Muhammad Ali was the greatest — and it was never enough

Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016

R. McPhedran/Getty Images

Editor’s note: As a kid reporter in Louisville, Ky., Dave Kindred began writing about Muhammad Ali in 1966. He never stopped. He covered 19 Ali fights, including 10 for the heavyweight championship. Here, Kindred (special to FOX Sports) pays homage to the man he spent much of his life covering.

Hang on, Muhammad Ali driving, 1974.

It was a logging road through a forest in the Pennsylvania mountains, and it was dirt and it was full of ruts where water had washed it out, and we were in a big ol’ boat of a Cadillac on the way to talk to kids at a work camp, and we were bouncing up, down, sideways, with trees coming at us because the road never went straight, and all I know about how fast we were going is that the speedometer needle quivered around the number 80 and I thought it was a good time, before it was too late, to ask Ali, “You ever think of dying?”

In his prime, Ali’s mouth ran as fast as his car — even while he was talking about his own mortality.

“You don’t want to die,” Ali said.

Looking over at me.

“But you do,” he said. “The man who built this road is dead. The man who built that house . . .”

Taking a hand off the steering wheel to point out a farm house.

“ . . . is dead. We’re nobody. Sonny Liston is dead. Zora Folley’s dead. Eddie Machen. These are guys I fought. Now Sonny Liston’s rottin’. We ain’t nothin’.”

Preaching now.

“We don’t own nothin’, we just borrow it. When you die, another man moves in and your daughter calls him daddy. Death is the tax a soul has to pay to have a name and a form.”

We don’t own nothin’, we just borrow it. When you die, another man moves in and your daughter calls him daddy. Death is the tax a soul has to pay to have a name and a form.

Muhammad Ali

In full cry.

“So what are we here for? To serve God’s creatures. Ike Williams, Kid Gavilan – they were great fighters and now they need help. I don’t need to hire anybody at my camp, but Ike Williams and Kid Gavilan need help. So I hire them and pay them and talk to them. They were great fighters. Did you ever see Kid Gavilan fight? I’ve got some films of his and . . . ”

We rode down that logging road a lifetime ago, and I can still see Ali at the wheel, and I can hear him still. Once you had been in his presence, he never left you. To call him unique is to praise him faintly, like saying Everest is a hill. His father’s sister, Coretta Clay, came closer when she called him “the Alpha and the Omega,” a phrase out of Revelations, the first and last, the beginning and end. There had never been one like him, there would never be another.  

Ali was perfection personified in the ring, from the time he first won the belt here against Sonny Liston in 1964 and for more than a decade after that.

Ali, quickly: a prizefighter, all silk and all steel, the best of his time, maybe the best of all time. An entertainer and comic, a preacher and politician. He left his mother’s Baptist church for the Nation of Islam, where he walked with Malcolm X. He faced down the U.S. government when it wanted him in prison for refusing induction into its army. Long reviled for good reason, it was for good reason that he became revered. Presidents invited him to the White House. George H.W. Bush sent him on a CIA mission of sorts and Jimmy Carter made him an envoy to Africa. Leonid Brezhnev embraced him at the Kremlin. He traded jokes with the Dalai Lama. He lit the torch opening the 1996 Olympics. Beautiful at rest, breathtaking in motion, Muhammad Ali was as near to living flame as a man can get.

Ali’s life was so rich that any sentence out of that last paragraph could be turned into a book if not a movie or play. Good heavens, 40 years after covering Clay-Liston, Robert Lipsyte wrote an Ali opera. Norman Mailer threw his best stuff at the champ. Budd Schulberg saw him triumphant in defeat. George Plimpton quoted Ali’s shortest poem: “Me! Whee!!” A.J. Leibling saw him at 21 and wrote that he floated like a butterfly. Ali and Marianne Moore collaborated on a poem over lunch, rhyming away Ernie Terrell: “He will get nothing, nothing but hell.” Even Joyce Carol Oates mined Ali’s life for its principles and betrayals, pathos and comedy, hypocrisy and heroism.

Ali mingled with presidents — and was more famous than any of them.

