Saturday, June 04, 2016

Losing Muhammad Ali

One of the final photos taken of
Muhammad Ali (Copyright © Zenon Texeira)
One of the greatest champions has left us. After a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016), has passed in a Phoenix hospital yesterday. I won't attempt a full eulogy, but I want to praise and honor his courage, vision, outspokenness, artistry, and humanitarianism.

The three-time (1964, 1974, 1978) heavyweight boxing champion and Louisville, Kentucky native was a man of great self-conviction, with a razor wit and gift for self-promotion that struck some as arrogance. Yet he knew what he could do, and when still young he predicted that he would be the greatest boxer ever, eventually living up to that prediction, with one of his early triumphs coming in the form of a gold medal in the light heavyweight category at the 1960 Olympics in Melbourne.

With his victories on a steady roll, in 1963, at age 22, he defeated Sonny Liston, and became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Shortly thereafter Ali joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., and became not just a devout Muslim, but a powerful advocacy for Black equality and liberation at a time when many of his peers would not speak out.

One of his bravest acts came when he chose not to go to Vietnam to fight in one America's many misguided imperial wars, stating, "I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger." He was barred from boxing in nearly every state, lost his passport, and was eventually convicted of refusing to report for the draft, receiving a fire-year prison sentence and fine. Despite harsh criticism from his enemies and attempts by fellow black athletes to get him to play along, he refused. As a result att the height of his powers he lost vital years from his career, but he never looked back. 

When he returned to boxing, he showed not just the skill he had been known for, but grit and determination, as well as a gift for drama that made watching his matches thrilling. In the process he and his peers helped to elevate boxing once again to the world stage. I vividly recall the excitement surrounding the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle," in Kinshasa, Zaire ("Ali, Ali boma ye"!), in which Ali knocked out the undefeated heavyweight George Foreman, and "The Thrilla in Manila" in 1975, the latter of which marked the beginning of the end of his remarkable career in the ring. 

Ali's post-boxing years included global outreach with the aim of connecting people across the globe; devotion to his faith, friends, family, and fans; and service as an international spokesperson for the very best that athletic competition might represent. Though despised by some in his youth, he was in the last portion of his life widely admired and loved.  I, like so many, will miss his presence, and I am glad he is no longer suffering. His model and spirit will long live on.
Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay (left), and his brother Rahman
Ali, then Rudy Clay (right), walk with their great-grandmother
Betsy Jane Greathouse (center), who was 99
when this picture was taken in 1963
in Louisville. (Credit: Charles Fentress Jr., 
The Courier-Journal, USA TODAY Sports)
Muhammad Ali, world heavyweight boxing champion,
stands with Malcolm X (left) outside
the Trans-Lux Newsreel Theater in New York in 1964.                          
Muhammad Ali, after his 1965 knockout
of Sonny Liston (Wikipedia)
Ali's skyline punch, New York City
Rumble in the Jungle poster,
1974 (Wikipedia)
Muhammad Ali lighting the flame at the opening
ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
(Photo by Fairfax photographer Vince Caligiuri)
Muhammad Ali with Michael Manley,
the Prime Minister of Jamaica, and
an unidentified child in 1974
(Michael Manley Foundation)

Muhammad Ali and his beloved fourth
wife, Lonnie

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