Some of my fondest childhood memories were of sitting in front of the television as my father watched “The Champ’s” fights. He would be transfixed, glued to the screen, exclaiming and gesticulating passionately at every punch and jab, every flurry, feint and magical display of speed, cunning, power and grace.
Ali’s prowess as a champion — the fact that he is almost universally considered the “greatest of all time” — was incredible, no less because of his performance against formidable opponents in the ring than his willingness to take on the powers that be. During an era in which black professional athletes were clamoring for mainstream acceptance in America, Ali stood out, not only as a graceful champion in a sport that was known for its brutality and shady dealings, but also as a forceful voice for change and progress in America’s battles for racial equality.
While baseball was considered America’s pastime and the National Football League dominated the college sports world — boxing had been, and still is, largely confined to athletes from the wrong side of the tracks who are often led to the sport because their violent behavior outside of the sport needs to be channeled into a more productive pursuit. The business of boxing is the world of the smoke-filled room, the backroom deal, the fix, the planned fall and the dim, bloody, spit-filled gym in the basement of an abandoned building.
Muhammad Ali brought boxing out of the darkness and onto the center stage. He used the platform he gained as a loud-mouthed, self-promoting kid from Kentucky to make a name for himself in the sport. As Cassius Clay, he was known as a brash, boastful upstart, always on the verge of writing a check with his mouth that many doubted he could cash with his fists. His early wins — decisive upsets against mountainous heavyweight champions including Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson — marked him as a bad boy of the sport, with bloodthirsty sellout crowds assembling in hopes of seeing someone finally shut him up.