NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT - In March of 1971, when Muhammad Ali met Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century, I was in high school in Ithaca, New York. At that time Ithaca was a sleepy Republican town. But Ali woke things up. People who had no interest in sports were taking sides.
Perhaps unfairly, Frazier had become the candidate of conservatives, the boxer who proudly carried the American flag, the man who would teach some manners to the mouthy antiwar upstart who had changed his name and (they muttered) should have been in prison.
His supporters were eclectic. The students at Ithaca High were split. The hippies in their Earth shoes, the rebels, the greasers in their boots, the math nerds supported Ali. Everybody else was pulling for Frazier. That’s what Ali did. He forced you to take sides.
Muhammad Ali, who died on June 3 at the age of 74, was not only the dominant boxer of his generation. He was the transcendent sports figure of the 20th century, a lightning rod for controversy who became a beloved ambassador for peace, and whose tragic final years have probably hastened the end of the sport at which he excelled.
There is an iconic photograph in which Ali stands angry and triumphant over a defeated Sonny Liston — an image so famous that it has been featured in both “Mad Men” and “NCIS.” My own favorite, however, is from a Life magazine profile in 1963. Ali, at that time still Cassius Clay and not yet the champion or even famous, has his back to the camera as three members of the Sisters of St. Joseph grin ear to ear. The caption tells us that they called him “Champ.” It’s as if they knew.
We black Baby Boomers grew up with him.
His early success astonished sportswriters. His big mouth and shameless self-promotion made them angry. He made audacious predictions. Borrowing from Little Richard, the young fighter kept calling himself “the greatest.” His detractors adopted, derisively, his self-invented moniker, “Louisville Lip.” Once the public became aware of him, it was possible only to love him or hate him.
Experts kept waiting for some better talent to put him in his place. When he dethroned the invincible Liston, the only explanation an astonished boxing public could come up with was that the fight had been fixed. When Ali won the rematch, the same accusations surfaced. But the truth was different: Ali simply was that good.
There’s a tendency nowadays to remember Ali as the fighter who would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” We think of him as above the usual run of brawlers. But he wasn’t just a jabber. He could dish out punishment. Sportswriters labeled his 1967 demolition of Ernie Terrell “almost bestial” and “an exercise in brutality.”
He became a lightning rod for a divided nation when he converted to Islam and then refused draft induction. Around this time, Gen. Lewis Hershey, head of the Selective Service, happened to be on the campus of Howard University to give a lecture. He was heckled by students who shouted, “America is the black man’s battleground.” When Ali showed up at the Houston induction center, the well-known militant H. Rap Brown was there waiting. The two exchanged black power salutes. College students, mostly black, were there to support him.
Ali was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his heavyweight title. When the Supreme Court overturned the verdict, the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars was outraged: “This is certain to have a demoralizing effect on our American men in uniform.” Angry politicians weighed in. Ali responded by building a six-foot wall [198 cm] topped with iron bars around his home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
It’s difficult to explain what he symbolized for African America. A 1971 New York Times op-ed by a Cornell student probably put it best: “Ali’s victories were never mere physical triumphs, but instead siphoned off inner explosions, uncertainties, hatreds and failures.”
At this time the civil rights movement was seeing defeats everywhere. Leaders were being killed, activists who chose the radical alternative were being arrested, and protesters in the North resisted integration of schools and neighborhoods. But in and out of the boxing ring, a black man who refused to back down was piling up victories. Of course we loved him.
We were charmed by him too. Although history will see Ali, correctly, as a symbol of resistance, it’s easy to forget that he was also a great traditionalist. He told an Ebony magazine interviewer in 1971 that as a Muslim he refused to do “women’s work” — cooking and washing for instance — but that he would willingly do the male chores around the house. It was the sort of thing that even then no other public figure could say without causing outrage.
Which brings us back to the Frazier fight, the first-ever meeting of two undefeated champions. Frazier won a unanimous decision. Oh, but we were stunned! Fortunately the icon stayed on his pedestal. Ali was rusty, we told ourselves: those three years of enforced inactivity because of his draft case. There were two rematches, and Ali won them both.
In 1974 there was the “Rumble in the Jungle” — his battle in Zaire with the seemingly invincible George Foreman. I have written before in this space about how those of us who loved Ali actually feared for his life. Norman Mailer, in his book about the fight, wrote that he had never before seen his hero frightened. “It must be dark when you get knocked out,” Ali said just before entering the ring. But again he shocked the world, knocking out his unbeatable opponent.
Alas, all those shots over the years — all that brawling and brutality — had its effect. Seeing what Parkinson’s Disease had done to the brilliant magician of the ring sobered us. Ali never hid from his public, and his decline was painful to watch.
In 1996, he appeared on television screens worldwide as he lit the flame to open the Atlanta Olympics. His shuffling, trembling gait did more than a hundred op-ed pieces by medical researchers to spur the rapid turn against boxing. Nowadays everybody knows the toll the brutal sport takes on the human brain. For that broad understanding, tragically, we have Ali to thank.
“That’s a bad feeling,” he told Mailer, “waiting for night to choke up on you.” Yet in that waiting it is possible to stand undaunted. And for that image, too, we can thank the greatest fighter who ever lived.
Bloomberg View columnist Stephen L. Carter is law professor at Yale University and the author of 12 books.