Muhammad Ali was of my generation.
From the ’60’s rose many talented, creative leaders and trendsetters. Ali was a towering figure. We all know of his legendary boxing career. He was more than great, he changed the art of boxing. In his prime, he synthesized dance, movement, grace, and fluidity into the boxing ring – a master choreographer.
Being the greatest boxer of all time would have been enough for most people. Instead, he used the pulpit of the ring to change the world.
Many people opposed the Vietnam War. Many others also dodged the draft, but few had the temerity to do what Ali did. There were a few Conscientious Objectors, primarily full-time religious figures. I’m not aware of any, though, that forsook their fame and fortune during the peak of their careers.
At the time, there were two growing social movements, on parallel tracks but not yet cohesive. One was an anti-Vietnam War movement and the other was the fight for racial equality. The former consisted mostly of sons and daughters of middle and upper class white people, fueled by their experiences in college. The latter were more integrated but mostly poor, black and disenfranchised.
Muhammad Ali refused induction into the army with his compelling statement, “no Viet Cong ever called me n—–.” That was a shot across the bow that resonated with both movements and transcended the fragmented protest. It was race and it was the war. They were connected. Poverty, racism and imperialistic wars were different strains of the same toxicity.
There were many facets to Mr. Ali and to some they appeared contradictory. He was a man of dialectics, never taking his eyes of the spiritual wonders of all. Examples abound, he was…
…disciplined, yet a master of improvisation.
…serious and thoughtful, yet irreverent and implored pure shtick.
…transparent, yet sly, always putting people on.
…a humanitarian, yet sometimes displayed a cruel side in the ring.
…world-renowned, but retained a childlike innocence.
I watched him live through close-circuit television as he won the 1964 title from Sonny Liston. I was privileged to hear him speak to the student body of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 1971. In both cases, he was graceful, witty, poignant, outrageous, but most of all, he left everyone feeling energized. One thing about Muhammad Ali is that he never sold out.
While he’s physically gone from this world, his life will continue to inspire many and his legacy will endure for generations.