The mid-1960s in the United States saw television evolving from black and white to color, and, symbolically, one man was doing that, too. During his metamorphosis from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, as he became the butterfly that stung like a bee, this man changed and changed everything around him.
He changed America, quaking its religion, politics and race relations. And within that he changed sports and offered a fresh template for generations of athletes to come.
It was the most influential sports figure of the 20th Century who left us late Friday in a Phoenix-area hospital surrounded by family. Ali was 74, succumbing to respiratory problems brought on by years of failing health in the grip of Parkinson’s disease.
Fifty-two years earlier, he was someone we had never met, seen or heard. In a room full of gray pigeons, he was the peacock.
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“I am the greatest!” was his calling card, and it wasn’t merely said, but shouted with open-mouthed declaration. And he wasn’t lying.
You bragged, you backed it up. Simple. “Then you can tell them you’re not conceited, you’re convinced,” he liked to say.
“I am the champ!” he shouted, even though he wasn’t, yet, during the pre-fight weigh-in before he fought Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Feb. 25, 1964. “Tell Sonny I’m here. Bring that ugly bear on! He’s too ugly to be the world’s champ! The world’s champ should be pretty like me!”
The day after the fight, Clay announced he had converted to the Islam faith and would be called Cassius X, soon to become Muhammad Ali.
There was an uproar at that day-after news conference. The questions became combative as the mostly older white reporters still trying to digest this 22-year-old’s bombastic lack of humility now had to comprehend a sudden name change and his conversion to what to them seemed a radical religion.
That’s when Clay-turning-Ali answered a question with 11 words that changed sports:
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he declared.
Those words, that attitude, echo throughout sports and society to this day. The ripple is still seen. It told athletes and others they were free to be individuals, with personalities and beliefs.
You heard echoes of Ali later in the later 1960s when Joe Namath wore a mink coat to a Super Bowl (in Miami) and “guaranteed” an upset victory as big as Clay’s over Liston. And delivered just as emphatically.
You heard the echoes in the ‘80s Miami Hurricanes, in Michael Irvin’s trash talking and Bennie Blades glowering over fallen opponents.
You heard echoes of Ali much more recently in the defiant silence of Marshawn Lynch refusing to play what he saw as the subservient role of answering reporters’ questions.
Ali celebrated himself, unabashedly, voraciously. Every time you see an end-zone dance or a high five or a dab, you may trace the lineage to a 22-year-old boxer crowing, “I am the greatest!”
Ali made it OK to be outspoken, outlandish, funny, political and outrageous. Without the talent, he would have been just a clown easily dismissed. As perhaps the greatest boxing champion ever, you had to pay attention.
Integration in Major League Baseball surely would have happened, eventually, even without Jackie Robinson. But somebody had to be first, out front, enduring the physical and spoken abuse of prejudice, hatred, ignorance and threats.
Ali was that man in terms of individuality and defiance, of “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” because I’m too busy being who I am.
He was not beholden to The Man. He was more likely to either eviscerate The Man with a knife-sharp poem, or knock him flat.
The challenge of how to remember Ali first, or most, or best, speaks of the many layers of his greatness.
He was the boxing champ of power, grace and flare, his personality with him in the ring, too.
He was a hero and role model in the black community, his unabashed braggadocio in some ways a blueprint for what became rap music.
To Muslims, he was an early pioneer testing the limits of American religious tolerance.
Though a traitor to some, he was a man of great principle in his opposition to the Vietnam War and the military draft.
He became a global spokesman for human rights, an athlete known and revered most anywhere on the planet – rivaled in that stature only by the soccer god Pelé.o
The highest pantheon of American culture and sports in the past century – Babe Ruth, Elvis, Michael Jordan – must include Ali.
In his memoir, humbly titled The Greatest, Ali wrote of the legacy he would prefer for himself:
“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
An enduring memory I have is my brother and I listening to the “Thrilla in Manila,” Ali vs .Joe Frazier, Oct. 1, 1975. Was the fight not televised? Was there no pay-per-view back then? All I know is we were in a dark room listening through the static of a small radio as Ali scored a TKO when Frazier’s corner conceded prior to the 15th round.
Ali was 33 then, near the end. His final fight was in 1981, the signs of Parkinson’s already evident.
Miami Beach’s 5th Street Gym was a career springboard for Clay/Ali in the ‘60s. Miami also saw the bookend of Ali ravaged by time, in 2012, when he was a surprise guest at the opening night of Marlins Park. The huge crowd gasped to see the great Ali wheeled out on a golf cart, feeble and shaking noticeably.
Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, “The Fight Doctor,” the last living member of the Ali entourage, was Ali’s ring physician from 1964 to 1977. He quit because Ali refused to.
“I was the doctor in his corner. And just like the rest of us, sometimes you don’t like what the doctor prescribes,” Pacheco said Saturday. “I told Ali he must quit because of the damage the doctors were seeing to his brain.”
Pacheco, 88 and still living in Miami, took a bad fall three weeks ago and did not feel up to a direct conversation Saturday but shared his thoughts on Ali’s passing in a statement. He had awakened to the news Saturday. Like the rest of us, he preferred to remember not the shell of a man who died, but the man at his best, the epic life.
“Sometimes the hand of fate touches you, and if you’re lucky, you recognize that your life has changed. I was touched by that fate,” he said.
Pacheco was a doctor in Overtown when trainer Angelo Dundee asked him to look over a young boxer at the 5th Street Gym, Cassius Clay. All their lives changed.
“Of a wide spectrum of friendships I’ve developed he ranks far and above the best of all my friends,” Pacheco said. “He grew up with a magic to his presence that is one of a kind. He was simply a great champion. He was so genuine that he sparked a confidence in everyone. If you were around him, you had the energy. He was a natural force. His radiance came from inside. His kindness cannot be overstated. The world seems a little diminished today.”
The Fight Doctor, who knew him best, closed with what reads like a fitting epitaph:
“He was simply the greatest of all time. Thanks, Champ. It was the ride of a lifetime.”