R.I.P. Mohammed Ali

young mohammed aliAs someone who probably never in her life watched more than a few seconds of a professional prizefight, I found myself reading a great deal about Mohammed Ali who died earlier this month at 74. And I marveled as I mused about the transformation, not of the former Cassius Clay who was pretty much true to himself throughout his life, but of the American public that he dragged along into acceptance – sometimes grudgingly – of individuals’ differences and their right to pursue them. In the process, he moved from the self-described Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) fighter to a goodwill ambassador beloved by people around the world.

As a young man, he was brash and mouthy – and as Richard Hoffer writes in the sports illustrated coverJune 13 issue of Sports Illustrated, “promoted himself unabashedly” –  but as he said himself in a 1964 article re-printed in the magazine, “I said I am the greatest…If I didn’t say it, there was nobody going to say it for me. And pretty soon other people were saying I’m the greatest, and I said, “Didn’t I tell you so in the first place?”

(Sort of reminds you of someone currently on today’s scene, doesn’t it?  But Mohammed Ali was way more principled.)

ali with torch

I remember holding my breath with most of the world as Ali, by then silenced and debilitated by Parkinsons, made his torturous climb up the stairs with the torch in trembling hands to light the flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. “The disease,” Hoffer writes, “even if it was a predictable result of so much punishment in the ring, was a cruel coda to a career built on the beautification of an ugly sport.”

And that is why I agree with George Skelton in the Los Angeles Times who writes, “There’s no question that repeated blows to the head can damage the brain. It’s why football, hockey and baseball players wear helmets. So do amateur boxers, but not pros. In other sports, head injuries occur by accident. In boxing, it’s the whole purpose.”

So I am not a fan. And it has nothing to do with the one and only fistfight of my own life.

It was probably fifth grade: there was a threat, a challenge, boys and girls egging us on until a time and place for a confrontation was set. Then the ringside enablers formed a circle around the two of us. She was small and wiry and had older brothers; I was skinny and gangly and took ballet lessons. Punches were thrown and her nose got broken. I guess it was the sight of blood that caused everyone to scatter. Her mother must have called my father (I sure wasn’t going to volunteer the information to him) and soon we were all seated on the girl’s front porch: the two combatants, her mother, my father. And we talked and apologized. And then my father took the two of us out for ice cream.

I used to say he was probably scared he was going to get sued, not that the times were as litigious back then. But in truth he was probably terrified, a young widower raising two children alone and wondering what horror he was going to deal with now. Perhaps, to his mind, there were other horrors along the way, but at least I never had another fistfight. And I continue to this day to be embarrassed about it.

Photos:  history.com, si.com, wsbtv.com