Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ali - Still the Greatest!

Muhammad Ali recently celebrated his 70th birthday. He has been, and remains, my favorite professional athlete of my lifetime.

I remember when, as a 22-year-old challenger to heavyweight-champion Sonny Liston, young Cassius Clay danced and jabbed and frustrated Liston, the prohibitive favorite, to such a point where the champ remained on his stool for the start of the 7th round. He became the ex-champ in an astonishing upset. “I shook up the world,” shouted the newly crowned Clay, the Louisville Lip. And I loved every minute of it.

I remember listening to the weak signal of my hometown Atlanta’s WSB Radio from Lawton, Oklahoma for a round-by-round recap of the first Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden in 1971. I hated it when Ali lost.

I remember when Ali was stripped of his title for failing to enter the Army in 1967. I remember when he fought and defeated an outclassed Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in 1970 to begin his quest to regain the heavyweight championship. I remember his rope-a-dope strategy to defeat a younger, stronger George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. And the 3rd fight with Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila in 1975, was perhaps the bravest athletic exhibition by two competitors I’ve ever seen. I loved it when Ali won back his championship belt.

I remember how sad I felt when Ali’s skills deteriorated to a point where he began losing badly in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He was getting hit in the head a lot, and at times it was almost too ugly to bear. It made me feel my own mortality in an odd way that I’d never experienced before, and in that odd way I felt for both of us.

I remember Ali walking out of the shadows with the Olympic torch in his trembling hand to light the flame for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. My wife pointed and shouted, “It’s Muhammad!” With tears in both our eyes, I realized that Billy Payne, the Atlanta Olympics chief and a classmate of mine at UGA, had gotten it exactly right. Billy’s choice to light the flame had been spot-on perfect. The most famous person in the world was once again on a world stage, and I’ll never forget it.

I didn’t agree with Ali’s politics; I didn’t agree with his stance on serving in the military; I didn’t always like the way he taunted opponents in and outside the ring. But he has the heart of a lion, still, and I love that about him. Like it or not, he stood up for what he believed. He never flinched, never took a step backward. He paid a heavy price for his stance, but then he fought his way back to the top of his sport.

There’s been no one like him. He is truly an American treasure.

You’re still the greatest, champ. Happy birthday.

1 comment:

  1. No matter the situation he has allowed his core self to shine out of him like a beacon. He's also a favorite for me.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Karen :0)