Saturday, June 4, 2016

Float, butterfly

Once upon a time I walked away from a movie because of Muhammad Ali.

It was called "When We Were Kings," and it was a documentary about Ali's fight with George Foreman in the sweltering heat of Zaire, starkly mortal man going into the ring against a fearsome engine of destruction. I rented it at the video store one night, and when I popped it into the player there was Ali in full flower, eyes bright and darting, talking and talking, giving us the Greatest of All Times schtick that always, but not completely, obscured the thoughtful man.

I had to shut it off for a bit. It was too painful.

Painful, because it was too much the reminder of what we had lost as the generation that grew up in the 1960s, and of what he had lost as a man too brave for his own good. The man who climbed into the ring with Foreman that night in Zaire was perhaps the only human on the premises who didn't fear for that man's life; the man who climbed into the ring with Joe Frazier three times was perhaps the only human who could have stood in front of that seething threshing machine and emerged unbowed.

If nothing else, he proved for all time there was more to him than just mouth, that there was a lion's heart beating inside the man so many called a coward because he refused to participate in the crapshow that was Vietnam. But in the proving, he sacrificed much of what made him who he was; the last apocalyptic fight with Frazier in Manila ruined both of them, and before long Ali was slipping away from us into the lingering twilight of Parkinson's, the voice largely stilled if not the whimsy, passion and compassion behind it.

And now it is all gone, of course, with his passing at the age of 74. And there is a void no other athlete's death could possibly leave for those of us of a certain age.

That void is there because, when Ali refused induction to the military in 1967, he became something larger than simply a fast-talking heavyweight of transcendent skills, something larger even than a man who had abandoned his Christian roots to follow a strange religion. The two acts will always be intertwined, because had Ali not converted to Islam much of his persecution for refusing to kill Vietnamese would not have happened. Had he remained a Christian, and said he couldn't take up arms on religious grounds, it's unlikely he would have been stripped of his title and his right to make a living in boxing.

But Islam was then and remains today wrongly viewed with suspicion, a suspicion sustained and exploited in 2016 by unscrupulous politicians who care little for whom they hurt. And so Ali was stripped of his title and license to box, and subjected to disdain in the media even by those whose fair-mindedness had never before been questioned.

Eventually, of course, Ali's right to earn a living in his chosen profession was restored; eventually, as time and infirmity rendered him mortal, he became the iconic and beloved figured he was at his death. And now it is virtually impossible, from 50 years distance, to convey just what a polarizing figure he was -- and how he therefore became a symbol for a polarizing time.

I remember, for instance, that first fight against Frazier, how I rooted for Smokin' Joe and cheered when he put Ali on his back, the festive red tassels on Ali's white shoes dancing in the smoky Madison Square Garden air. By the time of their third fight, however, I was rooting for Ali, because by then I recognized he had become something greater than himself. He had become a world figure -- a voice of conscience who stood with King and Mandela, and a symbol of hope for those who made the Zaire night ring with "Ali, bomaye."

Once upon a time I walked away from a movie because of Muhammad Ali.

But later I came back to it, and watched, and remembered. Remembered the most famous man of my time, and how floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee was only a small part of that. Remembered the night he came to Fort Wayne for a Komets game, how he sat in a room upstairs holding children battling cancer on his lap, how even reduced to a shell of what he was by Parkinson's you were drawn to him.

At one point, though the media had been strictly warned to keep its distance, a young TV reporter actually cut the line to pose for a photo with Ali. It was an appalling breach of decorum and decency, some TV lacquerhead figuratively elbowing sick kids aside to get his moment with the Greatest. The rest of us were appropriately disgusted.

But some of us understood, deep down. It was, after all, Ali.

Float, butterfly. Float on forever.

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