Muhammad Ali changed the face of athletes
(Part Two...to read part one, please click here)
Cassius Clay did not just throw out his name after he beat Sonny Liston. At a press conference two days after the fight, Cassius X started reshaping the world.
“I know where I'm going, and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be,” he told reporters. “I'm free to be what I want to be.”
Free to be what he wanted to be.
No athlete, especially a black one, had made a proclamation like that. It has echoed for 50 years now, since Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion. He briefly became Cassius X before taking the most famous name in sports history.
His last fight was 33 years ago. Promoters, fighters and the U.S. government itself could never silence him, but Parkinson's disease has.
People born after Ali retired know him only as one of the most admired people on earth. If you're older, you remember Ali being one of the most despised.
“It was hate,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. “People reviled him in large numbers.”
Love or hate, that kind of stature requires being in the right place at the right time. Welcome to American in the 1960s.
The Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War became moral crusades. But having the right place and time wouldn't have mattered without the right person.
Ali came to symbolize both movements. The evolution began with the heavyweight fight in Miami. Much of America's establishment longed to see the lippy 22-year-old who hung out with the Nation of Islam have his mouth slammed shut.
“Liston used to be a hoodlum; now he was our cop,” Murray Kempton wrote in the New Republic. “He was the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line and he was just waiting until his boss told him it was time to throw this kid out.”
It could not have been mere coincidence that the Beatles showed up at 5th Street Gym. Fresh off their “Ed Sullivan Show’ appearance, they put on gloves and playfully posed for pictures with Clay.
The times were a-changing, and John, Paul, George, Ringo and Cassius would shape the coming revolutions. Though as the cameras clicked that day, John Lennon did not have much faith in his fellow traveler.
“The other guy's going to win,” he told the promoter.
The 7-1 favorite couldn't answer the bell for the seventh round. Then Ali took the stage and all bets were off.
Athletes were to be seen and cheered, but not necessarily heard. Jack Johnson won the heavyweight championship in 1908, taunted his white opponents, married three white women and ended up in jail. Another black was not allowed to even fight for the title until Joe Louis in 1937.
Jackie Robinson came along 10 years later. For all he endured, however, baseball's color barrier would have crumbled without him.
“If Jackie Robinson hadn't come along, somebody else would have integrated Major League Baseball. Whether it was Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Roy Campanella,” Ali biographer Thomas Hauser said. “If Jack Johnson hadn't come along, some black man would have become heavyweight champion of the world.”
The times were such that if Ali hadn't come along, some athlete would have become politically active. But they would not have had a platform like Ali. He was heavyweight champion of the world, after all.
He was also Ali.
“He was the first athlete to go off at the mouth,” Hauser said.
Richard Sherman can trace his boisterous lineage back to the Louisville Lip. Before Ali, athletes were one-dimensional heroes who didn't dance in end zones or wear mink coats or basked openly in their bling. But he didn't must make the world safe for Deion Sanders.
“Ali's influence was much greater in terms of awakening the black consciousness and making black people feel good about being black,” Hauser said.
Ali was the first athlete to challenge American society. Before long, Bill Russell was decrying racism in Boston. Jim Brown started the Black Economic Union. Lew Alcindor was publicly questioning his role in society.
All of them were labeled, but none paid the price like Ali. He completely threw in with the Nation of Islam, whose leader, Elijah Muhammad, accused whites of genocide.
Ali echoed those teachings. And when he said religious objections prevented him from joining the Army and going to Vietnam, he risked far more than a few endorsements.
He was stripped of his title as the courts debated his conscientious objector status. Unable to box for four of his prime years, Ali spread his activist message on campuses and in synagogues.
“He was out front and publicly took on issues people were afraid to talk about,” Lapchick said.
It's hard to say when the hate started to dissolve. But when he returned to the ring, people were reminded why they were drawn to him in the first place. Nobody could box and entertain like Ali.
Americans saw his playful verbal sparring with Howard Cosell. They saw the epic battles against Joe Frazier, culminating with the Thrilla in Manila.
There was the Liston-like upset of George Foreman in Zaire. Leon Spinks made him look old, but Ali returned to win the heavyweight title for the third time.
Along the way, sentiment changed about the Vietnam War. Ali's defiance now looked like a principled stand. He had his flaws and many never agreed with his convictions. But there was no doubt Ali had risked everything to follow them.
Lapchick met Ali in 1979 when was working at the United Nations. Ali was more an icon than a boxer by then, and Lapchick recruited him to give a speech to the General Assembly. The vast hall was packed as Ali started reading the speech Lapchick had written.
About two sentences in, Ali veered off course. He started talking about how the U.N. was a failed institution that needed to be replaced for the good of mankind.
“He was typical Ali in terms of talking from his heart,” Lapchick said.
The diplomats from around the world still admired him, as did the people they represented. The odd thing was Ali, who'd declared himself “The Greatest” for decades, didn't comprehend his impact.
In the early 1990s, PBS did a documentary series on prominent African-Americans. It wanted to do a program on Ali and sent him tapes of episodes that had been finished.
Hauser was working on the book, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.” Together they watched episodes on Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Andrew Young and others.
“What did I do that they want me in this series?” Ali asked.
If he didn't get it then, it had to be clear on a July night in 1996. It was the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics, and a quivering figure appeared at the top of the stadium. The world cheered as Ali slowly lit the cauldron.
He'd won the gold medal in 1960 as light-heavyweight, but said he threw it in the Ohio River after being refused service at a restaurant and harassed by a white motorcycle gang. The story is probably myth, but Ali's Olympic appearance symbolized the completion of a circle.
So much had changed since he was an 18-year-old in Rome. The anti-hero had become everyone's hero. In his quest to be free to be what he wanted to be, Ali became the most influential figure on earth.
“The only person in his league was Nelson Mandela,” Lapchick said.
He once even told that to Mandela, who quickly settled the issue.
“These days,” he said. “I'd give it to Ali.”