Muhammad Ali-“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. What a perfect metaphor for a man that has flowed through life with the grace of a butterfly, but when need be, could sting with the venom and fury not ever seen before nor likely to bee seen again. Transcending his sport, transcending all sports, Ali became the first truly global athlete and personality.

Muhammad Ali dubbed himself “The Greatest”, who new that such bravado would be such a gross under estimation! For 20 years this hard-hitting and supreme technician, delighted the world with stances, both in and out of the ring.

But Ali was more than a great fighter. He was the standard bearing for boxing’s modern era. The 60’s promised athletes who were bigger and faster than their predecessors, and Ali was the prototype for that mold. Also, he was part and parcel of the changing economics of boxing and sports in general. Ali made millions clamor to see his masterpiece bouts, therefore the birth of sports viewing via satellites and closed circuit television. He carried heavyweight championship boxing beyond the confines of the United States and popularized the sport around the globe. Countries wanting to be placed on “the map” were crying and begging for Ali to fight in their country!

Ali ruled the planet in those dark days before ESPN and marketing deals. Ali had himself and that was enough. At the end of the century in which our relationship with sports has revolved from pastime to preoccupation, you can look as long and as hard as you want and never find anyone who is the equal of Muhammad Ali.

ESPN showcased their highly acclaimed show, Sportscentury by placing in order their top 50 athletes. ESPN foolishly placed Ali third, behind Babe Ruth (second) and Michael Jordan (first). 

Babe Ruth was a great ball player who drank bathtubs full of gin, one of the many vices that caused his conditioning to be deplorable.  I do believe Ruth deserves asterisks next to his name in the record books, because unlike Ali he did not compete against the best competition of his time. During Ruth’s era, ballplayers of color were not allowed to participate. Ruth never faced Satchell Paige, pitched to Josh Gibson, or tried to pick off Cool Papa Bell.

Teflon Michael Jordan has no understanding of the righteous anger of such icons as Jackie Robinson or Bill Russell, for he is the ultimate modern athlete, a well-spoken, well-groomed mouthpiece for the corporate ways of the world, i.e. “say little, do even less.” Whereas Ali knew instinctively what to do afterward, when power and glory was his. No hiding behind the millions he earned, no ducking anyone, no transformation into the arrogant monster that success makes of so many in sports today. Jordan uses his power to peddle over-priced sneakers and star in terrible movies with Bugs Bunny, leaving the very distinct impression that he has the social consciousness of one of the cigars he smokes on.

It never ceases to amaze me how some sportswriters write from ignorance and envy, Mark Kramm wrote a waste of good paper book, knocking Ali for being everything but being a child of Allah, and Wallace Matthews formerly of the New York Post bashed Ali for everything but the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance. Major newspapers were not much different as the storied New York Times refused to call Ali anything but Clay 3 years after his name change. Even the old boxing guard had problems with the name change. Although Sugar Ray Robinson as Ali’s boxing idol, the relationship between the two became strained when Robinson couldn’t bring himself to call him Ali. None of these folks had to get into the ring with “The Greatest”, but some fools did. Two of Ali’s opponents who refused to call him Ali, former Champ Floyd Patterson, dubbed “the rabbit” by Ali, and Ernie Terrell, were not only severely beaten but Ali refused to knock them out so that he could punish them for the entirety of their fights while he snarled, “what’s my name” as he pounded them about the ring.

The New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte penned a column stating due to Ali’s 60th birthday there will be various commercial celebrations-“as he has become our cartoon saint…”

How dare a man who hides behind a pen and paper call one of the most important and courageous men of our time “our cartoon saint”. Ali has forgotten more about manhood, justice and intestinal fortitude than Lipsyte will ever know.

As far as “various commercial celebrations”, Ali is due these celebrations now because, Lord knows he did not receive them in his hey-day, the only national endorsement he got was for a roach spray.

Truth be told, in his day Ali was not only the most loved men by some, he was the most hated by most .At that time, the majority of people in this country, which were white folks, despised and were afraid of Ali. They feared what hr represented to them, a black man (to put it kindly) with talent, heart and a mouth. Though television in those days showed very few black faces unless they were in handcuffs, here was Ali saying I’m pretty, I’m great, I’m a black man who is free and will do what he wants. Whoa, lawdy, child, what do we have here! CBS did not give Ali a television special then, but today so many spineless hypocrites are now secure with Ali because they feel he is harmless. People know of the Parkinson’s disease, hear Ali’s slurred words see the trembling hands, he’s so safe now. So many of those who couldn’t stand Ali in the past can’t get enough of him now. Ali’s like Fruit Loops with extra red ones in the box. In their minds he can’t hurt them anymore or maybe they just feel guilty.