How sad that near the end we saw him only in a wheelchair, diminished, a withered old man with Parkinson’s. A pity that two generations of Americans have come of age without understanding how Ali became Ali. He last fought in 1981 and was last seen around the world at the torch-lighting in Atlanta. Saddest of all, in the time after Atlanta, marketers transformed the stricken Ali into a commodity for sale, sanitized, a Disney version of the Ali who once mattered. Some kind of living saint.

So many young fans knew Ali only as a frail old man. They missed so much.

The Ali who mattered and matters still was no saint.

The Ali who matters told America to go to hell.

You could look it up. February 27, 1964. It was two days after Sonny Liston, shamed by a fighter so superior as to make him look foolish, quit on his corner stool and gave the heavyweight championship to Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., 22 years old, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali.

America then was an angry, dangerous place burning with the tumult of millions of people demanding civil rights as ordered by law, affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1954, and denied in too many places by too many racists. The summer before the Clay-Liston fight, Birmingham police turned fire hoses and dogs on black protesters. In Mississippi, a black activist, Medgar Evers, was shot and killed at his home. In August of ’63, more than 200,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. Eighteen days later, a bomb killed four young black girls at Sunday school in a Birmingham church often used for civil rights meetings.

So, in February of ’64, the new champion heard reporters’ questions about his connection to the Nation of Islam. The Nation was a bizarre sect led by the self-proclaimed Messenger of God, Elijah Muhammad. The sect was known by mainstream Americans, if known at all, as “the Black Muslims.” Its leaders embraced the firebrand revolutionary, Malcolm X, preached hateful rhetoric about “white, blue-eyed devils,” and argued for separation of the races. The Nation demanded that the U.S. provide it with its own nation carved out Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. On that February day, because Malcolm X had been in Clay’s camp and at ringside for the fight, a reporter asked whether Clay was “a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims.”

Ali and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in 1966.

“Card-carrying,’ what does that mean?” Clay said.

From there the press conference disintegrated into badgering questions about Malcolm X, the Nation, civil rights, and integration. The sportswriters made it clear they liked neither the Nation nor Clay. Not only had the new champion aligned himself with separatists when integration was the moral high ground, he came with none of the humility and gratitude that America  expected of its athletes, especially those who were black.

Finally, exasperated by the reporters’ insistence that something was wrong, Clay said, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want.”

There. Two sentences. Whatever came after that day – an epic saga came after that day – its foundation was Ali’s 18-word rendering of a complex idea. Though he lived in a society that oppressed black people, he would not give away his right to the life of his choice. On that day he foreshadowed a coming generation of African-Americans: black and proud of it. The comedian and civil rights activist, Dick Gregory, told the Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, “He lived a lot of lives for a lot of people. And he was able to tell white folks for us to go to hell.”

That Ali was no saint.

Mark Kram knew it. Sports Illustrated’s man on Ali for a decade once put it harshly to me: “How can people consider Ali a historic figure from the 1960s? He wasn’t for civil rights; he was for separation of the races. He wasn’t for women’s rights; he treated them like second-class call girls. He was never really against the war; he was told not to go by Elijah Muhammad because it would be a PR disaster for the Muslims. These were the hot issues of the ’60s, and he was on the wrong side of history in all of them. Yet people today somehow think Ali belongs right next to Martin Luther King. Why isn’t it enough for people that Ali was the greatest fighter ever?”

Why isn’t it enough for people that Ali was the greatest fighter ever?

Mark Kram, longtime Sports Illustrated writer

The Ali who was no saint came with a streak of cruelty. He demeaned opponents – especially those he feared the most, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton – with language that was contemptible. In his earlier days as champion, he punished lesser fighters in the ring – Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell – because they refused to respect his ties to the Nation of Islam.

In 1967, after his arrest for refusing the draft, he was stripped of the heavyweight championship along with his license to fight. In ’68 Ali did an extraordinary interview with Julius Lester of New York’s WBAI, a small, listener-supported radio station. It was Ali preaching the Nation’s separatist rhetoric at full volume. In my dual biography of Ali and Howard Cosell, I reported the interview in full and called it “part sermon, part harangue, and part sociological claptrap (that) began with a commentary on money and respect, moved to the brainwashing of the public that he saw as self-evident in the naming of angel food and devil’s food cake (one’s white, the other dark, see?) and ended with a diatribe in opposition to interracial marriage.”

