I never met Muhammad Ali. My friend Richard told of seeing him on the street in New York City, sometime in the 1990s, instantly drawing a crowd around him, doing magic tricks, silently drinking in the presence of people as they basked in the unmistakable aura that surrounded The Greatest.
But we grew up together, my awakening coming at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, watching this incredibly fast, slick light-heavyweight capture all the attention. He came back home and began his career, taking on heavyweights, dispatching them with ease, but angering many with his persona, calling the round, rhyming couplets and backing them up. Not me. He had me from the beginning.
No, I never met him. Closest I’ve come has been to hold the Oscar that Leon Gast won for his film When We Were Kings, an amazing portrait of a man who grew up in the public eye, who had been loved, then vilified, but stood incredibly true to his own beliefs and paid the price without flinching. And his beliefs, that he had ‘no quarrel with them Viet Cong…,’ that basic inequality in America had to be addressed, were my beliefs, too. Could I have stood up, like him? Don’t know, didn’t have to, but he stood up for all of us.
Leon Gast is upset. He’ll be going to the funeral.
He says, “It’s sad, but he was not in very good shape, and the last time I saw him he couldn’t move, or lift a finger. I had seen him about eight months ago and he kind of responded and Lonnie (Ali’s wife) just said talk right into his ear.
It opened up so much in my life, having him, not as a reference, just that I knew him and could speak first hand about experiences I had with him. Just the mention of his name…what it did was it just opened up my world. It made everything so much easier.
I can’t say anything more than I knew Muhammad Ali. We were friends.
I had a great relationship with his family. I still have a great relationship with Lonnie. So I’ll be at the funeral and coming back on Saturday
I’ve heard from a number of people that they’ve watched the film again and just thought it captured Ali. He meant everything to me.”
All those fights, Heavyweight Championships, on regular TV, some even on late Saturday afternoons. I remember desperately rooting for him the night Earnie Shavers nearly separated him from his senses, but the Champ held on and won the decision, and I held up the music at the Watering Troff that we were scheduled to play, until the fight was over and Ali was home free. Zaire, Thrilla in Manila, Norton in Yankee Stadium…having been a boxing writer for a time, there was nothing like reveling in the Ali story. Even down to the end, the last fights, being stopped by his former sparring partner, Larry Holmes, whose training camp I had visited, the story grew, the integrity of the man rose.
Geddy, our publisher, wrote:
Passage For Muhammad Ali
To those of us who grew up in the Greenwich Village culture of the Sixties, Muhammad Ali was a cultural hero in the same class as John Lennon, Allen Ginsberg, Billie Holiday, Bobby Kennedy, Ravi Shankar, Marshall McLuhan, Martin Luther King, Tim Leary, Norman Mailer and Charlie Parker. Crackling with intensity and intelligence, he was endlessly articulate in fighting personal, social and racial injustice.
The gap between today’s tech-oriented hipster generation and its establishment doesn’t hold a candle compared to the chasm that separated the conservative business generation and the rebellious young in the Sixties. But Ali chose not to move to a commune or smoke grass on an urban street. While most of his generation avoided the Vietnam War through physical, psychological and occupational deferments, Ali, rather than flee to Canada, stood up face to face for his beliefs, refused induction, was stripped of his title, convicted of draft dodging and unable to practice his profession for three years until rescued by the Supreme Court.
Younger generations have little idea of the famous fighter he really was. We of his generation honor Muhammad Ali’s memory. He was one of a kind, a credit to the human race. He was the greatest.
Then there he was. The most famous person in the world. Not just athlete, but person. Finally, when he could barely talk anymore and all the nimble was gone from his feet, he was there, helping make peace in the world; he was in Atlanta at the ‘96 Olympics, fearlessly shaking with Parkinson’s as he lit the torch; commanding any room with his presence. His final acts were so far removed from his earlier ones, yet perhaps more impactful for all that had gone before.
It’s no surprise that he’s passed on now. All of our icons do, as do we. It’s kind of remarkable that he lasted as long as he did. But then that’s Ali, defying expectations, continuing silently on his journey, sustained by the love that he gets and gives.
Rest in peace, Champ. You earned it.