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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Greatest

"I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong.  No Vietcong ever called me Nigger."

The Greatest.  The Champ.  The Louisville Lip.
Photo by Ira Rosenberg, World Journal Tribune, 1967.

My mild-mannered, quiet and shy, Walter Mittyish dad was full of contradictions. It wasn't until I was an adult that I found out he had done some spy work for the Army in WWII while stationed in Greece.  For a man who would more likely get hurt avoiding a confrontation than getting into one, he LOVED boxing.  Unable to get his fix with televised U.S. events, he bought an enormous antenna and watched whatever events he could from the Mexican stations we had access to in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles County.  Those typically bored me, especially with the bad reception, but there was one boxer that had me glued to the set - Cassius Clay, who became better known as Muhammed Ali.

His unorthodox style was apparent, even to a kid.  I loved "rope-a-dope", and his trademark line "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee".  I liked the way he would "trash talk" his opponents, and his silly poetry.  He was an entertainer as well as a boxer.  He never disappointed as either.

Ali on a bridge overlooking the Chicago River, 1966, Magnum Photos.

Years later, having succumbed to the charms of boys, fashion, and the British Invasion, I lost interest in pretty much everything else.  But I was sharply brought back to the present when my guy - Ali - was arrested for evading the draft.  A boxer not willing to fight?  What was he afraid of?  I credit Ali for opening up my eyes to what was really going on in the world, and not accepting the blather that was the official line of the news media and most political pundits.  

Viet Nam did that to many of us, I think.  But here was a guy who was willing to give up all that he had worked for - he was stripped of his boxing title and his license was suspended - and was benched for four years until his successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  A man who won 56 out of his 61 fights, 37 by KO, fought to follow his conscience.  That was a big lesson for me.

Aside from this special issue, Sports Illustrated awarded Ali
"Sportsman of the Year" in 1974.

In 1964, Ali was not qualified to enter the U.S. Armed Forces because his writing and spelling skills were found to be below par.  In '66, the tests were revised and Ali passed and was classified 1A, eligible for the draft.  When notified of the reclassification, Ali stated he would refuse to serve and publicly announced that he was a conscientious objector (CO).

The requirements to be classified as a CO are basically three:  one must show that s/he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form; s/he must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief; and s/he must show that this objection is sincere.  When reviewing these requirements, the Selective Service System must limit their concern to the individual, and not their interpretation of the dogma of the religious sect.  

Ali in the Feb. 2011 GQ issue devoted to the 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time.

When Ali's application to be classified a CO was rejected by his local draft board, he made an administrative appeal.  The State Appeal Board referred his file to the DOJ for an advisory recommendation, and the FBI conducted an inquiry, as required by statute.  The FBI interviewed 35 people, including family members, friends, neighbors, business and religious associates.  A hearing was then held, and the hearing officer, a retired judge, heard testimony from Ali, both his parents, an attorney, and his minister, and read a full report from the FBI.  He concluded that Ali was sincere and recommended that the CO claim be honored.

The DOJ wrote the Appeal Board stating that the claim should be denied, which the Board did without stating the reasons.  There are other issues at stake here, but the one that merited the Supreme Court's reversal was the fact that Ali was not given a reason for denial of his application to be considered a CO.  Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, was decided unanimously on June 28, 1971.

Poster for the 1996 Academy Award winning documentary
about the Rumble in the Jungle.

While he did not serve prison time, he did lose four prime fighting years.  He was also bitterly attacked in the press, as he became a symbol of opposition to the war and a lightning rod for hawks.  Many thought his conversion to being a Black Muslim was a gimmick, but evidence exists that he became one prior to his announcement.  Ironically, during this time he began lecturing on college campuses - the man who was deemed below Army standards.  He became a global celebrity, and his career either coincided with or made the "golden age of boxing." Jack Dempsey once said, "He brought back boxing.  It was dying, and he brought it back."

Since his retirement, he has devoted much of his time to philanthropy.  In 1984, he announced that he has Parkinson's disease, and has been involved in raising funds for the Muhammed Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix.  He has also supported the Special Olympics and Make a Wish Foundation, among other organizations.

Ali's gloves are part of a collection of his paraphenalia in the Smithsonian.
Photo courtesy of Mark Pelligrini/Wikipedia.

The three-time world heavyweight boxing champion will be on hand later this month at the unveiling of an art installation dedicated to him.  Artist Michael Kalish, aptly another personality with a flair for hype and public relations, has been working on a piece entitled "reALIze", in connection with architectural firm Oyler Wu.  Using five miles of stainless steel cable, 2,500 pounds of aluminum pipe, and 1,300 punching bags, Kalish is creating an unusual portrait of Ali.  His face can only be seen from one vantage point, but the piece is amazing nonetheless.  It will be on view in Los Angeles from March 25 through April 9 at the L.A. Nokia Plaza.  Ali will be at the unveiling handing the final bag to be hung.

All four photos by Dwayne Oyler.

Muhammed Ali doesn't know, and probably never will, the effect he had on a middle-class white girl.  Decades later he is still an inspiration, a role model, and simply The Greatest.


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