On a recent Friday evening, the news broadcast I was watching was interrupted by an announcement: “Muhammad Ali, prize fighter, peace maker and a person who was bigger than life, has left us.”
I walked away from the television and picked up a book from the shelf; the title was Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. I opened the book and read, “Best wishes, Muhammad Ali.” I had purchased it at what was then Cody’s Books in Berkeley one memorable night when Ali visited the area to launch his biography.
Now, my mind was flooded with memories about boxing and the amazing person who had just left us. I recalled going with my father and some neighbors to watch a Gillette Cavalcade of Sports boxing match on television. We did not have a TV in our home at that time, prior to 1960.
I also remembered a group of us cramming into a closet at the seminary to listen to the Cassius Clay become the heavyweight champion of the world by defeating Sonny Liston in 1963. We had to huddle in the closed because the seminary rules did not allow us to listen to the radio.
And there was the time that Ali lost his boxing license after refusing to participate in the Vietnam War. He famously said, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong.”
I went to Chicago’s Navy Pier to watch him train after that ban was lifted. I also watched him in theaters, which had showed pay-for-view matches in those days, and gathered in friends’ homes to watch him on TV toward the end of his career.
I looked again at the signature in my book. It was on a piece of paper placed there by Ali, not signed by his hand. Even then, the Parkinson’s that eventually took his life did not permit him to sign his name.
As I went to sleep that Friday night, familiar phrases such as “float like a butterfly,” “sting like a bee,” and “you can’t hit what you can’t see” wafted through my mind.
Today I remain grateful for the life of a man who transcended boxing. He was a man of courage, heart, and conviction. This grandson of a slave refused to be a “white man’s Negro.” Through unimaginable contests—including the Thrilla in Manila in the Philippines, and the Rumble in the Jungle in Africa—boxing introduced this remarkable person to the world. As a result, we came to know and revere a man of spiritual greatness, and true American hero.
Thank you, Muhammad Ali.
(originally published June 17, 2016)