 as the light heavyweight and won the world heavyweight championship in 1964, 1974 and 1978. He was a hero to many and went on to far surpass the realms of boxing.

He also was a poet, recognized for his spoken word albums with two Grammy Award nominations, a humanitarian and a man of religious convictions. Numerous LGBT athletes praised Ali for his authenticity and activism. 

In Louisville, Ali also was a person you might run into on the street or at an ordinary restaurant.

In the commemorations of Ali’s life as we mourn his passing at age 74, there are a couple of significant aspects that are glossed over in all of the hoopla of this celebration of a life cut short too soon.

The first elephant in the room we seem to be unable to see is how and why Ali went from heroic, to vilified, to now sanctified.

There’s no dispute about the facts. Ali was a complicated, multi-faceted man and his life was not without controversy. In 1964 Ali changed his name to Muhammad Ali from Cassius Clay, what he referred to as his “slave name”. That and his membership in the Nation of Islam or Black Muslims, as it was sometimes called, and his outspokenness in the Civil Rights movement resulted in a host of very negative reactions.

He later converted to mainstream Sunni Islam. Ali, of course, also attracted wide-spread attention when he sought conscientious objector status. He eventually received that designation but not until after he was arrested and fought his conviction all the way to the U.S Supreme Court for his refusal to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Although Ali remained free, he was stripped of his title and his boxing license suspended. As the comedian George Carlin intoned, the government had decided that if Ali was unwilling to kill people in war they weren’t going to let him fight people in the boxing ring.

When Ali boxed, he was celebrated by white and black folks alike. But when he spoke, his words elicited hatred, derision and denial from wide segments of America.

During this time, while the media readily referred to actors such as Rock Hudson and Doris Day by the names they had chosen, most of the mainstream media for many years did not show Ali the simple respect to recognize his name change to Muhammad Ali.  

I am old enough to vividly remember the hatred and slurs, the only one I will repeat here, “draft dodger”, that were directed at Ali because of his stance on the Vietnam War and his embrace of minority rights and a religion many didn’t understand.  

Interestingly, the embrace of Ali by mainstream America seems to have coincided with the time, early in his career, when he was just boxing and not yet fully vocalizing his beliefs. And then again in his later years when Parkinson’s for the most part had silenced him. In the early 1990’s one could encounter a mostly silent, shuffling Ali in Louisville, a sad shadow of the proud, strong, outspoken young man he had been.

Today we again are hearing and seeing the same hatred of foreigners, those of another religion, race, sexual orientation, or ethnic group. We are left to wonder what Ali thought about the resurrection of the same ugly hatred that had been hurled at him during his days of speaking his truth to power.

Ironically, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Trump, the mouthpiece of much of today’s hatred, chimed in to mourn the passing of this boxing legend, barely pausing for breath as he spews forth hatred of everything Ali stood for.  

Another elephant in the room that everyone tiptoes around is the likely cause of Ali’s Parkinson, the disease that robbed him of speech and easy movement for more than the last two decades and that caused his early death.

I recently have heard and read medical experts interviewed about the type of Parkinson’s Ali had. They say they are trying to find ways to help those with Parkinson’s. As one expert put it, scientists are nowhere close to a cure. Instead they are poking at the edges, trying to find drugs that might lessen the impact of dopamine which treats some of Parkinson symptoms but causes difficult side effects all its own.

But where are the experts or opinion leaders calling out for changes in our sports, our culture, our humanity so that young men can become “The Greatest” without engaging in sports resulting in head blows which in turn result in brain damage? Damage that diminishes the quality of and shortens their lives. Boxing, like some other sports with high risk of head trauma, long has been a ticket out of the ghetto for men of color.

Shouldn’t we recognize they have become gladiators who pound each other for our amusement and entertainment? And shouldn’t we do something about that?

Ali was one of the greatest boxers. Maybe the best ever. But he was much more than that. Ask yourself--would we ever have known him if he had not first made his name as a boxer? We all know the likely answer to that question. And when will we live in a sufficiently  evolved society  where we can appreciate the worth of people without having them first engage in activities, for our viewing pleasure, which shorten their lives and rob them of even a middle age with an intact  body and brain.

We will be a truly great nation when we create paths for all of our citizens to achieve their full potential and greatness without destroying themselves or others to please the crowds.

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