Appreciating Ali wasn’t always easy for me. Media portrayal of the man didn’t make it easier.
As a young, impressionable, eldest-son-type, I was all ears when my father yelled “why don’t you turn your hat around like ‘The Mick’?” at the television as though Ken Griffey, Jr., could hear him. Here in 2016, following trashy tell-all books and perjury in front of congress all recognize Junior as being ‘one of the good ones’ in comparison to his ‘roid-raging contemporaries.
Which is as good a segue as any into race’s role in my late-come appreciation for Muhammad Ali.
I can say without a doubt that racism played a role in my snarling ‘what else is on?’ anytime a channel surf churned up a clip of The Louisville Lip.
I’ve spent the better part of a half-decade in Chicago, the most segregated city in the nation with the starkest divide between the haves and have-nots to match. There are millions of people here without a voice. Maybe that’s why things have tap-danced along the tipping point over the past few years.
When no one hears your indoor voice, the first chance you get, you’re going to scream.
That’s probably behind Ali’s relentless non-stop jibber-jabber, not all of it constructive, but almost at all times playful if not off-putting. So let’s say you move past the talk –you get over it– and can just appreciate the man for being one of the most brilliant boxers of all-time. And now let’s take it one step further to the thing that really turned me around on Ali.
At the summit of his talent, and in the prime of his existence, he forfeited his lucrative career when he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. His reasoning was sound:
I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.
When my father summons Yankee Stadium in his mind he pictures a broken down Mickey Mantle, June ’66, hobbling out to first base to sweat out a hangover. But when I picture Yankee Stadium, I clearly recollect watching Ken Griffey Jr. (gasp, not a Yankee) smash one off the right field foul pole.
An athlete wearing his hat backwards or talking endless trash is no longer passé. And with Ali we had a man who made his fortune on violence and pizzazz that took the low-income road of humility. The butterfly over the bee. He found fighting for his beliefs to be more important than fighting for money. I suppose that’s something we can all appreciate.
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