Ali talked loud, held his head high, and seemed to have his mind on ideas greater than his next fight. He ranted and rhymed for the camera. He rapped and hammed. He opened up and made-it-up when everyone else would have shut down and waited for instructions.
The 1960 Olympics brought Ali into the public eye. He was Cassius Clay, gold medalist from Louisville. From that moment forward he was an inflated character, with no peers and few if any historical precedents. He would not be held down or controlled for long. He defied expectations. He was way more than a sports celebrity, as the speakers at his memorial service testified.
It’s hard for people today to imagine a time in which boxing was mainstream like baseball, football and basketball. During Ali’s fighting days it was. He made it that way. Sports Illustrated was a forum for writing about boxing. Ali was a natural cover story. The insufferable Howard Cosell was a foil and a reflective voice for Ali.
Ali was everywhere, on television and in the papers. He was the greatest talker–he told us so–and he entertained us. But under that loud, proud talk was anger at the treatment of black people, resentment of white privilege, shame at the appearance and behavior of others of his race. Before their fight in Manila he called Joe Frazier a gorilla. It was hype and rant and part of the build-up for the fight, still it stung to hear Ali say that about another person.
Frazier grew up rural poor and was no match for Ali’s city swagger and mouth. I remember how I hoped that Joe Frazier would knock him out.
The day of Ali’s memorial service last week the announcers on the Boston sports radio station talked about the celebrities who would attend. Joe Frazier? Was he still alive? Frazier? Joe Frazier died in 2011. No all-day coverage of his service. There was barely a mention in the media.
Ali learned the wisdom of Islam and converted to it from his family Christian faith because he thought it was the truth with black roots. That in itself is remarkable, that a celebrity would have such a conviction about a spiritual and cultural thing that he would be willing to embrace it and let it change his life. His conversion was not only another act of defiance and independence but an assertion of his own dignity and self-determination.
In Ali’s dotage, Parkinson’ disease addled his brain and palsied his muscles. The loud carnival-barker voice became a whisper. The great Ali seemed like a gentle character.
Was he graceful? My answer would be, no. He was a talented athlete; he possessed the charisma of an actor or a singer; but I would not call him graceful. They made him carry the pain of black people, the injustice of years of cruelty. The world wouldn’t let Ali be graceful. So many people wanted him to be their hero. Graceful people need to disappear, demur, step aside occasionally. Ali was always called forward.