Frazier. Foreman. Patterson. The United States Government. Saddam Hussein. All beaten in one way or another by the Greatest of All Time. Finally, Muhammad Ali took a loss to the great undefeated: Father Time. We lost Ali , but unlike most, I rejoiced as he moved on, no longer a prisoner of his own body. The Ali we know and remember had long since gone, ravaged by the twin demons of age and Parkinson’s disease.
The speed of his hands paled in comparison to the speed of his mind and his mouth and he stood in our minds as a paragon of Black manhood in the face of White Supremacy; his blackness immutable, even in the face of war and domestic unrest. The Vietcong had never called him a nigger, he proclaimed. And he wasn’t about to fight a white man’s war, in any capacity, while the white man waged war of Black people at home.
It was a different age. When Black men stood proud and were counted. Before they were muted by drugs and fear and money. Before we were beaten into submission by poverty or paid off with contracts. When we had enough of our children blown up in churches, and our black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze as strange fruit.
The white kids were up in arms too. Rebelling against a war they didn’t believe in. Rebelling against the ideas of their parents, awash in the cultural diffusion brought on by sports, music and the military as well as the great northern migrations of decades earlier. Marching and fundraising for Black Panthers. Or communism. Or Socialism. or any ism that felt like change. Many didn’t know what they believed in, but they know they didn’t want to die in Vietnam.
In the wake of Ali’s passing, many Black people wondered aloud why white people were trying to claim him, too. Particularly given the present wave of Anti-Muslim hysteria. We recall the vitriol directed at the Heavyweight champion of the world who dared to erase his Christian name. I would say that the youth know Ali from videos and accounts. To them he’s the guy their parents are always talking about. But to those parents, the protesters who traded in their drugs (most of it) and free love for suits, ties, and mortgages, Ali represents something else.
You see, Muhammad Ali is essentially the only one still standing who actually won his showdown with “The Man.” Cointelpro, bullets, and payoffs took care of Black Power. Communism collapsed on itself and socialism was shot through the heart by good old consumerism and greed. After the Kent State Massacre, where four unarmed white students, protesting Nixon’s military actions in Cambodia, were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard, the students tasted defeat. That incident essentially killed the 60’s and established a price for Anti-government rhetoric too steep for the college kids.
Ali stood is ground. They drafted him and he stood his ground as a conscientious objector. The Man stripped him of his world heavyweight championship, during a time when that title conveyed much more than pap-per-view pay days. They took away probably the prime of his youth, when men his size couldn’t lay a glove on him. But he remained unbowed. And when he was allowed to fight again, depending more now on guile, an iron chin, and prodigious stamina, he ate the meanest left hook of all time and hit the mat. but he would not stay down. And he took his title back. And he slayed the Goliath of giant George Foreman.
To them, the artist formerly known as Clay was a testament to all that they had conceded. He had finished the fight they abandoned and won, paying the ultimate price of too many punches after a three year layoff sapped his sublime talents down to mortal levels. As they stare themselves in the mirror, fully entrenched in the lives of responsibility they once thumbed their noses at, they came to salute the one man that finished the fight.
I bore witness to this first hand during the one and only time I met Ali. I was working on the NYSE at the time, in the main room. Early millennium. He had rung the opening bell back in 1999 and there were whispers that he was back. The whisper grew increasingly louder until word had come that the champ would be on the floor. Black people were not in abundance on the floor, outside of mainly runners, yet to a man there was a child like wonder when it was confirmed. During my time there, I saw a man shit himself in a trading crowd rather than leave and not fill an order, yet when Ali actually made it onto the floor people stopped trading. They stopped whatever they were doing and just clapped. some had tears in their eyes, and others had the innocent look of admiration.
As I type this, I have just seen the OJ: Made in America documentary. White people took to OJ in a you’re-not-like-the-others sort of way. Their admiration was based on athletic accomplishment bolstered by charmed deception and the absence of awkward race talk. Ali earned their admiration by remaining firm and not compromising; with a charm that enabled his message, rather than diffused it. That balancing act was perhaps almost as grand as all of his achievements in the ring.
I will always think fondly of Ali, even though I thought he did Joe Frazier wrong. Even though he did Malcolm wrong. we are all chained by our mistakes.I am left with an original blown up picture of him taken by the late, great Gordon Parks, given to me by his widow after an art exhibit. The original was part of a series called American Champion. I never actually hung the picture. I was in the process of moving at the time I got it. I think I will find a place or it now.
Rest In Peace Ali. The man who defeated The Man.