We were children then, Southern California kids who didn’t really know anything about civil rights or the uncivil world that existed for African-Americans in our country. Cassius Clay, who would become Muhammad Ali, would educate us as we rooted for him to lose fight after fight.
Who could possibly root against the greatest of all time? Well, the answer would eventually be nobody, but not then. That was before it was cool to talk trash during a sporting event. That was before we realized that the Vietnam War was an American tragedy and not the inevitable triumph that would prove again our exceptionalism at a time when our treatment of millions of our fellow citizens was disproving it.
We were children then and all we saw was an arrogant boxer who broke all the rules of sportsmanship that our white fathers taught us. We didn’t see Muhammad Ali as black, or at least we didn’t realize it, because the opponents we chose as our very temporary champions also were largely black.
For that matter, many of our other sports heroes were also African-Americans. Willie Mays was mine. Baseball was king then and the first full generation of African-American superstars – Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson – who followed Jackie Robinson into the major leagues had changed the game forever.
Cassius Clay captured our imagination when he shocked the world and defeated the supposedly unbeatable Sonny Liston to win a heavyweight title that would eventually be taken away from him outside the ring. He also challenged everything we believed about life and sports and, well, humanity.
When he became Muhammad Ali, he offended our sensibilities again. When he refused to enter the military draft, it again challenged everything we held true about our responsibility as citizens. But we didn’t understand. We were children then.
We didn’t grow up in the South. We had never seen a “Whites Only” restroom. We went to integrated schools, which didn’t inoculate us against the base human instinct to favor those most like us, but allowed us to stay in denial about racism until we couldn’t – even as children – ignore the ugly images playing out on the nightly news from Southern cities we’d never heard of.
Ali crystallized it all when he explained in no uncertain terms why he had no appetite for the fight in Vietnam.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me N––-, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Never mind that he almost certainly would never have had to pick up a rifle in anger, since he was a superstar celebrity who likely would have been used by the military for morale-boosting USO tours and boxing exhibitions. He gave up his championship belt purely on a principle we didn’t yet understand and articulated that in a context that truly educated us – even if we didn’t realize it until later.
We thought it was all entertainment. We watched him jaw with Howard Cosell and mug for the camera and tell us how he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” We argued whether he was really the greatest when Rocky Marciano was never beaten and Joe Louis had successfully defended the heavyweight title a record 25 times.
Of course, we never imagined that a half-century later, he would be mourned by – quite literally – billions of people across the world, not because all those he laid low with his fists but because of who he was underneath the youthful bluster and, sadly, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease and old age.
So we rooted for everyone from Ernie Terrell to Joe Frazier to George Foreman never imagining that Muhammad Ali would one day become not only the greatest boxer of all time but also one of the greatest human beings. We had hated him and then we loved him. We mocked him and then we revered him. We were outraged by him and then we finally understood him.
We were children then.