Ali provided room for arguments
We clashed about many things. We were from differing generations. Such was expected.
But among the things I remember most about arguments with my father were about sports figures.
Two in particular: “Pistol” Pete Maravich and Muhammad Ali.
Or “Clay” as he called him.
My father was a broad-minded person. He accepted all for who they were.
But he thought Maravich was a hot dog and never cared much for Ali.
Nee Cassius Clay.
It was March 8, 1971 when the Fight of the Century played out in Madison Square Garden in New York City. A few friends made a trip to Oklahoma City to watch on closed circuit TV — oh, take me back — but I remember well my connection.
We were coming back from a freestyle wrestling tournament with our coach and listened on scratchy AM radio in his car.
We hung on every moment.
For the record, Joe Frazier won by unanimous decision and improved to 27-0. Ali, who died this week, fell to 31-1.
The pre-fight atmosphere was what made the day so great.
Ali portrayed Frazier as a “dumb tool of the white establishment.”
“Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” Ali said. “Frazier is too dumb to be champ.”
Ali called Frazier an “Uncle Tom.”
Said Dave Wolf, who worked in Frazier’s camp: “Ali was saying, ‘The only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.’
“Joe was sitting there, smashing his fist into the palm of his hand, saying, ‘What the bleep does he know about the ghetto?’”
Such was Muhammad Ali. The Greatest of All Time.
“If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it.”
He was the master of rhymes.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your fists can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”
Fifty-eight and five was his final record. Trivia tells us, for the only time in his career, he lost his last two fights.
To Larry Holmes in 1980, after Parkinson’s Disease had begun to affect him. And to Trevor Berbick — 10 rounds, decision, Nassau, Bahamas — on Dec. 11, 1981.
When he was a month shy of his 40th birthday.
We can forgive him, I suppose, for losing his last two fights. After all, he won eight fights in 1961, six in ’62 and six in ’72.
Who does that these days?
Hell, who ever attempts six fights in a calendar year?
For that matter, where would boxing be today — and it’s not much of anywhere — if not for Ali?
He won a gold medal in the Rome Olympics in 1960. Later that year, he claimed his first professional victory, a six-round unanimous decision over Tommy Hunsaker in Louisville, Kentucky, his home town.
Ali won heavyweight title in 1964, 1974 and 1978. He is the only man to win the biggest title in boxing three times.
But more than his glove work attracted me.
In 1966, he refused to go to Vietnam and fight for his country.
Frankly, that pissed off the white establishment.
Ali said, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.”
I remember how Ali turned closed circuit TV of fights to live TV.
I remember watching him lose to Ken Norton — Norton broke his jaw — in 1973.
Ali avenged that loss later that year and won a controversial third fight in September 1976.
I was a huge fan.
He met Malcolm X while training for a fight with champion Sonny Liston. He was a 7-1 underdog. When he KO’s Liston, he roared to the world, “My name is Muhammad Ali! I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
Until his later stages, my dad never saw him that way.
Maybe it was Jan. 28, 1974 when he beat Frazier in a rematch at Madison Square Garden. Maybe it was October 1974 when he pummeled George Foreman — Frazier and Foreman in the same year? — in the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
“If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ‘til I whup Foreman’s behind!”
Maybe it was that he had softened his views, my father.
Something led him to like Ali more and more.
It was at the Final Four in 2000 when we encountered Muhammed Ali.
During the final game of the 1999-2000 season my son, autograph basketball in tow, decided to find fortune in the lobby. I walked down the stairs behind him as he began to turn down the tunnel.
He was moved backward by security personnel wearing black suits and carrying microphones.
Followed by the champ.
The place in Indianapolis erupted.
My wife swears to this day Ali waved at her. I remind her of his bout with Parkinson’s and the tremors.
Muhammad Ali lost his first title because the World Boxing Association took it from him. He was inactive from March 1967 to October 1970.
Then he came back for the Fight of the Century.
My father was on the cusp of his 49th birthday when Ali won The Thrilla in Manila. He beat Frazier in their third fight, a brutal, bloody battle.
My dad began to like him.
He spoke out against Vietnam. I am sure that upset my veteran father.
Even he learned to accept Ali.
It amazes me to this day others have not.