That list of great independent people we have lost in 2016 continues to grow. To names such as David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and Prince we now must add Muhammad Ali, the man who dubbed himself, “The Greatest’ and was for several decades regarded as the most known and recognized person in the world. The news broadcasts and print media have all been reliving for us the days of the mid-1960’s when this heavyweight boxer became front page news by reciting rhymes and poetry, earning himself the nickname, “The Louisville Lip,” going undefeated in his first 19 professional bouts, defeating the heavily favored Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship in 1964, and then joining the Nation of Islam changing his name, refusing the US Military draft. and becoming an important symbol of that time period we now just call, “The 60’s.” It all started innocently enough on February 25, 1964 in the first fight between the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and the brash 22 year old who was at that time named Cassius Marcellus Clay. Looking back on it now, we can see that something shifted that February night in 1964, and that fight became symbolic of so many other changes that were going on at the time.
Heavyweight championship fights at that time were often symbolic and metaphorical; they were about much more than just boxing. Bouts and boxers had long stood for many important things to many people. They represented forums on ethnic pride and social standing, nationalism of one sort or another, points of view of the world, your people’s place in society, political views and more. Liston, who at any other time in US history would have been feared and hated, was embraced by much of establishment America as the favorite; a steady, valiant warrior of the “Old School’ standing against this young “New Generation” upstart who, like the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, talked too much, didn’t respect tradition, and didn’t know his place. Remember, the country was in the midst of an identity crisis at the time. It had experienced some major shocks to its national psyche. The Berlin Wall was up, and the fears from the Cuban Missie Crisis were still very real. Viet Nam was starting to make headlines, and unease about that was starting. The fight happened just four months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the televised killing of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The fight also happened just 7 months after the March on Washington and 6 months after the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black children. The country was in the midst of the Civil Rights and Anti-War Eras, and for many Americans, this fight was a commentary on that. I was 13 at the time, and I was 100% behind Clay. I loved his youth, his outspokenness, his energy, his newness, and the fact that people did not know what to make of him. He didn’t fit any molds. When Clay defeated Liston, I was happy; youth and newness had won out. But unbeknownst to me at the time, much more was going on. His victory was yet another indication that things were seriously changing, shifting in ways we could little imagine or predict. We as a nation and culture were in a new place. We were not prepared for all of the places that change took us, and all of it was not pretty. But it was inevitable and necessary- roles for and relationships between different peoples and institutions simply had to change.It was time.
The Louisville Lip would continue to represent change, brashness and newness. He changed his name several times, becoming Cassius X when he joined the Nation of Islam, and then Muhammad Ali. He challenged orthodoxy and the established order again when he resisted the US military draft in 1966, like so many others, and had his championship title stripped from him before court action restored it in 1971. He had memorable fights against Joe Frazier and others and was the only person to win the heavyweight championship three different times, making a case for himself as the greatest fighter of all time. He spoke out loudly against the Viet Nam War, saying, “Ain’t no Viet Cong ever beat me with a billy cub trying to stop me from voting.” He became the most recognized name and face in the entire world. As he aged and his Parkinson's became readily apparent he nonetheless continued to take public stands on things that were important to him. He spoke out for peace rather than violence. He supported global hunger relief programs, the Special Olympics, increased educational opportunity for underprivileged kids and more. He was that rare celebrity-someone who seemed to always be himself and a symbol simultaneously. He was someone who stood both firmly inside and outside of history, and I, for one, am so glad he was with us for as long as he was. Thanks, Muhammad. You wore both your celebrity and your causes with ease, humor, class, devotion and dignity. We owe you a huge debt.