Ali tormented Joe Frazier and so many of his other opponents.

The Ali who bought into the Nation’s voodoo theology was ugly, and yet there is no denying the appeal of a character whose glittering personality comes with a dark edge; as Hauser has written, that duality helps explain Ali’s impact:  he “so enthralled and enraged segments of American society.” It’s also true that if we set aside the nonsense in the Lester interview, there is lasting value in hearing Ali on Ali: “And I’m proud to say that I am the first man in the history of all America, athlete and entertainer-wise, who gave up all the white man’s money, looked the white man in the eye, and told him the truth, and stayed with his people. I’m just so happy. I go to bed happy, I wake up happy, and I’ll go to jail for 10 years happy. And it’ll always be said, ‘There’s one that didn’t compromise.’ ”

After Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, Ali left the Nation to practice true Islam. America had become a different place. It was done with the riotous ’60s and the war in Vietnam. So had Ali changed – or, in the minds of many, he allowed himself to be seen as the sweet-hearted person he had always been beneath the schtick. Had he hated the “white, blue-eyed devils”? His trainer for 20 years, Angelo Dundee, was white. His business manager for 35 years, Gene Kilroy, was white. The vast majority of reporters were white, and he asked us all, when we thought to rest our note-taking hand during yet another comic soliloquy, “You getting’ this down? This is heavy, man.”

Mark Kram asked: Isn’t it enough that he was the greatest fighter ever?

No, it’s not.

This is enough:

The most famous man in the world said no to war at the risk of imprisonment by the most powerful nation on earth. It didn’t matter how he came to that decision. It mattered only that he risked his future on it. He never wavered, and he gave heart to millions of ordinary citizens who thought that war was as unwise as it was unjust. He was on the right side of history.

The most famous man in the world said no to war at the risk of imprisonment by the most powerful nation on earth. It didn’t matter how he came to that decision. It mattered only that he risked his future on it. He never wavered, and he gave heart to millions of ordinary citizens who thought that war was as unwise as it was unjust. He was on the right side of history.

Dave Kindred

The most famous man in the world was a black man from Louisville, Ky., who raised his chin a zillion times to shout, “I am the greatest!” It didn’t matter if he had come down with the all-time champion case of runaway narcissism. He believed he was the greatest, he lived it, and he gave voice to millions of people who had been told, taught, and otherwise commanded to be silent. The right side of history, again.

Name anyone else who did all that and did it while being the greatest athlete I ever saw or ever will see. He was 6-foot-3, 210 pounds at his best, working with a body that Michelangelo would have loved. Ali’s most famous victories – over Foreman in Zaire, over Frazier in Manila – were testimony to his preternatural instincts, a craftsman’s mastery of the game and the indomitable courage of a warrior.

I was in his hotel room the morning after he opened the Atlanta Olympics. He had had trouble, his hands and arms trembling as he struggled with the torch. For one scary moment, the fire in his hands licked back toward him.

“It wouldn’t catch,” Ali said. His torch would not light the device that was then to zip up a wire to the cauldron in the night sky. “I looked around.” No help up there. “Then I puffed on it.” He pantomimed an exhalation. “The whole world is watching.” Now laughing, his eyes an imp’s. “Three billion people, and I look like a fool.” He said he felt the fire’s heat against his wrist. Then, finally, it caught.  “Whoosh!”

From his last fight in 1981 until that night in Atlanta, Ali had all but disappeared from public view. He had been so long gone that his appearance caused a fan to ask if he could meet Ali. When Clay beat Liston in 1964, Bill Clinton was 17 years old, a junior in an Arkansas high school. On this night, President Clinton came down from his suite to a private room under the stadium. There he put his hands on Ali’s shoulders and said, “They didn’t tell me who would light the flame. But when I saw it was you, I cried.”

Besides his extensive coverage of Ali’s fights, Dave Kindred is also the author of "Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship," a dual biography of Ali and Howard Cosell.