My memories of Muhammad Ali

the greatest SI coverThis won’t be the first Muhammad Ali tribute you read and it shouldn’t be.  But it’s going to be mine so please allow me a moment to share my own, personal memories of the man who will forever be known as “The Greatest.”

If you’ve been reading this website for any length of time, you know I’m all over the board with my sports allegiances, my likes and dislikes.  If it’s in anyway competitive, count me in.  Oddly enough, however, my father really only liked two sports: tennis and boxing.  Sure, there were baseball games on the tube but basketball and football were rarely watched.  Tennis and boxing were his true loves.

My father, a self-made man and ridiculously hard worker to this very day, didn’t idolize many people but Muhammad Ali was beyond reproach.  He was the man.  Nobody was a close second which in retrospect was odd considering my dad was conservative and Ali was anything but.

My first memory of watching Ali fight came when I was nine years old.  I don’t remember where we watched this particular bout.  For some reason, I want to say we were in a hotel room somewhere, perhaps vacationing.  Dad was glued to the television set.

spinks1It was February, 1978.

Ali (36) was considerably older than his opponent that evening, Leon Spinks (24).  Spinks was an 8-to-1 underdog.

Ali lost that fight.  I vaguely remember my father explaining to me what a split decision was.  My dad sat at the edge of the bed hoping the judges would rule the fight in Ali’s favor.  They didn’t.  I remember how devastated my father was.  It was the first time in my life I understood how the outcome of a sporting event could eat at your soul.  Ali had lost before but this fight more than anything signified the end of his dominance, if not his career.

Ali would fight Spinks again later that year and beat him.  That would be his last ever victory.

I think my dad had actually seen Ali fight in person at Madison Square Garden earlier in his career.  I remember he had the programs in his armoire that I would thumb through as a child.

I was nine.  I didn’t understand black or white, Vietnam or the Nation of Islam.  I didn’t know who Cassius Clay was.  I just knew that this guy who my father revered was, for lack of a better adjective, the greatest.  If he could earn my dad’s love, he must be something special.  In Ali, I think my father found a little of himself, the brashness, the egoism, the unrelenting desire to be unbeatable.  I’m sure he wasn’t the only one to do so.

Later in life, as I began to study sports and history, I found out so much more about Ali.  He took a stand in a far, more tumultuous time.  Growing up in an era of considerably less conflict and social strife, it’s hard for any of us to imagine an athlete having such a profound impact on the world around us.  What athlete do you know these days that would be stripped of their title standing up for something they believe?

Ali with Howard Cosell (Ali with Both Hands Up)Ali was the taunter, the self-professed greatest of all-time, the ultimate sound-bite.  His back-and-forth banter with Howard Cosell blows away any silly and comparably irrelevant spats stars have on the internet these days.

It was a different time.  I could sit here and sound like a crotchety old fucker by saying things like “there will never be another Muhammad Ali.”  And I’d be right.  Heck, the sweet science barely exists anymore or at least nobody’s watching.  The sport carries a fraction of its once momentous influence.

Muhammad Ali passed away Friday night at the age of 74.  He lived a long full life providing us with immeasurable, cultural impact.  He was cunning.  He was controversial.  He was the champ.

Watching my father’s affinity for Ali inevitably shaped the sports fan I am today.  Through Ali and my father, I learned that delving wholeheartedly into sports could bring glorious highs and overwhelming lows but sports, more than anything, gave you something to believe in.

I no longer speak to my father and that’s a shame.  Years of bitterness and squabbles have soiled our relationship but that’s a conversation for another time.  I didn’t cry when I heard Ali had passed.  But I was moved by the memories it brought up.

My father and I may speak again, we might not.  But we will always have Muhammad Ali.

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18 Replies to “My memories of Muhammad Ali”

  1. The best fighter of his generation and certainly the best ever to enter the ring. Muhammad Ali Joe Louis are my all-time favorites among the heavyweights !

  2. Last night I watched CNN coverage of the life of Muhammad Ali, which included footage of him lighting the flame for the 1996 Olympics. I cried back then to see the man who once floated like a butterfly with the physique of a Greek god, stinging like a bee his opponents with quick jabs, shaking from his Parkinson’s, fighting to hold onto that torch, and again fought back tears as CNN replayed that footage.

    They showed a clip of Ali’s personal gym, with Ali claiming he was planning a comeback. I laughed, but believed if anyone could come back, he could.

