The Thinking Man’s Champion

When I was in elementary school in a very Caucasian suburb of Chicago, a young lady named Sonia Hassan started going to school (maybe around 3rd or 4th grade, I cannot remember).  She was not Caucasian.  I don’t recall that she was harassed.  I didn’t hang out with her (35 years later I still haven’t figured girls out).  However for some reason or other, it became learned and became a thing that Sonia’s dad was a boxing trainer, and was in fact one of the trainers who worked for The Champ.

I didn’t follow boxing, but everyone knew who was being talked about when you said “The Champ”.  Boxing has had many champions, but only one “Champ”.  Keep in mind that Muhammad Ali was still boxing at the time.  In fact, he had a huge fight that was coming up against Leon Spinks.  Leading up to the fight, I can remember our school receiving form Sonia’s dad an autographed picture, which was displayed prominently for years.  A few weeks after the Spinks fight, the last boxing match the man would ever win, he actually called our school, and our principal had the telephone held up to the intercom so Ali could address the school.  At the time, it could be argued that he was the most famous man (and far less arguably the most famous athlete) on Earth … and he was talking to all of us.


To give you a sense of history, after winning the Gold Medal in Rome at the 1960 Olympics, Ali had his first professional fight in October 1960.  He was 29-0 when, in 1967, he was suspended from fighting because he refused to step forward when his name was called to be inducted into the US Army (I think it was telling that he actually had the guts to appear at the induction site and physically refuse to move when called forward, making it easier to be arrested).  He had to have gone through hell!  How can a man claim to be a conscientious objector and physically beat men into submission as a calling in life?  Today, I think most people understand the seeming dichotomy, but for many people it took someone like Ali to force contemplation.  There is some evidence that it was because of Ali that Martin Luther King, Jr. started risking the support of LBJ by finally speaking out against Vietnam.  Consider that … if this is true, Muhammad Ali inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.  That’s pretty amazing!

It didn’t end there.  between the time he refused induction, and his conviction on that crime, Ali convened a meeting of African-American leaders in Cleveland, specifically bringing together some great athletes.  That meeting took place 49 years ago today (4 June 1967).


At the table from left to right is Bill Russell, who probably did more than anything to bring racial understanding to Boston by leading the Celtics to 11 NBA Championships, Ali (at the large microphone), next to Ali is Jim Brown the running back who was as outspoken about civil rights and racism as any athlete had been to that point.  At the end of the table was a college kid who had just won the College Player of the Year Award, and was still about two years away from a pro career.  His name at the time was Lew Alcindor, but like Ali, he too would convert to Islam and change his name (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).  Willie Davis the Hall-of-Fame defensive end is in that picture as is Carl Stokes who in a few months would be elected mayor of Cleveland, becoming the first African-American tot be elected mayor of a major (population over 100,000) city in the U.S.  Brown had helped put this together and arranged for the press, but it was Ali who was on trial before the public.  There was tremendous animosity directed toward Ali who was not bearing the label of “un-American” and “un-Patriotic” which still gets thrown around by those who insist on conformity to one definition of those words.  Ali faced the press who dished out on him, and he dished back.

Ali eventually got out of prison, and filed suit to be recognized as a conscientious objector, something that culminated in an unanimous (though apparently contentious) ruling by the Supreme Court in his favor (Clay vs. United States).

After returning to the ring in 1970, Ali went 27-5 for the remainder of his career.  These included some of his most famous matches

  • His first lost to Joe Frazier (The Fight of the Century)
  • The rematch (Ali-Frazier II), which Ali won
  • The Rumble in the Jungle (Ali defeats George Foreman)
  • And for the Filippino followers, the immortal Thrilla in Manilla (Ali defeats Frazier for the second time in three tries).

The last man Ali ever fought (in the not so memorable “Drama in the Bahamas”) was Jamaican boxer Trevor Berbick.  Five years after that 1981 fight, Berbick would win the WBC Heavyweight Title … and lose it just 8 months later to a 20 year old who had been fighting professionally for only 20 months … “Iron” Mike Tyson. There is only that one small degree of separation from the end of Ali’s career and the rise of Tyson.  That too is pretty amazing.

Ali’s life has been an amazing thing to look at.  Putting aside his athletic accomplishments, he forced people to contemplate race in America (can you embrace Ali, and still hate Blacks?).  He also created a maelstrom around religion in America when he converted to Islam, and while there were people who turned their back on him, the way he led his life made it easy for people to understand that Muslim was not synonymous with the devil (a lesson that, sadly, seems to be needed again in this day and age).  To some, he was arrogant (he did practically invent modern trash talking, and some of his antics would be considered way over the top by modern standards).

But for a guy whose IQ was once measured at 78, Ali was a thinker, and he did not allow himself to be pushed around.  In addition to the US Army, he was also careful to not let the Nation of Islam use him too much, retaining an independence from the organization, and eventually leaving it altogether.  Ali was a real master at psychological manipulation, but also knew enough to not use it.  Ali was on a news show leading up to the 1976 election, and when asked who he would vote for, he refused to answer, saying he didn’t know enough about the candidates, and that he didn’t want to influence others.  Could you fathom anyone taking that stance today?

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  It slowed him little, and while many public figures will shield themselves as the disease worsens (I have a great uncle dealing with this now), Ali still made public appearances, and his lighting of the Olympic Cauldron at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta was pretty inspiring.  A lot of people forget that in 2012, the London Olympics afforded him the rare honor of carrying the Olympic flag into the stadium (generally reserved for citizens of the host nation or very high ranking Olympic officials).  He couldn’t do it, but he sat in a special chair near the flag pole, and then briefly touched the flag before it was raised.  I think a lot of us in that condition would have wanted to be out of public view.  Not this guy.

A lot of the reading I did showed that Ali was quietly very charitable.  It seemed to fit with who he was, and it seems that many of his charitable acts were done without cameras around.  In 2006, Cold Spring Harbor, which is a fairly prestigious research lab, began giving out the “Double Helix” prize as part of a fundraising effort to spur money towards biomedical research.  The awards were given for actual scientific work, for corporate work (funding and other support), and for general humanitarian work.  The first recipient that year for humanitarian work was Ali.  Keep in mind that Ali was a devout Muslim, but still was a strong supporter of science and scientific research (something else that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has done).

Before wrapping up, it is important to note that Ali was a human being capable of all the weaknesses of a human.  His second marriage ended because he was having an affair, and in a 1970 article he called for any men and women involved in interracial relations to be killed.  I have no idea how those thoughts changed over time, but it shows that even guys who were kind and charitable in many ways could harbor some problems that got swept under the carpet elsewhere.

Long after becoming the face of those who calmly questioned policy in Vietnam and long after becoming the public face in America of non-violent Muslims, he became the public face of Parkinson’s Disease.  Given the choice of comfort or living by his own standards, he often chose a more difficult path, even if it was the more honest one.

Not exactly an easy life, but one worthy of high respect.


One Response to The Thinking Man’s Champion

  1. Beth says:

    Two tumbs way up! Well written, Tom.
    Sorry I’m late on reading.

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