The Passing Away of the Champ: Muhammad Ali and Me
Muhammad Ali has gone down for the final count. For an entire generation, he was the Champ. Not only was he a great fighter, he was revered by many for his political stance for social justice. The Louisville Lip was more than a showman. Behind his unique sense of performance was a moral compass. I met him once, as described in the following blog I posted in 2011 on the death of Joe Frazier.
The boxing champion Joe Frazier died this week. The youngest of 12 children, the son of poor rural farmers in South Carolina, he persevered to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and held various versions of the heavyweight title from 1968 to 1973. But, he is best remembered as the competitor and foe of Muhammad Ali. Their two major confrontations – the Fight of the Century in 1971 in Madison Square Garden and the Thrilla in Manila in 1975 – were legendary fights, the second considered by experts as one of the greatest fights in history.
Frazier-Ali was more than just a sporting event. Ali, who had refused military service to protest the war in Vietnam and converted to Islam, taunted the blue collar Frazier as an Uncle Tom, the Great White Hope of the Establishment. Their fights were brutal. After the first battle in New York, the victorious Frazier spent three weeks in the hospital. In the Manila fight, Frazier was so battered that his trainer threw in the towel before the last round; his fighter had one eye completely shut. Frazier never responded to Ali’s ridicule, but the divisive politicization of the 1960’s permeated their relationship. They represented two radically separated poles in the United States. Frazier-Ali was not Federer-Nadal.
It was before their first fight that I met Muhammad Ali. Because he had refused military service, he was banned from boxing. Very few people know that during that suspension period he appeared in a Broadway musical called Buck White. I was teaching elementary school in Harlem in 1969 and arranged for my class to attend a preview. What a surprise! First, Ali sang several songs with a high, almost feminine voice. Second, he invited us backstage during the intermission and could not have been more pleasant to me and encouraging to the students about studying and school. The show only ran for seven performances, but one month later on January 18, 1970, Ali sang two of the songs from the show on the popular Ed Sullivan Show. One song he sang, “We Came in Chains,” was about how African-Americans were brought to the United States as slaves. The entire class enjoyed the song. At the end of the school year, I was responsible for preparing the students for an end of year production. Several of the students suggested we use the song. I hesitated for several reasons, but they insisted. One of the problems was copyright. I was able to contact Ali, who was most gracious in allowing us to use the song for the final assembly. At the June ceremony, the entire class of 32 came onto the stage carrying a long rope above their heads symbolizing chains and slavery. When the music started and they began singing, the entire audience rose to their feet to cheer. What a moment!
Ali and Frazier never reconciled their differences. After Frazier’s death, Ali issued a statement saying that “The world has lost a great champion. My sympathy goes out to this family and loved ones.” Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Ali has gained the sympathy and the respect of the American people. He lit the flame at the opening of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He went from being found guilty of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison to being named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. His anti-war, Nation of Islam period has faded into history. But here is one person who has a different memory of the Champ. The death of Frazier brought back Ali’s soft voice singing “We Came in Chains”. Joe Frazier was a warrior, just like Ali. But it is the voice of Ali singing that remains in my memory, not the brutality of their two legendary fights.