    Say what you will about him. Call him a braggart and a draft dodger, but on the former, baseball legend Dizzy Dean once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it,” and Ali did pretty much everything he ever bragged of doing. As for the latter, he made an important statement about the war in Vietnam, and all wars.

    I loved him as kid growing up, rooting for him in every fight. Yes, he was imperfect, just like the rest of humanity. Married four times, fathered children out of wedlock. I don’t judge him for that. I won’t judge him for that.

    I base my opinion of him for what his daughters say about him today as a daddy—that he taught to them only love and acceptance of others—what they say about him as a human being and the life he led—that he wanted to help others. I base my opinion of him for what his opponents—those he left on their backs in the ring—said of him, decades later, that he was the greatest in the ring and a wonderful human being outside the ring.

    Did Joe Frazier hold a grudge against Ali for his taunts during their fight years? Yes, but that was his choice. Ali apologized, but Frazier chided him for doing it through the media and not face-to-face. Ali only said, “If you see Frazier, you tell him he’s still a gorilla.” Vintage Ali.

    At Frazier’s private funeral service in Philadelphia in 2011, the Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke. When Jackson asked those in attendance to stand and “show your love”, Ali stood with the other attendees, which no doubt took great effort given his advanced Parkinson’s, and applauded.

    He was the greatest, not only in the ring but in life, using his celebrity to further more than one cause.

    In my opinion, for what it’s worth, he was the most colorful sports figure of all time. He was a showman, to be sure, taunting his opponents in press conferences leading up to fights and predicting the round in which they would fall. Ali and Howard Cosell were like a comedy team akin to Abbot and Costello, with Cosell playing the straight man to Ali’s antics: calling Cosell “How-weird” and threatening to pull off his toupee during interviews. But according to one of Ali’s daughters, he loved Cosell like a brother.

    Maya Angelo wrote that people will forget what you said, and they’ll forget what you did. But they’ll never forget how you made them feel. I read that everywhere Ali went, not matter where in the world, people stopped and smiled at him. This thirty-five years after he left the fight game.

    I’d say Ali left positive feelings with millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people around the world. I know he did with me.

    Today, I grieve the loss of The Greatest.

  3. Great stuff. I could type out a million words on my thoughts and feelings of Ali, but nobody would truly understand. And I’m lazy. RIP Champ.

  4. Oh, yeah, and you really should reconnect with your dad. He’s not going to live forever. Once he’s gone it’ll be too late, and you don’t want to regret that you didn’t. Few things in life are worse than regret.

  5. I am always moved by the many sports chump writings. I learn. I learn more about sports with each blog post and I learn how writing can move the author and the readers. I admire you and have always thought you were great; not “the greatest.” LOL! So talented CH.

  6. I always read your blog and learn about sports that I don’t even follow.
    I read them because you’re a talented writer and you have the ability move me and people with your words .
    The job of a writers is to lay bare their souls and open their memories to scrutiny of other people. I love that you’re not afraid to do that and how you use your personal memories to make a connection or a point- even when the memory is bitter and poignant.
    Be the bigger person and please reach out to your father or you will probably regret the lost opportunity.
    At the very least, you will find out if he’s changed. Everyone deserves a second chance.

  7. Brilliantly stated, Conrad.

    With all the horrible or apathetic soundbites these days, it’s truly amazing to hear Ali speak, and rap, be witty, controversial, intelligent, convicted and dynamic.

    I know there will never be another Ali but I wonder if there could ever be another athlete of his stature that we, as Americans, could rally around and believe in.

    I wonder if there could ever be another athlete that cared as much as he did.

    I just picked up “Sound and Fury,” the book about the dynamic between he and Cosell. Can’t wait to delve into it and reminisce.

  8. And Conrad…

    I’ve often thought about it. Pretty much do every day.

    Let’s just say a lot of shit has gone down over the years. The water has flooded the bridge.

  9. Bleed…

    Let’s just say a lot of shit has gone down both lately and over the years that make it not that easy to just call it water under the bridge.

  10. Understood.

    …But, just like Ali, you never know when that day will come. I lost my step-Dad unexpectedly last year. It ain’t pleasant. Luckily, we had worked out our issues a couple years earlier.

    Best to bury the hatchet now than live with the regret that you didn’t reach out when you had the chance later.

    Sometimes the child had to be the adult and take that first step before it’s too late.

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