I was only ten years old but I got it. Here was Joe Frazier, who represented all that was good for colored folks. Work hard in this America, stay out of trouble, and this is what you can achieve. Olympic Gold. The undisputed World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. The respect of the community that knew no boundaries neither black or white. His opponent was Cassius Clay, as some contemptuously continued to call him, aka Muhammad Ali, the single most polarizing human force in American history. The Olympic champion who has turned his back on Americans by disavowing his allegiance to this country by symbolically throwing his gold medal into the river. Who had steadfastly refused induction into the United States Army. Stripped of his championship and with incarceration pending, broke yet unrelenting, Ali represented the athletic version of the social and civil war that was sweeping across an America that would struggle mightily to get through a decade marked by political assassinations that often, somehow, took place right in our living rooms live on television. He represented those who felt oppressed, and had begun to believe they had a right to voice loudly their dissent, and lack of further capitulation to a social system which guaranteed and endorsed racism, he was the icon of the darkened souls yet enlightened minds who screamed of the need for change in America. Television had make him a hero for those who dreamed of equality, he said loudly what so many black Americans had been terrified to say. “I am here. I’m a man. I’m black and I am to be respected.” He was divisive yet compelling and a quote machine previously unseen in this new world of TV sports and social commentators and sports columnists both clung to his every word. He was unyielding. He was consistent in his message under the considerable daily barrage of death threats and pressure to perform at the highest level as he plied his craft with a target on his back no one besides Ali himself would ever bear or feel or know it’s weight.
How I knew all this at ten you wonder. It was palpable. Ali exploded daily in our world of 1971. His impact and appeal to the black community infected our homes and familial relationships. We’ve all watched that scene in “Coming to America” where they argue fiercely over his name alone. There is no way to minimize what his embracing of the Nation of Islam publicly in the aftermath of his KO of Sonny Liston did to black America. We stood taller. Whether Muslims or not, our backs began to straighten out and our shoulders got stronger as the toughest, most recognized black man in the world symbolically said “Fuck You” to the world.
So, on that night in New York City when Ali and Frazier faced off with two disparate worlds upon their shoulders, I was riveted like every one else whose interest was sports was periphial or addictive not at all. This was not a sporting event. This was two worlds colliding. Frazier would win. A thunderous left hook would carry him to a win, setting off a trilogy of title fights that still stand unmatched. That would not be the story. The imprint forever left indelibly upon the world be that of Muhammad Ali and his indomitable spirit, further marked by vicious battles with Ken Norton, George Foreman and the greatest heavyweights of any era.
Divisive? I said it early on. He was the flag bearer for an emergent Black Muslim community in America that divided the black neighborhood like nothing ever before. Vilified for their separatist statements and in some homes unspeakable, the Nation of Islam was validated across America by the presence of Muhammad Ali. His greatness and unwillingness to back away from his religious belief gave credence to this “new” rebellious approach to civil reform of the black community. In 1970, my sister would marry a member of the Nation of Islam. I will never forget the level of disdain my family would voice. “Who does he think he is, Cassius Clay?” Family members would deliberately serve pork in his presence as a means of showing their contempt for the NO and this sentiment wasn’t unique to my home it was generational and in the black community a constantly simmering battle of philosophy and lifestyle. Muhammad Ali was changing the world we lived in, and he and I both knew it.
Sometimes he looked tired. It was clear that he knew just who he was and what he meant to so many millions of people. But he was also Superman and could morph into his cape and costume at a moments notice. There can never be another Muhammad Ali. I knew this at ten years old and I am ever more sure today. He created pay per view. He created the fight promo. From Hulk Hogan to Floyd Mayweather Jr., when you hear a fighter talking smack into a microphone selling tickets and imploring you to buy tickets to their event they are just doing their best Ali impersonation. Every performer who cashed a check from WWE, UFC, MMA and professional boxing over the past 40 years owes the zeroes on that check to Ali. Muhammad Ali has left this world at age 74. He will never die. Legends don’t die. He was larger than life. He will grow even larger in death. Ali will always be the only man deserving of being called “The Champ”…. I knew that at ten. I know it today. He was the Greatest of All Time. Forever undefeated. Muhammad Ali.