It was 1964. I was five years old. We lived in a big old dusty Queen Anne with a huge front porch, a huge front room, (I think it was actually a parlor) that I was not allowed in, and a foyer. This house had a foyer. I remember rooms, but where they were in relation to each other is mysterious to me. I could not draw an accurate floor plan. If I drew what I remember, it would be dreamlike, surreal. For instance, I have two distinct memories regarding where the TV was. One of them says it was on the second floor. I know this to be wrong, but I can see it in my mind – second story windows behind the TV.
A year prior, I was just outside the kitchen door, playing on a grassy slope with a wooden ski that my brother had found in the garage when my mother came outside to tell me that President Kennedy had been shot. So, you see, my memory still works.
But I remember coming across my brother and my father (my mind says they were in my bedroom, but I don’t believe that’s right) talking excitedly about this fellow named Cassius Clay. I didn’t know who he was, but I could see from their level of animation that he was important.
They told me that he was a boxer. I knew what boxing was, along with the skis, we had a pool table and some boxing gloves, all left behind by the last guy to live there. I remember my brother explaining to me the concept of “World Champion” and “undefeated”. I’m sure my eyes got big as I took that in, tried to grasp that this man, according to my brother (and Dad wasn’t correcting him) was the best in the whole world, and that no one had ever beaten him.
I pictured him as something like Spider-Man. Not costumed and masked, but trim and muscular, and bad as hell. I figured him to be the coolest man on the planet.
I didn’t know what he looked like until I got into the first grade and they started to take us to the school library. There I found a little book about the champ, and saw this photo:
And I saw that I was right about the Spider-Man thing. He was not a brute, but lean and strong. Sleek and lethal, like a jaguar. I thought his face looked exotic somehow, like he was an islander, or even from the Far East. I was surprised to read that he was a plain old American, from Kentucky.
I remember my first grade teacher (a man) going on a rant in class one day, talking about the “phantom punch” and how the first fight was fixed too, and he showed us a photo of Rocky Marciano unhinging Walcott’s jaw
Saying “Now that’s a real champion”. In the years to come I would hear a lot of crap like that.
By this time we were living in Cleveland, in a blue-collar neighborhood. Thoughts expressed by the community’s fathers to their families at dinner came spilling out on the playground, unfiltered and unquestioned from the mouths of their sons. You could practically smell the accompanying beer and kielbasa.
“Someone should shut him up.”
“He doesn’t fight like a man, he runs away.”
“If he doesn’t like it here, he should just go back to Africa.”
They didn’t like his name change. They didn’t like the Nation of Islam. They really didn’t like his rhyming boasts, his predictions. And when he refused to join the Army, they were apoplectic.
It got hard to be his fan. I can remember being called an n-word lover, more than once. This was supposed to be an extreme insult, an invitation to fight. But I always countered “Yes, that’s right, I am,” an admission that drew incredulity, scorn and scoffs from my classmates. But Dad didn’t raise me to be a racist.
He told me that Muhammed Ali, while not going to the same church we did, looked to be devoted and sincere in his faith, and he respected that. He also admired the courage it took for him to refuse induction, and applauded what he said about race relations.
Dad stuck with him, so I stuck with him. Seemed right. He stood up for what he believed, and he was willing to be abused for it. Seemed to me that I ought to be able to do the same.
Then he got suspended, and they held a tournament to give someone else his title, and I may have not been a racist but I was a bit of a dick, so I was mouthing off, saying Jimmy Ellis couldn’t fight, and Joe Frazier was too short, Buster Mathis was fat, and Muhammed Ali would whup them all, just as soon as he was able.
And so that animosity festered for three long years. Three years is an eternity to one still in grade school. But I never forgot him. I had faith in him.
When he finally got back in the ring, and they talked about how he had “lost a step” I silently worried that he wouldn’t be the same, that he would falter. But he won a couple fights, and signed to fight Frazier, and started in on the old Muhammed Ali trash talk and I was loving it. Right up until the fight.
When he lost, again I worried again that he was not the same. That he had aged to the point where he was no longer to occupy the hero’s place in my heart.
But he lost with grace, and even in defeat he impressed me. “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”
Hell, I think I took it harder than he did.
Back in those days the only way to see the fights was to go to a movie theater and pay (I don’t know, $10?) to watch on closed circuit TV. Every once in a while you could see a replay on TV at home. Mostly, I got my boxing news from the newspaper.
And I took crap the Monday after. Kids had cut out the picture from the sports page, showing Ali on his back, his feet in the air, when Frazier knocked him down in the 15th round. They showed me the picture, grinning.
Worse was when Norton broke his jaw. “He got his jaw wired shut! Just what he and his big mouth deserved!” and so on.
Don’t misunderstand – being a big kid I was not bullied in the traditional sense, but there were some kids who took delight in rubbing my nose in these humiliations.
Then along came Foreman and he blew away Frazier and he blew away Norton and by the time Don King put together the Rumble in the Jungle, I was a sophomore in High School, and in a whole ‘nuther city (Dad got moved around a lot with his job.)
He, being a good and longsuffering parent, looked and found a little pocket of houses that he could afford that were in the footprint of Firestone High School.
Firestone was populated by the rich and the very rich. Athletically, we were good at golf, tennis and diving. That’s because we had our own pool and kids whose parents belonged to a country club.
My dad’s point was this was one of the best high schools in the country in terms of academics. So he bought a little house in that neighborhood for that reason.
Firestone High School was, in 1974, I think 100% white. Even though these were the progeny of white collar men, the general animosity against Ali was present here too. The rhetoric was toned down, but some of the feelings were the same: “I find it wearying that the man still self-promotes at every opportunity.”
Some things had changed, others had not.
By mouthing off, I discovered that no one in my school was willing to bet on Ali. Not one soul. Except me.
I remember it well, because careful record keeping was not the kind of thing I often did. I spent the day before the fight writing down kids names and how much they bet (most of them in the $1 – $2 range, a couple of $5’s) in a spiral binder. I talked just like Ali – “He’s gonna knock him out – he’s too fast for Foreman, Foreman won’t even know what hit him. He’s gonna dance and wear him out. Foreman can’t keep up the pace. The man only ever fights two rounds” and so forth. And I believed my own hype, too.
Nonetheless, I was relieved (and elated!) to see the headlines the next morning. Ali not only won, he won by KO. (Though I boasted about it, I actually didn’t expect that part).
I collected $120.00. Big money for a high school kid in 1974. And talk about your bragging rights! That was a good day. My loyalty had paid off.
In the years that followed he became sort of a folk hero. It seemed like all the white people just forgot why they ever had a bug up their butt for this man in the first place. We would impersonate him, making up bad rhymes to insult each other. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, your Grandma’s a monkey, swinging from a tree.”
By the time he lit the Olympic torch in ’96, the nation it seems had had enough time to process all that this man did. By that time he was a national hero, and he got the ovation he deserved. An outpouring of affection, gratitude, and apology too. For he had been sorely mistreated, and we all knew it. There was none left to argue the other side, to say “n-word lover” as if it were an insult. We all loved him then – the coolest man in the world.