Mr. Lipsyte stepped out of the bounds with his statement “our cartoon saint”, Ali was never yours, he was and is, ours. We as black folk understand and fully support Ali’s trials, tribulations and stands because he spoke about us and the positivity of our blackness. James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud” was the music that Ali boxed and talked to. Whereas the great Joe Louis showed us what could happen to a quite, trusting, create no waves brother, he lived out his life penniless and glad handing as a greeter at several Las Vegas hotels, thanks to sincere hook ups by Frank Sinatra. The country that was so proud and thankful to “good ole Joe” for destroying Max Schmelling in the whose the master country rematch, is the same government that broke him down financially for IRS problems. “You did good ole Joe, but remember your place- we don’t need you anymore.

The shallowness of Lipsyte showed when he wrote, “had Ali remained a Christian, jock-strapped through the Army and kept his affairs discreet, he might have made as much money as Jordan”.

Once again folks we must read into the venom that many writers write with and realize the angels in which they come. Ali was into helping people and making them feel good about themselves, once again Ali was about us, not making “ as much money as Jordan”. Whereas Ali touched the lives of millions. Jordan touched no one but Nike CEO Phil Knight and their collective bank accounts.

As far as keeping “ his affairs discreet”, Ali is not the first or the last great athlete to have affairs, not to say that is was right ,but many men from all walks of life including writers have had an affair or two. But Mr. Lipsyte seems to focus so much on money. Why are there no articles concerning the former President’s of this country who are on dollar bills and coins and had many affairs. Oh hush, hush because we celebrate President’s Jefferson and Washington’s birthdays we don’t have to work that day, plus we get discounts at all the stores. Truth hurts sometimes, doesn’t it!

The last John Rockeresque statement that Lipsyte penned was the ridiculous notion the part of the reason Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War was “ his own fear of being beaten by white sergeants”. Now let me understand this, the undefeated ( at that time) reigning heavyweight champ of the world was afraid that he would get his butt kicked by a sergeant in the army. Yeah, okay and Gerry Cooney was a great fighter, not just the great white hope!

Ali’s intellectual courage would mean nothing to us if he hadn’t proved his physical courage first. He did that not shooting or hitting a ball but he excelled in the most primal and cruelest of sports. Boxing kills some men and scrambles the brains of others. Ali is the ultimate warrior.

When asked should boxing be banned like so many people advocate, Ali replied “ they say it should be banned because it’s to brutal. Football is brutal and so is wrestling and motorcar racing. The reason they think it’s bad is black people control it”. Leave it to Muhammad to take it to the mountaintop.

Actor Will Smith, who should win an Oscar for his portrayal of Ali, explained best in these terms,” the man is a legend. It was always a great story with almost biblical overtones. He is simple, complex and great!”.

The complexity of Ali surfaces when asked what people have inspired you or who is the most unforgettable character you ever met? Ali retorted. “ Malcolm X, he said courageous things, wasn’t afraid of nothing.” You may be shocked as I, that Ali did not answer with the honorable Elijah Muhammad, but to answer with Malcolm X after knowing full well that the honorable Elijah Muhammad forced Malcolm X out of his Muslim sect and is routinely acknowledged to be the man who ordered the murder of Malcolm X, that was truly a complex answer to a complex situation. Malcolm X understood the chameleon-like complexity of Ali’s mind as he once said of Ali, “ one forgets that though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man can imitate the clown”. What a well-honed skill Ali had to keep people off balance.

Ali continues with typical strength of will to work on behalf of the poor, oppressed and the sick around the world, winning as much praise for his tireless charity work as he did for his mastery in the ring. He is now a living legend, delighting all who meet him and impressing with his indomitable will and refusal to be beaten by illness. All Ali’s life, he has come up with one incredible gusty performance after another and he did not have Scottie Pippen or Lou Gehrig to back him up or allow him to take a day off. Ali had no one to assist him in the ring but his talent, heart and intellect. He was supposed to be me up with one incredible gusty performance after another and he did not have Scottie Pippen or Lou Gehrig to back him up or allow him to take a day off. Ali had no one to assist him in the ring but his talent, heart and intellect. He was supposed to be annihilated by Sonny Liston so he went out and beat Liston. A 3-year lay-off lost to Joe Frazier would surely be repeated, so he went out and dismantled Frazier in the next two wars. He was going to be destroyed by thuggish George Foreman, so he went out and beat Foreman. He was too old to atone for a broken-jawed loss to Ken Norton, so he went out and beat Norton, twice! No way he could defeat the young snaggled-tooth Leon Spinks in a rematch, so he went out, spanked Spinks and won the heavyweight crown for the 3rd time. Inconceivable, improbable, unlikely that he would beat the U.S. Government over Vietnam, now this same government kisses his pinky ring with U.S. stamps, accolades, awards, and carrying the torch in the Olympic Games, in Atlanta. And why not, Ali is the man of miracles. What we had in Atlanta was a wonderful reaffirmation of just how much Muhammad Ali means to the world. Three billion people were watching. Three billion people were in love with one man. Three billion people, even if it was just for a moment, had all the hate and petty prejudices removed from their hearts and felt nothing but love. That’s truly a miracle.

The most courageous, talented and big-hearted man of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali is surely “ The Greatest” of all time!!!



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